Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos was born on Dec. 2, 1923, and ahead of her 100th birthday, Warner Classics is honoring the opera great who conquered under the name of Maria Callas until her death in 1977.
To be issued on Sept. 22, La Divina consists of 131 CDs of Callas performances, including never-before-heard alternate takes and studio working sessions from the 1960s, in addition to her most famous studio recordings, live performances, and master classes.
131 discs! Add to that another comprehensive Warner collection, of Pablo Casals’s recordings, and many other new issues and reissues from other labels — see below — all at a time when technology is changing, forcing even Netflix to end its red-envelope DVD service. The age of streaming is upon us, and aging collectors are trying to dispose of recordings, yet new discs are still in the offing.
Callas’s interpretations were acclaimed for their stunning drama and musical integrity. Her voice had an extraordinary range; her phrasing was distinctive. “A magnetic presence, she brought operatic heroines to vivid life, shaping and coloring her tone, and making insightful use of the libretto,” say the collection’s liner notes.
“A century after her birth, nearly 60 years after her last performance on the operatic stage, and more than 45 years after her death, Callas remains a defining figure in operatic history. She is a point of reference for opera lovers and opera singers of today and, in many respects, is the enduring embodiment of opera.”
In the 1950s, at the apex of her career, she was the prima donna assoluta of Milan’s La Scala — notably in the productions of Luchino Visconti — but was also a legendary presence at London’s Royal Opera House, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera, and the opera houses of Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Lisbon, and — in the early 1950s — Mexico City, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.
San Francisco Opera missed out on her because in 1957, scheduled for the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor, Callas — as usual — missed rehearsals, and General Director Kurt Herbert Adler fired her and tried to talk other opera companies into boycotting her. (Nobody did.)
Callas ignored Adler’s wrath and gave a recital in the SF Civic Auditorium in 1958 and a concert with Giuseppe Di Stefano in the War Memorial Opera House in 1974 but did no staged opera and nothing with SF Opera.
From 1959 on, during her love affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, her performing career slowed down, and her voice became more fragile. Her final stage performances came in 1965, when she was only 42.
It’s impossible to be a superstar of Callas’s fame and not encounter criticism — even of her artistry, never mind personal attacks and gossip about her private life. A measured example of musical criticism can be found in Alastair Macaulay’s extensive review of Tom Volf’s documentary Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words.
“Most of us who love Callas tend to think of her as the standard by which to judge all others. This is, of course, a mistake. Apart from the sheer flaws in her voice and occasional lapses of inspiration or judgment in her performances, there are larger points against her.” For example, Macaulay criticizes Callas’s diction (“often flawed”) and her characterization of Carmen.
Much of the Warner collection is already available for streaming, as it’s mostly previously released recordings. Three of the never-before-heard rehearsal tracks from the bonus CD — arias from Guillaume Tell, Il pirata, and Manon — are available exclusively on Apple Music in an EP called Maria Callas Behind the Scenes. And the Juilliard master classes included in the set are the remastered versions, not the original (very poor) recordings.
About the larger issue of releasing alternate takes and working sessions from when Callas’s voice was in decline, the liner notes for the bonus CD respond in part
“The Paris recordings of 1963–1964 ... the final years of her activity, [are] ones marked by vocal issues that Callas responds to in an artistically and emotionally arresting way, as she succeeds in steadying her art through sheer perspicuity, integrity, and commitment.
“The situation was the result of exhaustion caused by a decade of intense activity that had instilled a loss of self-confidence, and of acute sinusitis that caused her increasing pain in the top register.
“In the years since her death, doctors have attempted to understand these vocal problems, suggesting dermatomyositis, a disease characterized by inflammation of certain muscles that affects the respiratory tract, back of the throat, pharynx, and larynx, changing the voice and impacting the muscles, heart, digestion, bones, and joints.
“Many hours of raw material have been preserved in an unstinting sequence of carefully numbered takes from the London working recordings. These were not necessarily intended for release, and their purpose was to allow Callas to rework her voice to counteract the difficulties she was experiencing at the time.
“The particular repertoire involved a limited selection of Rossini arias, which were perfect for reinforcing the fluidity and suppleness of the voice: Different versions of them have been released in The Callas Rarities.
“The aim here is not to present arias again in their entirety — almost all of them were in any case rerecorded in Paris shortly afterwards and then released — but to show Callas working in the studio, and her wonderfully positive interactions with the conductor, the orchestra, and the producers: both Walter Legge and, in Paris, Michel Glotz.”
Another Warner Classics set released this year is a nine-CD Pablo Casals collection, the cellist’s complete recordings with HMV (His Master’s Voice). The repertoire includes works by Bach, , Haydn, Beethoven, Antonín Dvořák, Edward Elgar, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann.
A disc of encores, with Casals’s own street band, or cobla, includes seven examples of the sardana, the national dance of Casals’s birthplace, Tarragona, Spain.
Other newsworthy CD releases:
— The Minnesota Orchestra’s world-premiere recording of composer Carlos Simon and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s brea(d)th, a large-scale work for narrator, chorus, and orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra commissioned the work in 2021, following the murder of George Floyd, and it was recorded live at the world-premiere performances in May 2023.
— Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic continue their Gustav Mahler cycle for Pentatone with the fourth release in the series: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, and 5 have already been released, and a review in The Sunday Times said Bychkov's recording cycle is “turning out to be one of the truly great Mahler sets.”
— The Emerson String Quartet’s final album release Infinite Voyage, with soprano Barbara Hannigan, marks the end of the Quartet’s 47-year-long career. The record includes Arnold Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2 for soprano and string quartet; Paul Hindemith’s Melancholie, Op. 13; Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3; and Ernest Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, Op. 37.
— On Deutsche Grammophon: For Clara is Hélène Grimaud’s exploration of the music of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, spotlighting the bond and inspiration both men found with pianist-composer Clara Schumann. Grimaud pairs Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana with Brahms’s three Op. 117 Intermezzi and his Op. 32 songs, joined by baritone Konstantin Krimmel.
— Third Coast Percussion’s Between Breaths, a recording of music exploring meditation, is now available from Cedille Records. It explores aspects of meditation in sound, incorporating unconventional timbres and tones, acoustic and electronic sounds, and a variety of percussive objects and instruments “to form a boundary-pushing listening experience that goes beyond traditional musical norms.”
— This week, Orchid is releasing an album of choral music by Stephen Hough, including the pianist-composer’s major work Missa Mirabilis. Hough titled his Mass “miraculous” because he was in the midst of writing the work when he was in a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway while he was traveling at 80 mph. He stepped out of the mangled car, miraculously alive with his manuscript in hand, and even wrote part of it while waiting for a brain scan in the hospital.