It is believed that a girl who participated at a 1935 Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio audition could have been the eleven-year old Mary Ann Callas using the false name of Nina Foresti. The recording made on that occasion is still controversial in that the singing voice of the contestant does not bear any resemblance to the great soprano’s (Foresti was given a “D” rating and the note “Faint possibility for future”). However, the girl’s speaking voice (which can be heard during the introductory dialogue with Major Bowes in its entirety here for the first time on CD) is strikingly similar to Callas’. The clue to the mystery may lie in the contestant’s tone when she describes herself as an Italian-American who is “employed in the toy department of a large department store.” Neither of these statements was true in Maria Callas’ case, and a slight hesitancy, discomfort and hurry to finish can clearly be heard on this recording. A pseudonym was probably chosen to deceive Callas’ father, who objected to his wife’s ambition regarding their younger daughter’s career, in case he or some acquaintances were listening to the radio. According to Nikos Petsalis-Diomidis, Mary Ann Callas had only two music teachers in New York from 1931 to 1937 – Signorina Sandrina, who taught Mary Ann the notes and gave her piano lessons once a week for a few months in 1931-1932; and a neighbor from Sweden, who gave her singing lessons without payment. Considering such modest training, it is possible that Mary Ann learned the music she performed in public between 1934 and 1937 mainly by listening to records and radio programs. Since Callas always had an impeccable ear, learning to sing “Un bel di” by imitating the singing style and timbral characteristics heard on a recording would have posed no difficulty. This might explain why neither Nina Foresti’s singing nor her timbre, curiously mature-sounding for an eleven-year old girl, resemble anything known to have been recorded by Callas from 1949 to 1977. Once merely a hypothesis, it is now generally accepted that Nina Foresti was actually Maria Callas, despite Callas’ denial that she ever sang under an assumed name. (She nevertheless admitted the fact to her friend and confidante Nadia Stancioff; the same assertion was made independently by Steven Linakis, Callas’ cousin who knew her in her childhood days.)

     Sixteen years later, Maria Meneghini Callas, the soprano drammatico d’agilità of reputation, sang her third broadcast of the Martini e Rossi concerts (recordings of the first two have not survived). Lamentably, no aria was preserved complete, and “Leise, leise” from Weber’s Der Freischütz (a souvenir from her student performances in Greece), was not recorded. What remains is nonetheless an astonishing demonstration of Callas’ dramatic power and breathtaking virtuosity. The Gallows Scene from Un ballo in maschera is Callas’ third known encounter with the opera – she had previously sung excerpts from Acts II and III in a student production on June 25, 1939, and auditioned with this scene for Mario Labroca, the artistic director of La Scala, on September 17, 1947. The result of the audition was a vague possibility to sing Amelia at La Scala in April 1948 that never materialized. (When asked for a sincere opinion after the audition, Labroca is reported to have said: “There is nothing for her here … absolutely nothing” – so much for the future queen of La Scala.) Though she would later refine her interpretation, as we can hear in Callas’ other recorded versions of the scene, her vivid engagement with the text is already evident, as is her personal affinity for the tense dramatic atmosphere the music requires. The grand fortissimo top C would never again sound as majestically as it does here. It is the only recording of Callas taking an upward ending at the aria’s conclusion. This edition presents the scene exactly as it was performed for the first time on CD (no extraneous splices). From the Mignon aria sung in Italian, we have only three brief excerpts, amounting to about fifty percent of the music Callas had known since her childhood days, but rarely performed in public. Though she would later record the aria in French for EMI (1961), it would lack the easy freedom encountered here. Furthermore, the two concluding notes are released here for the first time on CD. About thirty seconds of singing are missing on most of the other issues of Heinrich Proch’s Aria e variazioni for soprano, flute and orchestra; this CD includes nine seconds from the beginning, omitted in other editions. Despite the incompleteness and precarious sound, this dazzling excerpt is unequaled in its stupendous virtuosity even by Callas’ brilliant interpretation of Rossini’s Armida, a fiendishly difficult role. It is a stroke of luck that Proch’s Variazioni were recorded, for though she had learned the piece in Athens with Elvira de Hidalgo, Callas performed it in concert only twice (March 13 and June 11, 1951).

