Would we still love Callas so much if she had been an ‘ordinary’ happy person, like most of her colleagues? If she had been happily married and had had children, what she so longed for? If she didn’t suffer from bulimia and was not constantly fighting with her weight and body? If she had not fallen in love with Aristoteles Onassis, the super-rich Greek shipowner who left her to marry an even more famous lady? And if she had not lost her voice prematurely? Speculations, of course, but since even the most honest opera lover has something of a tabloid reader it keeps buzzing. People simply love gossip.
Rumour, success, being in the spotlight, are the most important ingredients in the lives of people who find their lives boring and everyday and lose themselves in the stories of the ‘rich and beautiful’. It should be noted that they feast most on the dark sides of the stories, because there is no greater happiness than sorrow.
Maria Callas was a diva with a true cult status. She owed this not only to her singing, but also to her unmistakable acting talent, her attractive appearance and her, unfortunately, more than tragic personal life.
However great, famous, loved and adored, Maria Callas was, she did not invent opera, nor was she the greatest actress amongst singers. Not all singers were equally gifted actors, but the image of a fat lady standing motionless on stage fluttering only her hands is not at all accurate.
Just think of Conchita Supervia, Geraldine Farrar, Marjorie Lawrence or Grace Moore, but there were more.
Geraldine Farrar as Carmen in a film from 1915:
What Callas truly was, was a pioneer in (dramatic) belcanto, and that happened more or less by accident (consult the DVD The Callas Conversations vol. II). It was a genre that at the time was a little neglected. It was she who gave us back the forgotten operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Spontini, but was she really the first?
There are many more sopranos from the time of Callas who sang at the highest level and deserve to be discussed. The sopranos I am going to talk about were all more or less Callas’ contemporaries and all sang almost the same repertoire (not counting spinto sopranos that sang mainly verist roles, such as Magda Olivero, Carla Gavazzi or Clara Petrella).
These divas missed the chance to be in the right place at the right time. Or: to meet someone who was important enough not only to boost your career, but also to give you a record deal.
It has always been like this and nowadays it is no different, although we are dealing with another aspect: the ideal of beauty. If you don’t meet it, you can say goodbye to your career in advance – fat people are not even allowed to audit in many theatres anymore and a starting Callas would have absolutely no chance at all now.
Her career, like that of Callas, didn’t last long. She was born in 1931 and made her opera debut as Aida in Spoleto as early as 1951 (!). She became – typically enough – the most famous by stepping in for a sick Callas in 1958. While she was still in a production of Norma in Naples, she sang some performances of the same opera by Bellini at the opera house of Rome, instead of La Divina.
Anita Cerquetti sings ‘O re dei cieli’ from Agnese di Hohenstauffen by Spontini:
On the label Bongiovanni (GB 1206-2, unfortunately not on You Tube) you can hear her in the famous ‘Casta diva’ from Norma. For me this is one of the most beautiful performances of this aria ever. Goosebumps.
Cerquetti sings Norma. Recording from 1956:
Born in 1928 in a small town close to Istanbul, Gencer, just like Callas, has a cult status, even today, but on a smaller scale. She had a Turkish father and a Polish mother, which made her proficient in that language. There is even a pirate recording of her with songs by Chopin in Polish:
Gencer’s real speciality was belcanto. She sang her first Anna Bolena only a year after Callas:
And unlike Callas, she also included the other Tudor Queen operas by Donizetti in her repertoire: Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda.
Besides all her Bellini’s, Donizetti’s and Verdi’s, and between Saffo by Paccini and Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai, she also sang some of Mozart’s songs. Fortunately, her Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) in Glyndebourne was recorded and released on CD some time ago. For the rest, you have to settle for the pirates.
Her round and clear voice – with the famous pianissimi, which only Montserrat Caballé could match – is so beautiful that it hurts. If you have never heard of her before, listen below to ‘La vergine degli angeli’ from La forza del Destino, recorded in 1957. Bet you’re going to gasp for breath?
Have you noticed how many great singers come from Romania? Virginia Zeani is one of them, born in Solovăstru in 1925.
Zeani made her debut when she was 23 as Violetta in Bologna (indented for Margherita Carossio). That role would become her trademark. There is a costly anecdote about her debut in Covent Garden: it was in 1960 and she was a last minute replacement for Joan Sutherland, who became ill. She arrived late in the afternoon and there was hardly time to try on the costume. Before she went on stage, she asked very quickly: ‘Which of the gentlemen is my Alfredo?
The soprano sang no less than 69 roles, including many world premieres. In 1957 she created the role of Blanche in Dialogues des carmélites by Poulenc. Her repertoire ranged from Handel (Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare), via Bellini, Donizetti, Massenet and Gounod to Wagner (Elsa and Senta). With of course the necessary Verdis and Puccinis and as one of her greatest star roles Magda in The Consul by Menotti:
I myself am completely obsessed with her Tosca, but also her Violetta should not be missed by anyone. Her coloratures in the first act are more than perfect. And then her ‘morbidezza’… Do it for her!
Below her ‘Vissi d’arte’ (Tosca), recorded in 1975, when she was over fifty:
Never heard of her? Then it’s time to make up for the damage, because I promise you a voice out of thousands, with a beautiful height, pure coloratures (all ‘al punto’) and a drama that could make even La Divina jealous.
Mancini sings “Santo di patria… Da te questo m’è concesso” from Attila by Verdi:
Mancini’s career also lasted only a short time. People talked about health problems, but what really happened? The fact is that the soprano, born in 1924, stopped working as early as 1960. Although her name can still be found in 1963, as contralto (!) at the concert in memory of Kennedy.
Mancini made her debut in 1948, as Giselda in I Lombardi. At the Scala she already sang Lucrezia Borgia in 1951. Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini are not lacking in her repertoire.
The Italian label Cetra has recorded a lot with her; difficult to obtain, but so very worthwhile to look for!
At her best I find her as Lida in La Battaglia di Legnano by Verdi. Below a fragment of it: