CALLAS AND HER LONDON PUBLIC IN 1973:
AFTER MORE THAN TWO DECADES, THE LOVE AFFAIR WAS STRONGER THAN EVER

by MILAN PETKOVIC


     In 1973, after a hiatus of eight years, Maria Callas returned to the public with a concert tour encompassing Europe, North America and the Far East. Between October 25, 1973, and November 11, 1974, she gave forty recitals of operatic arias and duets with piano accompaniment, partnered by the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano and pianists Ivor Newton and Robert Sutherland. London, whose public always welcomed her warmly, was chosen for the opening concert; the announced date was September 22, 1973, and the venue the renowned Festival Hall.

     Callas was nervous, which was not difficult to understand. The psychological pressure of having to live up to her own high standard after years of inactivity became overwhelming after she learned about the enormous amount of interest and excitement generated by the mere announcement of the tour. She alternated between fleeting feelings of self-confidence and those, more lasting, of intense fear. The letter written to her godfather on September 1, 1973, reflects her complex state of mind: “I am preparing for my concert tour and I’m scared stiff, but I hope that I will be calm and well by my first one on the 22nd of this month, because the expectation is great, and of course I am not what I was at 35 years – let’s hope for the best.” Three weeks later, Callas unfortunately gave in to her fears and the opening recital at the Festival Hall announced for September 22, 1973 had to be cancelled. The date of the opening concert was postponed; eventually, the event took place on October 25 – though not in London, but in Hamburg.

     Callas and Di Stefano finally appeared before the London public on November 26, 1973, accompanied by Ivor Newton and assisted by Robert Sutherland. The latter pianist published a book Maria Callas, Diaries of a Friendship (London 1999) describing the 1973-74 concerts in detail and offering an exceptionally human and vulnerable portrayal of the famous soprano in the years before her untimely death on September 16, 1977.

     On November 26, 1973, the occasion was indeed special. The Festival Hall had a capacity star-studded audience that included such names as Claudio Arrau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Jessye Norman; the concert itself was to be televised by the BBC and recorded by EMI. Just before her entrance, Callas openly admitted to Sutherland: “I’m scared, Robert”; at his warm but silent encouragement, she managed to smile. When the house lights finally dimmed, Callas and Di Stefano’s appearance onstage was greeted with thunderous applause. Robert Sutherland recalls: “The curtain was pulled back and once again I witnessed the magic of a trembling frightened girl instantly transformed into a sparkling diva. La Callas was with her public .... The audience came to their feet as one, cheering and calling her name, while Di Stefano led her around the platform.” Slowly waving and smiling first one way then the other, the two stars approached the piano. To those who were present, Callas did give the impression of being terrified in front of the London audience, eight years after her last appearance there as Tosca (her last ever performance on an opera stage, also released in the Enhanced CD format by Divina Records, DVN~2). She clutched at the piano more than usual and appeared more relaxed only as the evening went on. The voice heard by those seated a few feet away from her and the piano was not large in sound, and relatively small in compass; the singing was tight and constricted at first, but tended to loose to a degree as the evening progressed.

     The magic began to emerge as Callas gradually warmed to the audience with whom she had had such a special relationship (sometimes even described as a “love affair”) since her London debut exactly twenty-one years before. As the evening continued, she began to relax and expand, though the voice did not gain in volume. For much of the time, it was just a shadow of its former glory. Suddenly, the old Callas magic would appear and shine out gloriously for a few musical phrases, then disappear again. However, as many who were present would agree, it was the presence that impressed the most. In a simple white silk dress with a floor-length cobalt blue cloak fixed on her left shoulder coming across the front of her neck and floating out behind as she moved, Callas managed to conjure up a stage picture by her mere presence.

     The reviews of Callas’ appearance were thoughtful, showing respect and admiration for the artist. Andrew Porter in the Financial Times: “A voice that was never quite tamed but whose command of flame and tears, fireworks and tender caress could leave no one unmoved .... An artist as great as she had been must not be insulted with less than truth from an admirer. The voice was a shadow of it former self. Perhaps it could be said that the voice has, at last, been in some sense ‘tamed’ in that the interpretations were kept carefully within the bounds of what it can still do.” William Mann in The Times compared Callas’ voice in 1973 to “a monochrome reproduction of a favourite oil-painting.” Yet the evening brought thrilling moments too: “The greatest operatic actress of our time .... knows precisely how much movement on stage is desirable in such circumstances (almost none). Her words were as clear and impressive as ever, in every item except perhaps the first duet (from Don Carlos) in its first few minutes .... She had difficulty in sustaining long phrases and breaks them up discreetly ... the quality of tone has become more breathy or less ringing, the gear change between the lower and upper registers very evident .... The low chest notes were strong and cogent in ‘Suicidio’ and ‘Voi lo sapete’ and the final Carmen duet, ... the top often characteristic, bringing recognition of the voice we had come to hear .... Cavalleria (solo and duet) induced her to try singing out: she did not force, and ... did not attempt a true fortissimo .... The Bizet duet, and the last cries of ‘Signor’ in that from Don Carlos, gave me to hope optimistically that she may yet give us her Carmen in the opera house.”

     The hour-long program was stretched to just over two by the applause an unbroken succession of ovations. Robert Sutherland writes: “At the end of the concert the usually reserved English audience, normally shy of displaying their feelings, flocked down to the stage, their arms outstretched to touch Maria or shake her hand, bringing flowers and gifts, some climbing up on to the stage, their eyes brimming with emotion and excitement.” Many of those eyes must have been moist. Callas appeared deeply moved; the Londoners, and indeed the British audience (headed by Lord Harewood) had always felt much affection and understanding for her and had a very special kind of responsiveness to her artistry. In a warm, soft voice, Callas announced the aria “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi as an encore to her “public caro.” Nevertheless, speaking of the London public with honest perception and taking a more realistic perspective, she told Robert Sutherland a few days later: “They love me more than I deserved .... They love what I was, not what I am.”

     A reviewer wrote that the thirty-minute applause at the end of the November 26, 1973 concert – released on CD for the first time on this label – was pure love. He commented: “That may sound corny, but how else does one describe the depth of emotion that her audience felt for her?” William Mann noted that “many in the audience may be too young to have experienced her artistry in the theatre,” but those who heard Maria Callas live for the first time on that occasion were inspired to listen to her by then already legendary recordings. And to Paul McCrory, one of those fortunate people, to conclude: “I thank Callas as she opened a new world to me by being terrified and human, but responding to the love the audience gave her – and returning it.”

Milan Petkovic, 2002