     The recording of “Casta diva” sung in Rome for the Eurovision television broadcast on New Year’s eve 1957 had been unknown for forty years when the tape was unearthed and rebroadcast by RAI in September 1997. On December 31, 1957, Callas sang one of opera’s most beautiful and difficult arias in fine vocal form. However, a disaster immediately followed. In Callas’ own words, the New Year found her completely voiceless; she had caught a cold during rehearsals in the unheated Rome Opera House. The gala premiere of Norma in the presence of the Italian president was scheduled for January 2, 1958 (released on DVN~7), with no understudy provided for Callas. Feeling unwell, she appeared nevertheless and sang the first scene against her better judgement, but subsequently decided to withdraw, creating the most widely publicized scandal of her career. After recovering, she was not allowed to honor the rest of her contract; feeling humiliated, she sued. Eventually, the matter was legally resolved in Callas’ favor more than ten years later.

     The Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth and the final scene of Il pirata sung at Royal Festival Hall, London on September 23, 1959 have an interesting historical background. It was the first time Callas’ singing voice was recorded by means of a transistor recorder. Though at least fifteen transistor recordings of her performances were made from 1961 to 1965, it was an unusual undertaking in 1959. Michael Scott states: “I took a large, cumbersome tape recorder into the auditorium and managed to get it to work uninterruptedly in the Sleepwalking Scene, one of the first pirate live recordings made in Europe.” It was the last time Callas sang this scene in public; this is her only live recording of it besides the complete Macbeth performance of December 7, 1952 at La Scala. In comparison to her celebrated studio interpretation (EMI 1958), we hear a stronger, more diabolical portrayal here. In addition, for the only time on record, the final D-flat in alt is sung forte instead of with the usual fil di voce. During the orchestral postlude, Callas walked off the platform as though in a trance, thus transforming her appearance into a semi-staged performance. A loss of battery power (already discernible in the Macbeth excerpt) occurred during the next recorded number, and although most of the music has been recorded, all that exists in acceptable sound is the recitative to the Pirata cavatina. It was the last recording capturing Callas in one of her favorite operatic scenes, and her penultimate public performance of it.

     On December 7, 1954, Callas opened the season at La Scala with a performance of Spontini’s La vestale. Interviewed by Emilio Pozzi before the dramatically crucial Act II centered on the principal heroine, she expresses her views on the work: it is neither a purely 18th- nor a true 19th-century work, but similar in style to certain operas she had already performed – Medea, Alceste, Norma; the music of Adalgisa is akin to that of Giulia in La vestale, albeit the latter is considerably more dramatic. After the premiere, feeling happy and honored at her third La Scala opening, Callas adds that she loves the music of Spontini’s masterpiece in spite of certain flaws common to operas of that period.

     Asked for an interview at the Milan Malpensa Airport just after the arrival from Berlin, where she had given two performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, Callas speaks about the forthcoming season at Lyric Theater of Chicago, founded by two young opera enthusiasts (Carol Fox, Lawrence Kelly): I puritani, whose author is perhaps Callas’ favorite composer – her North American debut was the opening of the first Chicago season with Norma in 1954, Il trovatore, and finally, Madama Butterfly, which she had already recorded. Callas is specially fond of Butterfly, and is very happy to be given an opportunity to interpret that role on stage.

     Upon her return from Chicago on November 18, 1955, Callas describes an incident that happened the previous day immediately after her last Chicago performance. She was approached by eight deputy sheriffs who served her with a summons. Callas believed that they wanted to harass her and cried out for them not to touch her and to go away. (The lawsuit was brought by Edward Bagarozy, an agent with whom Callas concluded a contract in 1947, and who claimed a total of $300,000 on his behalf. Ultimately, the matter was settled out of court.)

     During her second professional visit to Germany (July 1957) for two performances of Bellini’s La sonnambula, Callas mentions her previous engagements in Berlin and Vienna, the usual woman’s life she lives when she is not singing, and attempts to say a few words in German; she then expresses her regret for not yet having learned that language.

     One month later, Callas returned to Athens after an absence of twelve years. She cancelled the first concert announced for August 1st, creating a major scandal. On August 4, she appeared on the radio to greet the public, explaining her cancellation by an unusually hot and dry climate, which caused her a sore throat. Nothing serious happened: she could sing, but not well, and in her opinion, the public would not have wanted that; if she wants to sing well in Italy or elsewhere in the world, she wants to be even better in Greece. A harsh critic of herself, Callas is never fully satisfied with her work, and pleads for understanding of her condition. The concert, given the following day, was an immense triumph.

     In February 1958, Callas and her father gave a television interview with Hy Gardner, speaking about criticism toward her, the Rome incident, Callas’ feelings for her husband, wartime in Greece, relationship with her mother, press statements made by her mother, and a possibility of a reconciliation.

     Tracks 1-4 and 9-15 are not available complete on any other CD issue.

© Milan Petkovic, 2000