Sunday, September 8, 2019

Maria Callas, In Person

Ms. Callas performance of Vissi d'arte at Covent Garden in 1964,
Vissi d'arte English and Italian lyrics.
Program from last night's concert.
Two photos from the event.

Ever since I began my interest in Opera (the first one Gregory and I ever saw was Prokofiev's "The Gambler" in 1991) I had wanted to see Maria Callas sing. Unfortunately, she died at age 53 in 1977. 

My career in the opera, as a supernumerary - an acting extra, began with Levy's "Mourning Becomes Electra" in 1998. During a 13 year period, I was part of 20 operas including, among others: Carmen, Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, Dialogue of the Carmelites, View from the Bridge (world premiere,) Meistersinger,  Attila, and Turandot.

I won't go on too much about being a supernumerary only to say that even though a relatively small part of an opera, it is an important part which rounds out the action and story and the "super" is considered a respected part of the opera company.

It includes having your own makeup and wig artists, costumers, dressers and a picture ID around your neck during rehearsals. You are paid (currently) $15.00 per rehearsal and per performance which for a full production adds up in the $300.00 range, not enough to live on but enough to pay for transportation and/or dinner while at the opera house.

You get to be on stage without having had to spend your life pursuing acting gigs, attend backstage and end of season parties, have photograph opportunities with the principal stars, mingle with important "greats" from around the world, be in the midst of some of the world's most glorious music, and witness special occasions like the 1,000th performance of a singer, singing happy birthday on stage with the chorus and 2,500 audience members for someone important's birthday, or applauding the retirement of the opera's artistic director after 25 years. 

So being in the audience last night, to experience a concert performance of Ms. Maria Callas was an amazing, once in a lifetime (so to speak) event. Through cutting-edge technology and extraordinary theatrical stagecraft created by Base Hologram, the fist of its kind live concert brought the incomparable Maria Callas back 42 years following her death, through state of the art digital and laser projections for a live full concert experience featuring original recordings digitally remastered. 

The marvels of computer technology enabled Ms. Callas' performance to be seen in holographic, life-like 3-D while stripping the orchestra music out of the formula thus allowing a live, onstage orchestra to perform along with her in what provided a seamless experience for the audience. While opera singers usually are not amplified this recorded music paired with live music also was seamless. One can only imagine how it felt to the orchestra performing for the deceased Ms. Calles.

The 40 person orchestra was arranged stage left and stage right with an opening down the center. They were gently lit behind a scrim so as to be seen but not too bright to distract from the holographic projection. The stage was otherwise "black" with an abstract pattern at the back which at times was red and at times was blue.

The conductor stood on her riser just a bit upstage left. They played a Rossini overture. After what seemed like a long pause, with the conductor waiting and checking out stage right, she gestured as Ms. Callas, wearing a beautifully flowing, buttercup yellow gown entered to riotous applause. One could hear her high heels moving across the stage to where she stood downstage center and "composed" herself, in her usual diva fashion for what seemed like several minutes, looked at the conductor, nodded, and began an aria from Romeo and Juliet.

If you didn't know, you might think Maria Callas was there on stage. The audience behaved, if only out of respect, as if she was there with us. Maybe we wanted to believe, if only for an hour, that she was performing for us. The audience laughed at a few of Ms. Calles gestures like when she realized she forgot to acknowledge the First Chair Violin and faced him in an apologetic stance and blew him a kiss. 

At one point, the music for the next piece began and Ms. Callas gestured to the conductor to STOP, which the conductor did, Ms. Calles took another few moments to compose herself the piece, and then nodded the conductor, "BEGIN!"  This brought another respectful reaction from the audience.

After every two or three pieces, the concert, Ms. Calles exited briefly and once returned once with a red scarf/shawl for her "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen. Her heels scraping across the floorboards of the stage added a bit to her exits and entrances.

Ms. Callas performance was well executed. Her body language presentation was perfection, her pauses studied and tense, her bows sincere yet "diva-eske." To my non-professional ear, her voice was in fine fettle: powerful, clear, and at its peak. 

When she gestured to the conductor after a piece you could tell she respected and appreciated the conductor's work. After a final exit, she returned for an encore, an appropriate fitting reflection of Maria Callas' career as she performed Puccini's "Vissi d' Arte." 

At the end of this piece, Ms. Callas and the conductor executed what looked like a perfect handshake of appreciation.

In the silence, one heard an amazed audience give an audible 2,500 person gasp! 

The concert ended to thunderous applause as Maria Callas's image slowly faded out of sign just a few moments ahead of the orchestra's fading to black and the house lights coming up to full. What a fitting ending for this mystical, magical experience.

While I hope you get a feeling for the experience, I know that I am unable to do justice to the real high of the experience. I went in feeling, "This is kind of creepy!" and came out a believer. Maria Callas' spirit had to have been in the house last evening! 

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) [ Tosca ] Act 2, Tosca's aria... "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" Covent Garden, 1964.

English Translation of "Vissi d'Arte"

I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

"Vissi d'Arte" Italian Lyrics 

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.
Sempre con fè sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fè sincera
diedi fiori agl’altar.
Nell’ora del dolore
perchè, perchè, Signore,
perchè me ne rimuneri così?
Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?

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