The Monday post

callas 1 blogIn the US, it’s our Memorial Day holiday. So in my Monday Post I’ll remember Maria Callas, the great, vulnerable soprano. And her audience! In this brief excerpt from a live performance of Bellini’s Norma, Callas sings a gorgeous soft high C (not something she could manage every day) — and the audience audibly reacts while she’s singing it.

Which takes us back to the 19th century and earlier, when audiences routinely made their feelings known in the middle of the music. I apologize for not knowing which performance this comes from. I ripped it from a pirate LP many years ago, and didn’t write down which recording it was, because my life was full of LPs, and this one sat on a shelf, ready for me whenever I wanted it. Now the recording sits in a box in the basement of my country house. Sigh. I think it’s a 1955 or 1957 performance. I know Del Monaco was the tenor. If anyone can tell me which performance this is, I’ll be grateful!

Audience participation of many kinds wasn’t unknown in 1950s Italy. Callas, during a performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, got booed. In the first act finale, she sings — vehemently — the words “Guidici? Ad Anna? Ad Anna guidici?” (“Judges? For Anna? Anna will be judged?”) She’s playing Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII has just told her she’ll be put on trial for adultery. But she’s the queen! To be put before judges is a grave insult. Callas strode to the front of the stage, and hurled the words at the audience. Hoe dare you judge me? 

On another night, she was singing the Barber of Seville, not a success for her live, though her studio recording (with Tito Gobbi) is wonderful. In Act 2, her character has a voice lesson, and sings while her dotty old guardian listens, enraptured. When she’s finished, the guardian, in recitative, sings, “Bella voce!” (“Beautiful voice.”) The audience hooted. The bass singing the guardian went to the front of the stage, and threw back at them, “Si! Bella voce!” (Yes! Beautiful voice!”)

Those were the days. People — both singers and audience — threw themselves into performances, heart and soul. .

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  1. Daniel Greenbush says

    So it was only in the “old days” when performers threw themselves heart and soul into a performance?? Please.

    • says

      This is a long discussion, Daniel. But I think old recordings show that they did it more often in past generations. My Juilliard students, year after year, certainly think so, after quite a bit of listening. But of course it would be silly to say “always” or “never.” Old performances can be blah, and new ones can be thrilling. I’ve just been listening to the new Cecilia Bartoli recording of Norma, and much of it is blazing hot.

  2. says

    Thank you for sharing it with us, Maria Callas was a really wonderful singer and I feel very small next to her, being a singer too. Alexia Carr

    • says

      Thanks so much, Alexia. Glad you liked it! Maybe someday an audience will react to you like that! Of course, we’re more or less forbidden to react that way during a performance, but wouldn’t it be exciting if — as in Italy in the past — a performance was so exciting that the audience couldn’t restrain itself?

      • says

        It is a question of balance, (as often in life!). I mean, one has to respect the singer on stage, and the way he is interpreting, as singing on stage is a very brave thing to do! On stage you are completely vulnerable, and especially when you are singing opera, because you are directly facing the public (even more obviously in recitals) instead of hiding behind your instrument, and first of all, the voice is so much linked with the soul and the emotions, that it can be somehow very intimate and deep hearted. Maria Callas was very sensible and gave herself completely when she sang. This is also what made her singing so beautiful. Just to say, that when you are singing difficult things on stage, you have to be very much concentrated on what you do, pitch, technic, interpretation, pronunciation, emotions, etc… And by reacting instead of staying silent, the public can easily put you in difficulties, taking your concentration away. And it can be most unpleasant!

        In the old days, going to operas and theaters was very popular, and, just like on a public place, people could come with there picnics and eat and talk during the show (like in front of a TV today!). That explains why they could sometime throw an egg or a tomato at the performers they disliked! This was very harsh! But you know it already.
        If I may the comparison, a theater is like an arena: the public can be like a bull, and the singer the Torero! He has to captivate the public and take him through the music and the emotions where he (and the composer) want to bring him… But the public can react and can be also dangerous too!!!
        Still, if someone really feels the need of expressing himself, during a show, he should go and sing on stage…Then he will understand better how difficult (and great!) it is to be there, don’t you think, Greg?