01 December 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Maria Callas – “fellow perfectionists”

When Walter Legge gave a demo tape to Karajan in 1953, he might have hoped that Karajan would listen to it and eventually contemplate to work with the 29-year-old singer who sang Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” on a new recording for EMI. The voice Karajan listened to was the one by Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulou and was designed to be the most famous female voice in classical music.

Maria Callas’ career only went over less than 15 years but it is was enough to create a modern myth. “The Callas” was a darling of the high society, a style icon and an incomparable diva on stage and in the studio. It is obvious that in the 1950s, some aspects of Karajan’s and her career were similar. The managing director of the Scala, Antonio Ghiringhelli, already had the intention to make Karajan not only the German but also the Italian repertoire when Karajan got the tape from Legge. Legge “needed what he found in many of his artists like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Herbert von Karajan, Boris Christoff, Tito Gobbi, Nicolai Gedda and Callas: ‘fellow perfectionists’. (Jürgen Kesting)” Karajan had met Callas the year before backstage after a “Rosenkavalier” performance in Milan. Now he made plans for a “Lucia” with her of his own – not for a studio recording, the set under Tullio Serafin was brand new – but for a stage production at the Scala.
Karajan was fascinated by Callas’ voice and her charismatic personality and in contrast to other German/Austrian conductors he didn’t think of “Lucia” as a “Werkelkastenoper (a hurdy-gurdy opera)”. He had witnessed Toscanini’s performances at the Vienna State Opera in 1930. Later in his life he told his biographer Ernst Haeusserman:

“When we heard that Toscanini wanted to conduct this in Vienna, I honestly asked myself after playing through the vocal score, ‘What can there be in this?’ And it is astonishing that this music, which in a routine repertoire performance […] can sound truly banal, was made to sound not at all banal. It was simply another type of music.”

Karajan’s own production was inspired by the Toscanini performance. He even went to Scotland to study the architecture and the light. The stage was minimalistic in its effects but therefore absolute in its concentration. The director Franco Zeffirelli who worked with Karajan some years later wrote about it: “[Karajan] didn’t even try to direct. He just arranged everything around [Callas]. She did the Mad Scene with a follow-spot like a ballerina against black. Nothing else. He let her be music, absolute music.” Callas wasn’t pleased in the beginning but Karajan won her trust through his musical authority. What was the result of his efforts? Richard Osborne wrote: “The opening night, 18 January 1954, was one of the most sensational Karajan had ever been involved in.”

The newspaper ‘La Notte’ wrote: “La Scala in delirium. A rain of red carnations. Four minutes of applause after the Mad Scene.” “Lucia di Lammermoor” remained the only opera that Karajan and Callas performed live – 7 times in Milan, twice in Berlin in September 1955 and 3 times in Vienna in June 1956. Callas’ biographer Jürgen Kesting wrote about the Scala performances:

“She was now the most famous opera diva in the world and her fame was based significantly on seven ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ performances under Herbert von Karajan.”

The Berlin performances caused similar enthusiasm and luckily were recorded in a technically satisfactory way, so the live recording of 29 September 1955 remains the recording of this opera up to this day. Kesting wrote: “Her singing is for ‘loving ears’. To say it personally: There is hardly another Callas performance the author listens to as emotionally. […] The Berlin ‘Lucia’ is one of the highlights in the career of this singer.” But it was a tremendous success for Karajan too. Some music journalists assume that the musical powers-that-be in Berlin and Vienna were impressed that Karajan was able to create such highlights and present them both cities. It was this, they claim, that influenced their decision to install him as chief of both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera.

Kesting wrote about Karajan’s special abilities as a “singer’s accompanist”: “It is not only Maria Callas who said that Karajan could ‘go with the voice’. This does not just mean clever accompaniment, nor just breathing with the singer, which in itself is very important, but much more a sense of timing, dynamics, and phrasing which amount to more than the listing of specific technical details. However banal this may sound, it is a matter of organising time through movements which tighten and then relax.” And indeed, Callas seemed to be very content with his way of conducting. After a “Lucia” with another conductor in April 1956, she wrote to Walter Legge:

“Unfortunately Karajan was not directing and I simply can’t hear the opera without him. Tell him I miss him and it is a shame we don’t work more together – don’t you think?”

