Thursday, April 12, 2012
I heard Maria Callas in Boston, February 27, 1974
I was seventeen when I heard Maria Callas in Boston's Symphony Hall, on February 27, 1974. She appeared on the American 'leg' of a world concert tour she undertook with tenor Giuseppe DiStefano and pianist Robert Sutherland.
Callas had not sung in public for eight years when the tour began, in Germany, in the fall of 1973. She remained a potent figure in opera. Her on again off again liaison with Aristotle Onassis, begun in 1959, was fodder to the press before and after that gentleman's marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Early reports of the European concerts weren't promising. Callas and DiStefano had each been in
glorious voice twenty years earlier. They sang and recorded together in Chicago, Milan, Rome, Mexico City and throughout Europe. Di Stefano was a very handsome man with an open, thrilling voice-and no discipline. Callas was highly disciplined with a voice that began to slip away early. Nerves? Weight loss? Burn out? I don't think we'll ever know. By 1965 she was acting up a storm and singing carefully (and rarely), DiStefano continued to appear, but the tone and ring of his voice were gone.
What did people expect in 1973? It must have been daunting, having to compete only with your younger self. By the time the duo came to the States, there had been months of rows, cancellations, aborted performances and cheers, cheers, cheers. The first Carnegie Hall concert was cancelled at the last minute. The crowd had jammed into the Carnegie lobby and spilled out onto 57th St.
Then came Boston.
Tickets went on sale just after Christmas. I cut school that day and took the Mass. Ave bus to Symphony Hall to be there when the box office opened at 9 a.m. I got there around 8.30. There were no mobs of eager ticket buyers. People stood outside for four days to get standing room for Callas' last Tosca at the Met in 1965. Not any more. I was probably tenth in line and I was on my way before 10 a.m. (Did I go back to school? Are you kidding?)
The top ticket price was $25.00. You won't believe it today but in 1974 that was unheard of. The best seats in Lincoln Center were $17.50. NOBODY paid $25.00 for a Boston Symphony concert, great as they were. (If you got $5 for cutting a neighbor's lawn, you were rich.)
The weeks went by with my tickets burring into my bureau. (I got a week's detention for cutting school and spent it reading George Jellinek's biography of Callas. Maria never became my friend but many years later George Jellinek did) The press said DiStefano was screaming or crooning like a pig and that Callas was terrified, unsure and had no voice.
On February 27 I got to Symphony Hall early. I told the lady next to me I had been sick to my stomach from nerves all week. She had too! And people around us were nodding in agreement! Callas was nervous and her audience was petrified in anticipation.
The announcement came that while Callas was in the Hall and would perform, DiStefano was not and would not. No one cared. ("Callas said later, 'he abandoned me in Kennedy country')
A Greek pianist called Vasso Devitzi would play some Chopin and Schumann between Maria's arias. Then the lights went down and she came out.
Okay its not Boston but you get the idea.
She began to speak to the audience, apologizing for being nervous. "I hope everything will go well." She said, 'Can you hear me?'
NO! People yelled back, but applause and shouts of encouragement went out again and again. She had a large, radiant smile that lit up her eyes. "You are a marvelous audience. Thank you."
She began with 'Suicidio' from La Gioconda, the opera of her first break in 1947. After the first four notes there was a buzz in the Hall. All of the color was there. The timbre was there. What had made Callas was still Callas. The aria had been transposed down but in this piece it didn't matter. She growled, she cried, she sang and the excitement was incredible.
She gave us 'Vissi d'arte'. Not so good. 'Voi lo sapete". Better. It became apparent that Callas had retained low notes and even some above the staff. But from I'd day the G above middle C to the D above-the fifth-there as no voice at all. The voice had separated and the middle was gone. Exactly where most of the repertoire lies.
She sang 'Tu che le vanita' from Don Carlo. She held the words on note cards. The print was so large you could read it from the cheap seats.
The final encore was O mio babbino caro
(Okay, that wasn't Boston either)
The applause longer than the concert. One man stood on his seat and yelled 'Noi t'amo!'
(We love you). She thought he had said 'Puritani' and she said, "Not this year. Next year."
I was seventeen. I didn't know you shouldn't bother the artists. I was with some friends from NEC, and we went to the stage door. It was mobbed. Cops were pushing people away. We went for pizza on Huntington Avenue, reasoning that eventually the crowds would leave and then Callas would come out.
The pizza was good. And we were right. Post-pizza, Gainsborough St. was quiet but the stage door was still open. We went up the stairs and there in front of us was Maria Callas. Thee were maids, poodles, agents and Vasso Devitizi. but there was Callas, reaching for her coat. We were kids and pushed our way in. "Hello!" she said. "Hello-we loved your concert and yadda yadda yadda". Up close she looked drained and pale, but we got a tired smile, autographs and 'God bless you.' What would you say to Maria callas? All of us were trying not to wet our pants.
And then we left and she left and went on to tour the States and Japan. DiStefano was here today not here tomorrow.
The last concert was in Sapporo in late 1974.
Then Onassis died. Callas withdrew.
Richard Dyer put it best in his respectful and honest review of the Boston concert. "She asked us for something she had never needed before. Our love."
She got it.
Maria Callas died in Paris in September 16, 1977.
I thought with gratitude of the great night she gave three years earlier.
I still think of it, gratefully and sadly, nearly forty years later.
PS. In fairness, here is Maria Callas in her prime: