'Medea,' Maria Callas And A Chance Collaboration With Conductor Leonard Bernstein

Jun 19, 2018

It wasn't as if Leonard Bernstein was looking for work.

By 1953, at the age of 35, Bernstein had already created two Broadway hits and had been on top of the conducting game since his last-minute debut with the New York Philharmonic (a broadcast, yet) 10 years earlier.

He was at the point of having too much work.

Nevertheless, Bernstein always made time for works he wanted to conduct — even if he had never heard of them before.

Such was the case with Luigi Cherubini's Medea. The opera was performed in Milan in 1909 for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Then, it wasn't until 1953 that Medea reappeared — in Florence, with Maria Callas in the title role.

Callas and Bernstein were fated to work together. Both were the American-born children of immigrants. Neither came from an affluent background. Both got ahead through work, talent and guts.

So there was Bernstein in 1953, conducting in Israel, where he was a deity. Concerts were planned for Rome and London. Candide was bubbling. He was in demand everywhere, to conduct whatever he wanted.

A cable from La Scala Milan reached the Maestro in Tel Aviv. There was a crisis in Europe's most important opera house.

Conductor Victor de Sabata was ill. Could Bernstein take over a new production of Medea starring Callas, opening in 10 days?

"Who's Cherubini and who's Medea?" Bernstein asked.

Leave it to these two musicians to change course. After the blood and rage of Medea, Callas and Bernstein collaborated again, in Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula. 

La sonnambula is a sweet and lovely opera about a sleepwalker — 180 degrees away from a sorceress who kills her children.

This collaboration was another triumph. For another time.

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.