August 13, 2014

Maria Callas' inner circle talk about the artist and woman in rare interviews

In these candid archival interviews, Tito Gobbi, Karajan and other legends talk about the Callas they knew.

All interviews by Alain Lanceron, former Director of EMI Classics France.

Tito Gobbi

There have been prima donnas who made me feel the most fantastic emotions, the joy of performing together, to create something… But with Callas it was always like that, from beginning to end. In rehearsals we would established who walked to the right, who went to the left, all that, but on the night we performed in a completely free fantasy world. If she did something new she would be sure that I would follow her in this new situation, and if I tried something different one day, she would absolutely follow me in the moment as it unfolded. We had fun with it like that from time to time. For me it was an enormous joy. And I have to say that Maria inspired in me the greatest emotions of my life.

The first time I met her in São Paulo, Brazil it was to sing La traviata with her and Maestro Serafin [in 1951]. And I’m sure that no one in the world could perform the first act of La traviata like she had at that time. Later, I was invited to record Lucia Di Lammermoor in Florence with Maria and Pippo [Giuseppe] Di Stefano…. It was there that one day when we went to a restaurant, Maestro Serafin said to her, “Maria, you must not eat so much, just a piece of bread would be enough. Your weight is getting out of control these days.”
“But Maestro,” she said, “If I eat well I sing well, you see?” He said, “I’m sorry, but even so.” There was a scale so she got up on it, she handed me her hat and her shoes as well [laughs], and weighed herself – it was really enormous for a woman.

Some months later, I went to the Opera in Rome in my car. I was stepping out of the car and heard a voice calling, ‘Tito!’ I recognised the voice from the other side of the square. She walked towards me, dressed in black. She opened her coat and said, “And look at me now. Guardami adesso!” She was a beauty, she had effectively lost half her weight. She was elegant, smiling, with those big sparkling eyes full of tears. She was wonderful.

On stage we were colleagues with a great mutual respect and trust and consideration, and I remember – it’s nice to tell this story – at the end of each performance we would bow to each other like comrades-in-arms. In private life we were really great friends. One year I was celebrating my birthday at the Savoy in London – I hadn’t invited her because she was in Paris. That evening she entered the room and said “Tito, it’s your birthday, I’ve come all the way from Paris, aren’t I invited?” So I wanted to send flowers to her hotel but at 8am she had already checked out. She came just for that.

The last time we met was at New York giving Juilliard School master classes [in 1971]. One evening we were tired but I said, “We’re going to dinner, would you care to join us?” She said yes, with great pleasure. We went to a lovely restaurant, we were with my daughter Cecilia. At the end we returned to the Plaza, she stopped me at the elevator. “I feel all alone here, I don’t even have my little dogs with me. I don’t want to go back to my room. Shall we go have a little ice cream?” So we went out for another half-hour.

She was alone, she was sad from time to time. She trusted us, she opened up to us. She had already ended her glorious career in opera. But there will always be something extraordinary about the name Maria Callas.

Also available with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi as part of the Callas Remastered Edition: Tosca, 1964.

Georges Prêtre

I believe it was a concert in Germany where something strange happened. Maria was singing, I conducted the orchestra, and then towards the middle I don’t know what happened; I was listening to Maria, I had stopped conducting [laughs], the orchestra stopped, because of me! And I had to start up again. I was no longer aware of being on the podium.

Maria always gave so much. There was always so much to draw from her. Her phrasing. The phrasing is so important. She wasn’t only singing; it was a real instrument, it was such incredible music. She was always the same. She always closed her eyes, always very serious at the first rehearsal, never refusing to redo a passage for her colleagues, for the orchestra. She was an artist in the deepest sense of the word.

I think that Maria, for all her goddess-like dramatic allure, was in the end like a child. The last time I saw her unfortunately was when she died; she was like a little girl. What troubles me the most is to talk about her in the past tense. It’s terrible. I still feel like I could telephone her in half an hour.

Herbert von Karajan

Maria Callas recorded Puccini's Madama Butterfly with Karajan at La Scala in 1955.

