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The One and Only

MARIA CALLAS: Sacred Monster;\o7 By Stelios Galatopoulos; (Simon and Schuster: 544 pp., $35)\f7

CALLAS AT JUILLIARD: The Master Classes;\o7 By Maria Callas and John Ardoin; (Amadeus: 950 pp., $19.95 paper)\f7

CALLAS BY CALLAS: The Secret Writings of "la Maria";\o7 By Renzo and Roberto Allegri; (Universe: 168 pp., $35)\f7

May 30, 1999|MICHELLE KRISEL | Michelle Krisel is assistant to Placido Domingo, artistic director of the Washington Opera and the artistic director-designate and principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Opera

More ink has been spilled on Maria Callas than on perhaps any other operatic performer. Twenty-two years after her death, Callas has been reduced and elevated to an icon. She is either the intensely passionate performer or the inscrutable sphinx, the self-destructive artist, the glamorous jet-setter and the Parisienne with the broken heart. Remarkably, she still transfixes a devoted public, most of whom never saw her on stage or heard her in person.

Writers either adore or demonize her, for with Callas, there is no middle ground. They fall into two categories: those authors who worship La Callas and want to use their pens to help her, from beyond the tomb, settle old claims, justify less than angelic behavior, and explain the inexplicable--her magic--and those authors who revile her and who often have their own personal reasons to settle old accounts, bring up less than angelic behavior and poke holes in the magic. Both sides, of course, claim objectivity and intimate knowledge of the woman.

Does the world really need more books about Maria Callas? Unfortunately, yes.

Most books concentrate on the controversy and glamor that swirled around Callas--her painful relationship with her mother; the diva-like behavior of which other divas and opera impresarios accused her; her abandonment by Aristotle Onassis for perhaps the only other more striking woman of her generation, Jacqueline Kennedy; and finally how all this evaporated so quickly and silently. But the reason to keep writing and reading about Maria Callas is to try to understand how someone with neither a classically beautiful voice nor a flawless technique nor effortless physical beauty could, through sheer will and depth of soul, become the performer who changed the standard by which all other opera singers are judged. When asked whether he thought her voice was beautiful or ugly, the preeminent conductor Tullio Serafin responded: "I have known many of Callas' voices. Do you know, I have never really considered whether her voice was ugly or beautiful. I only know that it was always the right one, and this is more than beautiful." The director Franco Zeffirelli (who directed her definitive "Tosca" at Covent Garden and who is still a major force in opera) tried to describe Callas' power in his "Autobiography" this way: She was "a singer with a mind and a vision of what opera could be far beyond Ghiringhelli [the head of La Scala], or in fact anyone else's conception at that time."

Though it may sound grandiose, it is the truth of her interpretations that makes Maria Callas tower over all other performers. Every note--whether in an aria or recitative, every movement on stage, every facial expression as she listened or sang--plumbed the depth of the character she seemingly had become. For she was no longer a singer interpreting a role, she was Norma or Tosca or Medea. She imbued every phrase with excitement and meaning and she was completely dedicated to every detail in the score. The ferocity with which she delved into a role and with which she led her personal life are the subjects of the already extensive Callasiana.

And now there are three additions: "Maria Callas: Sacred Monster" by music critic, scholar and confidant Stelios Galatopoulos; "Callas by Callas: The Secret Writings of 'la Maria' " by father-son music critics Renzo and Roberto Allegri; and a reprint of "Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes." So as not to keep you in suspense, both biographies are from worshipers who claim a divine right to understanding the sphinx: Galatopoulos believes that Callas shared intimacies with him toward the end of her life so that he could write a "fair" biography, and the Allegris pretend to allow La Maria to speak through her own "secret writings." (Are letters really "secret"?)

The one book which is actually by Callas herself is oddly bland. "Callas at Juilliard" is a transcript of her comments about, as well as musical examples of, 75 arias sung by 25 singers whom she coached at the Juilliard School in New York from 1971 to 1972. This reprint not only corrects some of the errors in the musical examples from the original book published in 1987, but it also, presumably, hopes to fly in on the coattails of Terrence McNally's tremendously popular play "Master Class." McNally's Callas seems far more passionate than the one between these two covers and far less ferocious than, for example, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who is also known for her master classes (those who participated in the latter are known as "survivors").

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