Of course, when personalities like Karajan and Callas work together minor or indeed major conflicts are always on board. For example, at a “Lucia” performance.

Maria Callas was furious. The audience in the Scala had requested a “da capo” of the sextet in “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Karajan had given in. The sextet is very difficult for the soprano and it also comes before the demanding “mad scene”. Maria Callas was so furious that she decided to sing the entire “mad scene” with her back turned. Years later in a restaurant in Paris, Callas asked Karajan: “Tell me, how did you manage the performance when I was so mean to you? Your accompaniment was perfect, so I thought you’re not only a genius but a wizard.” “That was easy”, Karajan replied, “I was just watching your shoulders. When I saw them lift I knew you were taking a breath.”

Before performing “Lucia” in Berlin, Karajan and Callas went to the studio for the first time and recorded Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” with Nicolai Gedda. Callas hadn’t performed the role in the theatre and Karajan’s encounter with the opera was 24 years back, in his Ulm years but “between them, they created something utterly special. (Osborne)” And Kesting: “On the day of the recording, she was obviously not in top form. […] But then she develops, in her voice, the drama of Butterfly, starting with the inflamed innocence of the love duet then the drama of esperance and at last the pale chords of the final scene.” Karajan’s first recording of Puccini’s opera classic remains a constant top-seller.

“His response to Callas’ view of the role seems to have been one of absolute agreement, intuitively recognised. […] The result of all this is a great gathering of the inner musical content in the context of a reading which is as radical and simple-seeming as the score itself. (Osborne)”

Having performed the triumphant “Lucia di Lammermoor” series 1954 – 1956 and recorded “Madama Butterfly” in 1955, Karajan and Callas joined up for the last time in the studio to record one of Karajan’s all-time favourites, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. According to an old joke about Verdi’s “Trovatore”, the opera is very easy to produce. You simply need the three best singers in the world. Karajan in his 1956 studio recording with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Maria Callas and Rolando Panerai gets quite close to it. Jürgen Kesting: “The EMI recording under Herbert von Karajan – made in August 1956 – was her last engagement with this part and her most comprehensive and subtle interpretation.” John Steane wrote in his 1987 EMI booklet: “Their work together in the recording studios produced the Madama Butterfly of 1954 and this Trovatore made in August 1956, both of them classics of the gramophone, with the great singer at the height of her form.” And Robert Layton in Gramophone: “Whatever you do, don’t miss this set.”

And that was it. Karajan and Callas met several times at “society events” or to make plans for new collaborations but they never managed to agree on any live performances or studio recordings could be fixed. Karajan/Callas had always been a couple classical music lovers were very keen on. So what were the projects that unfortunately never materialised? After their first “Lucia” performances in 1954, Walter Legge suggested a “Pagliacci” recording with Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano, but a shoulder condition forced Karajan to back down. Tullio Serafin stepped in. A more “public” affair was the “Traviata” in Vienna in 1957. At the time, Karajan was head of the Vienna State Opera. Obviously, Callas’ engagement failed because of the fee she (or her husband Meneghini) asked for. Karajan produced it with Virgina Zeani instead of Callas and had to live with the resultant failure. Three years later, Legge made plans for a studio recording of “La Traviata” with Giuseppe Taddei and Alfredo Kraus. This time it wasn’t Karajan’s or Callas’ fault that the recording never got off the ground. Alfredo Kraus’ demands where so complicated and actively odd that the project fell through. In 1966, Karajan and Eliette visited Maria Callas on Aristoteles Onassis’ legendary yacht “Christina”. This time the plans were for an opera film. Karajan made another attempt to produce a “Traviata” (with Zeffirelli as director) or a “Tosca”. Both projects fell apart. On the subject of “Tosca”, Karajan told his biographer Richard Osborne: “She was afraid. She had left the thing and felt out of it.”  A year later, Karajan thought about a “Trovatore” film with Callas, which wasn’t realized either (it was replaced by “Carmen”).

“Callas and Karajan were the two people who frightened me most and the two, unfortunately, I most respected.”

Rudolf Bing, manager of the Metropolitan Opera New York

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Maria Callas. Listen to them here.

Jürgen Kesting: “Maria Callas” Econ Verlag, Düsseldorf und München. 1990

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

Peter Uehling: “Karajan. Eine Biographie” Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg. 2006

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