I believe she was born with the sense of the true prima donna. I believe it’s something that can’t be taught. I don’t know if it’s true, but in front of the public she was incredibly self-assured. And the enthusiasm she had; she truly believed in the artistry of singing. Her roots were in bel canto, something she represented so admirably, because it must also be said that she was admirably trained by the master of the style, Tullio Serafin. Lucia was the first time we worked together. I was working at La Scala a great deal at the time, but naturally for German repertoire. One day I said to [La Scala general manager] Ghiringhelli, I would like to do an Italian opera. I chose Lucia [in 1954] because it’s a bel canto masterpiece that had always left a strong impression on me. At the time people didn’t know the opera very well except in Italy. People said to us, ‘Why did he choose that?’

Something that really defined Callas’ personality was that she put enormous care into preparing; she arrived having already mastered everything. And then naturally we could work on the slightest accent or effect and she would take it on right away. It was unthinkable that she would arrive with the score like many other singers of the day. She was so sure of herself – no prompter, nothing – and that’s why I admired her so much and why our collaboration was so gratifying. She didn’t see very well, I don’t think she could really see the conductor, but she could turn her back on you and sing absolutely in the right tempo… It was the easiest thing to make music with her. I don’t know what she did with others but I never had a moment’s difficulty.

I saw her a lot in Greece afterwards, and naturally she had an enormous sense of nostalgia, she loved talking about the past. I proposed all kinds of projects and she would say she couldn’t do that anymore; I was ready to do anything and she didn’t want to. I regret that very deeply.

Montserrat Caballé

Maria was for me the ideal, and will always be the ideal. Maria isn’t dead for me, she is always alive, and will remain alive in my heart. It’s not admiration, it’s the love of Maria; it’s very different. The artist, I love, the artist I admire. The greatest pain for me is never having seen her on the stage, never.

One day she had said to my husband Bernabé, “You must take good care of her, and I pray that you will always be happy and together.” When we were in New York, she gave me only good advice; advice like a mother gives to her daughter or sister to sister. “Watch out for this passage, it’s difficult; pay attention to that phrase,” she said to me, “Even me” – she said it like that – “Even me, I couldn’t do it better.” It’s things like that I take that to heart, and will never forget; she will always be present in my mind. I once spoke to her for three hours on the telephone from London. During these three hours I learned more than in a year of studying. You see, it’s very difficult for me to speak about Maria Callas. I only want to speak of Maria. This simplicity to have helped me so much throughout ten years of my career, remaining in the shadows as she desired, alone… It’s the first time I’ve said it. And I believe that Maria wouldn’t be angry.

Carlo Maria Giulini

Maestro Giulini conducted the famous Visconti La Traviata at La Scala in 1955.

I worked only at La Scala with Maria – Traviata, Barber of Seville, Alceste. Traviata was something unforgettable, the absolutely ideal collaboration between Maria, Visconti and myself. If we speak of the unity of opera – the text, the action, the music – there we really got to that unity. Maria was really the melodrama. The staging Visconti had envisioned for the first act was truly magnificent. She moved around the stage as if she was in her own home. Her stage-presence was something you can only imagine in this lifetime.

Callas had a difficult artistic life; I always say that Callas had much more admiration than love. The public sentiment wasn’t always instinctively affection and love for her; in an opera when Callas was protagonist, there was always an atmosphere of battle, of tension. She knew that. There was always a sort of duel. The success of Callas was a sort of liberation of the public from this tension; she won them over with great, great artistic and psychological strength.

I think that the private life of Maria Callas is a great mystery. Who is Maria Callas? Not the artist Maria Callas, no, but the woman Maria Callas, the human being. I don’t know if in the morning Callas, alone, in front of the mirror, looked at the woman Maria Callas, or the artist Maria Callas. That is something very difficult to understand. I’m sure that she had a deep humanity, but I think that the absolute wish she had to arrive at success forced her to take a sort of Callas that existed in opposition to the human being. I don’t know who, really, really, knew this human being Maria Callas.

Giulini CallasGiulini (holding Callas' hand) with Ettore Bastianini (left) and Giuseppe di Stefano (right).