Oh the pain! Oh the agony!

Why was Maria Callas a prima donna (and what’s a prima donna)?

O Dio! Vorrei morir!

(Puccini, Gianni Schicchi)

Prima donna?

Seriously. That is so 20th century. Today there are no first ladies of opera (except in the so-called developing countries, such as mine). Either a singer is top class, and opera companies chase her with contracts, or she is not top class and she has to try even harder to make her way through thousands of great performers. But even the most sought-after singers are not divas, nor are considered divine in any way.

Maria Callas by Karuvits

If she weren’t a diva, would she look like this?

By Oleg Karuvits (http://www.karuvits.nl/Maria_Callas.htm), via Wikimedia Commons

 

No matter the anachronism, the terms “prima donna” and “prima donna assoluta” have been historically associated with Maria Callas.

Why do we talk about her right now? Because she died on September 16, 39 years ago. And she definitely deserves to be the subject of many an article anyway.

Because opera is unpleasant, and she sang opera

The first time I heard her voice was when I was 10 or so. I jumped into the middle of an aria that had been playing on the radio. I had no idea who was the singer. Listening to her for only a couple of minutes was quite a distressing experience for me. I didn’t know a thing about opera at the time, but that voice haunted me through the night. And not in a good way, I have to admit.

Our next encounter happened 5 or 6 years later. During that period I was introducing myself to opera. Naturally, I wanted to hear the most famous name. With the very first notes, I realized the voice sounded strangely familiar, and I tried my utmost not to turn it off. That aria was supposed to represent a lovely little song by a girl who begs her father to let her marry, for God’s sake!

What I actually heard was a naughty little monster pretending to be a sweet girl.

Exactly that was the reason why I remembered having heard her before. It was one of those few voices one can never forget (even if they wanted to). Her singing was all but beautiful. That voice could never be a voice of an angel or any other boring virtuous creature. She was a true opera witch. And witches are exciting. All it takes to fall in love with them is a little time and (im)patience to get to know the depths of their witchcraft. In Maria Callas’ case, it definitely takes more than one aria. So, back to my story, I picked one more aria. Followed by yet another.

Because she was unpleasant, and opera is (still) about her

Mind you: Maria Callas is probably the most controversial opera star who ever lived. Opera and controversy – could you imagine a juicier symbiosis? Wait, what is that sweetish smell of the diva’s perfume… Yay, it’s our loving brand Gossip.

Maria Callas 1958

Callas in 1958 CBS talk show “Small World” (Wikimedia Commons)

 

It’s hard to stay out of controversy when a singer loses 80 pounds in less than a year in order to improve their dramatic expressivity on stage. (It seems Callas was well aware of a common conception that opera singers are fat.) It’s even harder when they are fond of hookups with extravagant, yachts-loving, tone deaf zillionaires. One thing is for sure: not everyone could be dumped for Jackie Kennedy. Audiences got so obsessed with Callas that they even developed a habit of throwing vegetables at her, according to Terrence McNally.

And when this passionate, dark Little Mermaid lost her voice early (either because of the weight-loss, or because she didn’t build her repertoire wisely, or whatever the reason) and died in solitude, which many could deem quite romantic, there it was – a perfect recipe for a delicious meal to be devoured by the masses. Hard work, professionalism and meticulousness were also her thing, but they don’t make the news.

She was a diva in her time because there is something very operatic in a sublime talent that gets tarnished by different sorts of miseries. But she stayed a diva to this day – because history will remember her as the first 20th-century singer who showed that the dramatic aspects of opera had to be resuscitated in order for opera to survive. She acted the drama (which we are still able to see in the 2nd act of Covent Garden’s “Tosca”), but she also sang the drama. Which is a legacy every opera singer of our time has to live up to.

The diva doth scream too much, methinks

(Scarpia) Soccorso, aiuto! (Help, help!)

(Tosca) Ti soffoca il sangue? Muori dannato! Muori, muori, muori!!! (Is your blood choking you? Die accursed! Die, die, die!!!)

Giacomo Puccini, “Tosca”, 2nd act

There’s got to be more to opera than just sighing, crying and dying.

There’s also screaming. A part which I really, really like. One of the practical reasons is neighbors’ noise which eventually leads to retaliation. If neighbors in some lower-class district bother you as they bother me, with their quarrels and babies crying, turn the volume up and give ’em this.

Another reason why I enjoy the screaming is that it’s usually the only part of opera that I can perform convincingly, in the shower or anywhere else.

There’s a man in Amsterdam who also likes to do it. Can you imagine his surprise when the police broke into his apartment to check on domestic violence? They had received a report from a worried neighbor. It happened this year in January.

Enough with the neighborhood issues. (Although I suppose all of us would be satisfied if everyone loved opera. Police officers too. Let’s sensitize, people!)

Did they always scream?

cat

For centuries opera has been associated with agitated divas and earsplitting sounds they make. Here is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to say about it, back in the 18th century:

What you could not possibly imagine are the frightful cries, the long-drawn-out groans which fill the theatre throughout the performance… One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently extracting this screeching from their lungs, their fists clenched against their breasts, their heads held back, their faces inflamed, their blood vessels swoolen, their stomachs quivering… The most difficult thing to understand is that these screeches are almost the only things the spectators applaud.

