Among the many artists who participated in the celebration of the forty-fourth birthday of John F. Kennedy hosted by Jack Benny (Marilyn Monroe, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Shirley MacLaine, Henry Fonda, Peggy Lee, Jimmy Durante, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and others) was the most famous opera singer of her day, Maria Callas – at that time still an American citizen. Although a transistor recording of her singing of two arias from Carmen at New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, has been issued on two other CD editions, Divina Records presents these rare items in the best available sound and in correct pitch.

     For Callas, the following year was devoted exclusively to concerts, recordings and work on her voice. On the occasion of her third appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall (May 31, 1963) she performed the program of five arias chosen for the Berlin, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Copenhagen concerts from the same recital tour. Only two excerpts from the 1963 London concert have been released on CD so far; this issue presents Callas’ participation in the official part of the program in its entirety for the first time on compact disc. Describing Callas’ performance before one of her most devoted, faithful and adoring publics, Harold D. Rosenthal’s writes in Opera: "Mme Callas has obviously been putting in some very hard work on her voice, and it certainly sounded far better and often far more beautiful than at any time I can recall since she last sang at Covent Garden .… The famous wobble on which her detractors so eagerly fasten was still there – but it was far less in evidence and the voice was under far better control.… the dramatic instinct is all it ever was, and the phrasing and musicianship still unsurpassed. The Semiramide aria which began the evening was interesting …; ’Casta diva’ was sung mostly with an exquisite tone.… The Nabucco extract was outstanding on any count; the drama of the recitative, and the sad, nostalgic note the singer caught in the aria itself. Musetta’s Waltz Song came up new and unhackneyed, and with all the character of that wayward lady well and truly captured. The short final scene of Butterfly was over before it had begun, but in the few minutes that it lasted, Mme Callas managed to tug at the heart-strings.… The Philharmonia Orchestra under Georges Prêtre was in excellent form.… But of course it was the soprano’s evening – for admirers critical and uncritical, and even for the unconvinced, the magic still works."

     Callas’ return to the stage had to wait until May 22, 1964, when she gave her first full-staged performance in Paris. She sang eight Normas at the Paris Opéra in a new production specially mounted for her by Franco Zeffirelli. During a dress rehearsal, a little over two minutes from Norma’s opening recitative were allowed to be recorded as a soundtrack for a newsreel film made by RTF (French Radio Television). They comprise all that has been published from those 1964 Normas. According to the critic and writer John Ardoin, the first two performances (May 22 and 25) were recorded privately by EMI’s producer Michel Glotz; no copies of these have yet come forth.

     In April 1968, Callas gave an extensive interview with Lord Harewood for BBC television, recorded at her Paris home (36 Avenue Georges Mandel). At one moment, an uninvited guest crept into the room. It was one of her two poodles, with whom she soon engaged in a charming "duet", introducing the little dog as "a singer, too". "You could do better than that; you’re too excited, darling", Callas says with great tenderness, adding that she has to keep the dogs out of the room where she is practicing.

     After the world recital tour with Giuseppe di Stefano ended in November 1974, Callas considered other singing projects, including a solo concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in late 1976. She began practicing with Jeffrey Tate, who traveled to Paris on that occasion. In Fall 1976, Callas continued working on her voice at a Paris studio, this time with the pianist Gordon MacNick. Although nothing of the London concert materialized, she did give a private concert before friends at her Paris flat around that time. One of the items performed on that occasion was recorded – the first song from Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, op. 48. Having previously sung Lieder by Schubert and Brahms in concerts in Greece in 1941 and 1943, Callas returned to the song repertoire for her last solo recitals thirty years later. She included Schubert songs in the private concert given in Geneva in March 1970, and this Schumann song in the 1976 Paris recital. It is the only extant recording of Callas’ performing in German, and is published here for the first time on CD, some doubts about its authenticity not entirely dispelled.

     The idea of returning to concert activity did not leave Callas until her death on September 16, 1977. A few weeks before, she was rehearsing the phrase "Deh, non m’abbandonar" from La forza del destino with the Greek pianist Vasso Devetzi at her home. Snippets from that session were taped on a cassette recorder by Callas herself. It is the last known recording of the great soprano; on it, her voice demonstrates a lofty level of steadiness not encountered during her last public performances of 1973 and 1974.

     During the press conference at the Ritz on December 16, 1958, Callas speaks about the love and gratitude she feels for the French capital and its people, already felt on her first visit there in 1957 and generously reciprocated without her having had to sing a note. She certainly gets along with good conductors, and hopes that everything goes well for her Paris debut, wishing to sing for the Parisians better than she had ever sung before. She emphasizes that singers are only human beings; unpredictable things may happen before any performance.

