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4-Part 'Callas: In Her Own Words' on KUSC

February 02, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

After the death of Maria Callas, one British critic said of her, "No longer a singer, she is now an idea." The power that idea still holds can be heard, starting tonight at 9 p.m., when KUSC and its affiliate stations begin the broadcast of the four-part "Callas: In Her Own Words."

It is now a little more than 10 years since Callas' death in Paris, of a heart attack at the age of 53. Her constantly expanding bibliography lists some 29 books, and her recorded performances are receiving renewed sales and distribution through the new CD and video industries.

But the KUSC documentary goes far beyond the mass of commonly available materials. The project began last May, when producer Stephen Paley met music critic and Callas biographer John Ardoin in Dallas. At the time, Paley had no interest in Callas, he now says, but an introduction to Ardoin's imposing collection of Callas memorabilia immediately suggested the possibility of an in-depth biography in sound.

"I like working in that form--three or four hours--when you can get into more detail," Paley reports. A veteran radio producer, he had earlier created a three-hour retrospective of Nelson Riddle's career.

Ardoin was the natural choice to write the soprano's story. And with his collection of recorded Callas interviews--some of them previously unheard--he was able, he says, "as far as possible, to let her tell it in her own words."

Paley took the project to KUSC, which commissioned it with funds from a single, private individual. The donor wishes to remain anonymous, according to Paley, because she does not want to incur the importunities of other needy arts programs.

The project involved three months of research and writing, followed by two months of editing. Paley estimates the production budget at $15,000-$20,000.

As Ardoin and Paley planned, "Callas: In Her Own Words" is very much just that. The diva was often before press microphones, and most of her interviews seem to have been preserved. The program presents Callas' own summations of her childhood and training, and her reactions to nearly every event in her tumultuous career.

The public persona that emerges, in strong, sharp words, is that of a tough-minded woman and artist. The program, though, takes pains to show her private contradictions and insecurities.

That occurs most remarkably in an outpouring of disappointment and resentment following the breakup of the liaison with Aristotle Onassis. Taken by opera impresario Lawrence Kelly from a hospital after an attempted suicide, Callas was entrusted to Ardoin, for what he calls "diva-sitting." Ardoin taped a fairly routine interview with her, but then at her request, put in another tape and recorded an intense, confessional statement.

"It was like therapy," he says, describing it on the program as a catharsis.

The program is not all talk. Many of Callas' words are sung, largely in recordings made from radio broadcasts. As particular watershed performances are discussed, generous samples are offered, from all periods of Callas' work.

"When we could, we used the actual performance," Paley reports. "Where it didn't exist, we used the closest (studio) one."

There are rarities from both ends of the singer's career. When she was 11, Callas sang "Un bel di" on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, under the pseudonym Nina Foresti. Ardoin located the original transcription discs of the program in a Radio City archive, and the immature performance--graded as a "D" by the Bowes staff--can be heard tonight on the first segment.

The fourth and final portion of "Callas: In Her Own Words" brings excerpts from her last studio recording, with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, showing clearly why it was never released. It also includes a performance from her last concert, in Tokyo in 1974.

All is not merely budding potential or poignant imperfection, though. Each of the middle segments is devoted to just three years from the height of her career, with many examples to prove how Callas came by her vocal preeminence.

The four one-hour installments are narrated by Michael Wager, with abundant commentaries and reminiscences by singers, conductors, critics and impresarios. The series will air on consecutive Tuesdays on KUSC-FM (91.5), KCPB-FM (Thousand Oaks, 91.1) and KSCA-FM (Santa Barbara, 88.7).

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