The thing is, he was an opera composer himself. In this fragment, he was campaigning against the contemporary fad of tragic operas and their abundance of artificiality. Hundreds and thousands of those operas were to be seen in that age, defining – and reflecting – the taste of the establishment. They were sponsored by the court and attended mostly by wealthy aristocrats. (In fact, Rousseau’s only opera, “The Village Soothsayer”, was itself very popular – and appreciated and loved by king Louis XV. Which apparently troubled the great philosopher, who refused an honorary life pension offered by the king himself.) So this unflattering impression came from a critic of opera who, as so many critics of opera, worshipped it. He was just being somewhat malicious for the occasion. And wanted the best for his darling, as we all do.

 

They scream because we want them to

There was once a perfect reader (alongside Don Quixote), the one with a twisted, self-centered imagination, who wanted everything to be about her. It was Flaubert’s (anti-)heroine, Madame Emma Bovary. Let’s see how she professed her literary taste.

I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in nature.

Isn’t she a perfect opera spectator as well? Living a little, ordinary life, but craving thrill that escapes her, lusting after splendor which is all but decent and true-to-life. Searching for stories that are utterly useless, but they are dramatic and beautiful because she doesn’t live them every day.

Opera has always dealt with topics of love, hate, sex, jealousy, power, murder, treachery, magic, witchcraft, curses, maledictions and other mundane matters. And it has an aspiration for overdoing it, both in terms of plot and expression. Even the most simple, down-to-earth stories (and opera likes to use them as well) tend to become unnatural when sung. Especially when you sing while dying. Or sing “I’m dying” while dying.

However, it has never pretended to be realistic. The psychological base of art is the depiction of human experiences just for the sake of us getting to see/hear the heroes suffer and rejoice in our stead. We’ve suffered long enough, after all. But we’ve never rejoiced enough. Art is there to make the balance. Through reception, it converts suffering to delight. That’s what the ancient Greeks called catharsis. And I bet you can feel it in opera more than in any other art.

Let the divas scream, then. When the performance is over, I want to scream too.

 

Why sigh and cry? (when there’s opera)

Ahimè, everyone!

This is yet another attempt of mine to blog about opera. The first try was in my native don’t click if you can’t read Serbian language. Not exactly user-friendly, so not enough audience, of course. (I’ll address this issue in one of my future posts.) Accordingly, I got lazy. And now, a few years later, here I am, to sigh together with all my fellow souls that opera makes suffer (and that make opera suffer, obviously).

Those of you who still aren’t acquainted with opera will discover that it truly IS mostly about sighing, crying and dying. Dying a lot, and dying loooooong, singing out many wishes and requests. Many opera newbies nag about that: how can someone sing while dying? All I want to say is: I would like more than anything to be able to sing on my deathbed/deathstreet/deathdesert/deathwhatever. It would make such a glorious retribution to the fate. It would be an aestheticized irony, bringing tears to the spectators’ eyes (of course there would HAVE to be spectators) and catharsis to their souls.  But I am not a diva. All I’ve left to do is to sigh together with the opera.

Yep, she is dying alright… From consumption.

But why so bombastic?

Brace yourselves: sonorous pathetics, pomp, all the trashy extravagance, that’s exactly (among many other things) why many of us adore opera. It isn’t just another guilty pleasure. Remember the Olympic games opening ceremony that you watched a couple of weeks ago? Colorful lights and costumes, loud music and fanfare… It didn’t bother you at all? Well, that’s good news. Btw, if you’re old enough, you may have watched the same thing in 1992, which was opened by an opera-loving rock star and a rock-loving opera star. Barcelona was resonating with joy. And it came nowhere near an opera – it was just a popular glamour, completely devoid of tragedy.

“It’s way too loud and noisy, all that yelling, screaming and endless lamenting over loss, violent murder death of beloved, tales of forbidden love. Opera is so cliché, unrealistic and unfit for the 21st century mindset.” Those are few of the most common anti-opera arguments you’ll hear these days.

And – they’re right! But isn’t it a megacool global hipster fad to devour anachronical stuff that most people wouldn’t think of seeing (let alone paying for)?

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All opera ents unite!

 

Yes, us opera-fans are entirely bewitched by sighs, cries and glory. And most of us are not members of any social elite (deep sigh) – so we don’t have to pretend or fake anything. It’s so simple: some folks enjoy Greek tragedy, some enjoy low-budget Latin telenovelas or Turkish pseudo-historic TV series, some just love to see a good old Hollywood spectacle. Some of us (Balkanians especially) even like to dive into grotesque sounds of turbo-folk music or poorly directed plots of reality shows. That’s because we are all tired of life’s mediocrity. Mind this: opera provides a glorious answer to our boredom. In its essence, it is an excess of art which depicts the excess of life.

You can as well throw off your tuxes and evening gowns. There was no need to iron them so thoroughly. This is the internet era, after all. You can encounter opera online.