Meeting Maria Callas in Boston

Sep 12, 2017

Sept. 16 is the 40th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas. Born in 1923, Callas was 53 years old when she died.

She had not sung a fully staged opera since 1965. In the early 1970s, Callas was talked into a concert tour with her voice shattered.

Callas had weathered an unhappy childhood in a rough part of New York, the Nazi occupation of Greece, a tempestuous career, ecstatic cheers and hostile catcalls at her performances in Milan, London, Rome, Paris, Vienna, New York, Buenos Aires and points everywhere else.

Her liaison with Aristotle Onassis ended when he married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. In his book Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, journalist and author Nicholas Gage revealed that Callas had a child with Onassis—a boy who was born in 1960 and lived for only a few hours.

Forty years after her death, the books, the movies and the talk continues. Her recordings are constantly being re-edited and re-released.

I wrote the following account a number of years ago. One night in Boston in 1974:

I was 17 when I heard Maria Callas in Boston's Symphony Hall, on Feb. 27, 1974. She appeared on the American leg of a world concert tour she undertook with tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano and pianist Robert Sutherland.

Callas had not sung in public for eight years when the fall 1973 tour began in Germany. She remained a potent figure in opera.

 

Her on-again, off-again liaison with Aristotle Onassis, begun in 1959, was fodder to the press before and after his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy.

 

Early reports of the European concerts weren't promising. Callas and Di Stefano had each been in glorious voice 20 years earlier. They sang and recorded together in Chicago, Milan, Rome, Mexico City and throughout Europe.

 

Di Stefano was a very handsome man with an open, thrilling voice—and no discipline.

 

Callas was highly disciplined with a voice that began to slip away early. Nerves? Weight loss? Burn out? I don't think we'll ever know why.

 

By 1965, she was acting up a storm and singing carefully (and rarely). Di Stefano continued to appear, but the tone and ring of his voice were gone.

 

What did people expect in 1973? It must have been daunting, having to compete only with your younger self. By the time the duo came to the United States, there had been months of rows, cancellations, aborted performances and cheers, cheers, cheers.

 

The first Carnegie Hall concert was canceled at the last minute. The crowd had jammed into the Carnegie lobby and spilled out onto 57th Street.

 

Then came Boston.

 

Tickets went on sale just after Christmas. I cut school that day and took the Massachusetts Ave bus to Symphony Hall to be there when the box office opened at 9 a.m.

 

I got there around 8:30. There were no mobs of eager ticket buyers. People stood outside for four days to get standing room for Callas' last Tosca at the Met in 1965. Not anymore. I was probably 10th in line, and I was on my way before 10 a.m. (Did I go back to school? Are you kidding?)

 

The top ticket price was $25. You won't believe it today, but in 1974 that was unheard of. The best seats in Lincoln Center were $17.50. Nobody paid $25 for a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, great as they were. (If you got $5 for cutting a neighbor's lawn, you were rich.)

 

The weeks went by with my tickets burring into my bureau. I got a week's detention for cutting school and spent it reading a biography of Callas by George Jellinek. Callas never became my friend, but many years later Jellinek did.

 

The press said Di Stefano was screaming or crooning like a pig and that Callas was terrified, unsure and had no voice.

 

On Feb. 27, I got to Symphony Hall early. I told the lady next to me I had been sick to my stomach from nerves all week. She had too! And people around us were nodding in agreement. Callas was nervous, and her audience was petrified in anticipation.

 

The announcement came that while Callas was in the hall and would perform, Di Stefano was not and would not. No one cared. (Callas later said, "He abandoned me in Kennedy country.")

 

A Greek pianist named Vasso Devetzi would play some Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann between Callas' arias. Then the lights went down, and she came out.

 

 

(OK, the video isn't from a Boston performance—but you get the idea.)

 

She began to speak to the audience, apologizing for being nervous. "I hope everything will go well," she said. "Can you hear me?"

 

"No!," people yelled back, but applause and shouts of encouragement went out again and again. She had a large, radiant smile that lit up her eyes. "You are a marvelous audience," she said. "Thank you."

 

She began with "Suicidio!" from La Gioconda, the opera of her first break in 1947. After the first four notes, there was a buzz in the hall.

 

All of the color was there. The timbre was there. What had made Callas was still Callas. The aria had been transposed down, but in this piece it didn't matter. She growled. She cried. She sang. And the excitement was incredible.

 

 

She gave us "Vissi d'arte." Not so good. "Voi lo sapete." Better.

 

It became apparent that Callas had retained low notes and even some above the staff. But from, I'd say, the G above middle C to the D above—the fifth—there was no voice at all. The voice had separated, and the middle was gone—exactly where most of the repertoire lies.

 

She sang "Tu che le vanita" from Don Carlos. She held the words on note cards. The print was so large you could read it from the cheap seats.

 

The final encore was "O mio babbino caro."

 

 

(OK, that video wasn't from Boston, either.)

 

The applause was longer than the concert. One man stood on his seat and yelled, "Noi t'amo! (We love you!)" She thought he had said "Puritani," and she said, "Not this year. Next year."

 

Richard Dyer put it best in his respectful and honest review of the Boston concert:

 

"She asked us for something she had never needed before. Our love."

She got it.

 

I was 17. I didn't know you shouldn't bother the artists. I was with some friends, and we went to the stage door. It was mobbed. Cops were pushing people away.

 

We went for pizza on Huntington Avenue, reasoning that eventually the crowds would leave and then Callas would come out.

 

The pizza was good. And we were right. Post-pizza, Gainsborough Street was quiet, but the stage door was still open. We went up the stairs, and there in front of us was Callas. There were maids, poodles, agents and Devetzi. Callas was reaching for her coat.

 

We pushed our way in. "Hello!" she said. "Hello, we loved your concert ..." and yada yada yada. Up close she looked drained and pale, but we got a tired smile, autographs and a "God bless you."

 

What would you say to Maria Callas? All of us were just trying not to wet our pants.

 

We left, and she went on to tour the States and Japan. Di Stefano was here today, not here tomorrow. The last concert was in Sapporo, Japan, in late 1974.

 

Then Onassis died. Callas withdrew.

 

Maria Callas died in Paris on Sept. 16, 1977.

 

I thought with gratitude of the great night she gave us three years earlier.

 

I still think of it, gratefully and sadly, nearly 40 years later.