December 02, 2014

One coloratura diva to another: Diana Damrau pays tribute to Maria Callas

The Bavarian soprano on what Maria means to her, on what would have been La Divina's 91st birthday.

As a soprano describing the legacy and huge debt owed to Maria Callas, it is near-impossible to avoid those often-stated clichés; impossible to avoid because every one of them is true.

I first heard Callas as Rosina in a recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and was entranced by her employment of vocal coloration to portray the lightning-quick changes of mood and temperament that characterise Rosina. Her coquettish yet defiant 'ma' in the aria Una voce poco fa is one of many examples of this. She was able to invest so much meaning into such a tiny, little word.

Like countless others, I too marveled at the video recording of Tosca with Tito Gobbi as her Scarpia; a masterclass in how minimal gesture and movement could be used to such a thrillingly powerful effect. Rather than the semaphoric, baroque acting so ubiquitous at the time, her physicalisation was so very internal and really drew the audience's eye to her portrayal of Floria Tosca's plight. The fact this performance still stands as a benchmark in our time demonstrates just how ahead of her own time Callas was.

One catches a glimpse of her magisterial, magnetic presence in those few performances captured forever on film. It is impossible to take your eyes off her from the moment the camera is on her as she radiates that 'diva' aura, a fascinating, untouchable, unattainable personification of the divine, all united in her deeply felt incarnation of the energy of the interpreted situation and music.

Having recently performed the title role in Verdi's La Traviata a great deal, indeed on many of the same stages Callas herself performed the piece, I have become particularly attached to her Violetta. One can hear the subtext she invests into the piece in her phrasing, pauses and rhythmic choices. Such instincts even enable her to portray an emotional weakness in the first act; this is particularly hard to do given the overt bravura of a great deal of the vocal writing. Nevertheless, it is all there. The vulnerability, the need to be loved and protected so intrinsic to Violetta.

As fans and performers, we are so, so lucky to have her recordings, but for me there will always be question marks and 'what-ifs' as well. I long to hear how she would have played the fury and fire of both Tudor Elizabeths; Donizetti's Roberto Devereux would have no doubt been seminal in its intensity and virtuosity, and one can only wish that the planned debut of the title role in Britten's Gloriana at La Scala would have gone ahead. Her naturally commanding vocal authority and stage presence would have suited both of these parts magnificently.

As both a Brünhilde and Amina, Maria Callas was indeed one-of-a-kind and will continue to be a shining beacon to everyone from the casual opera fan to prima donna for her authenticity, stage-craft and musicianship.

Diana Damrau's new recording of Lucia di Lammemoor is out now.