     On May 14, 1959, one day before her first German concert tour, Callas said about the German public: "I know your public, and I do wish so much to sing well, because you’re worth every bit of my energy".

     Upon her arrival on the Amsterdam airport on July 9, 1959, Callas hopes that everything goes well for her forthcoming debut in Holland; she is happy to have come to Holland on an invitation by Peter Diamand, the director of the Holland Festival and her old friend, adding that she had received many letters from her Dutch fans. The concert of July 11, 1959, was her penultimate public performance under the name Maria Meneghini Callas.

     In August 1960, Callas appeared as Norma in Epidaurus, the first time an opera was performed at the ancient theater, and the first time she sang in an opera performance in Greece since 1945. On that occasion she gave an interview, which is her second interview in Greek known to have been recorded. Callas first talks about her plans after the Epidaurus performances – recording at La Scala and rehearsing for the opening night there on December 7, in Donizetti’s Poliuto with Corelli and Bastianini, conducted by Votto. Asked about her feelings while singing in Greece, Callas emphasizes that she feels more Greek than ever, and mentions the financial support from the opera company Lyrike Skene (Lyrical Stage) she received at the age of about fourteen to continue her studies in Greece. She now wishes to donate her fee for Norma in Epidaurus ($5000 US per performance) to the Lyrike Skene as a tribute. This amount and additional payments by the opera company will constitute the basis of a foundation aiming to provide annual support of young Greek artists. A board, to which Callas will belong, will decide which candidate will receive the stipend.

     At the Berlin Tempelhof Airport on May 16, 1963, one day before Callas’ third German tour began with a concert at the Deutsche Oper, she greeted the German public by recalling the wonderful memories of the city she had had in the past, finding no words to express her thanks to the Berlin public. She declares her preference of opera to concert, and promises to come back to Berlin for an operatic performance as soon as possible.

     In a brief interview for the BBC on April 24, 1966, Callas speaks about the director Lucchino Visconti and their work together. In the operas in which they have collaborated – La vestale, La sonnambula, La traviata, Anna Bolena and Ifigenia in Tauride – she often felt spoiled by his lavish treatment of her. During their work on Traviata, which was an enormous success, Visconti presented a different vision of the opera, while also helping Callas in discovering one of the secrets of her acting: the less she moved without an obvious reason, the more it suited her own personality. Being aware that opera is difficult to handle and can easily be made ridiculous, she emphasizes the importance of good operatic productions.

     On September 30, 1968, Callas gave an interview with Jacques Bourgeois, an eminent French critic. She emphasizes that both belcanto schooling and her personal instinct have played a significant role in the development of her artistic expression, an expression that was often subject to controversy – especially at the beginning of her career. When she begins working on a new role, Callas first tries to understand the character’s social status, indispensable for a proper stage presence; then, she studies the music – at first, strictly as it has been written, then adding a more personal touch, while always respecting the composer’s ideas and intentions. An interpretation is never finished, though the basics of an artistic concept – like a person’s signature – remain virtually the same. While working on a portrayal, Callas first studies the character’s psychology, then asks herself how she would act in a similar situation. In actual life, certain favorite operatic themes – true love, loyalty, gratefulness – seldom exist, she adds. Characters’ actions, whether good or bad, should be justified. Taking the example of Medea and Jason, Callas considers both Medea and her husband to be responsible for the tragedy. Medea should not have killed her children. However, rather than being an ordinary human being, she was in reality a sorceress who betrayed her vocation out of love for a man; having understood that, Callas has perceptibly softened and humanized her approach to the role over the years. According to her, characterization is even more important than mere singing, since opera is an old-fashioned form of art that can be easily laughed at. Callas hopes to have opened a new way to opera singers – that of looking for a deeper meaning of the words and notes.

     On November 13, 1973, one day after her fourth and last German concert tour, Callas mentions her work in recent years – film, recordings, master classes – and her comeback with Di Stefano, which she does not consider a real comeback, for she never stopped singing. She finds it a good opportunity to perform in public again, since attempting a comeback all on her own could present difficulties. Concert appearances have the advantage of being easier to plan – usually six months in advance, in comparison to at least twenty-four for an operatic performance; furthermore, the latter is more complicated and difficult to perform.

     Tracks 1, 5-9, 11, 12, 14-21 were never before released on CD.

© Milan Petkovic, 2000.