The Man Behind Warner’s Remastered Classics

OperaMetro had the esteemed privilege to chat with Alain Lanceron, President of Warner Classics and Erato. He was then the force behind the remastering of the complete Studio Recordings of Maria Callas in winter, 2014, and now, launched the day before the 40th anniversary of her passing (September 16, 1977), he and Warner are treating us to the set of remastered live performances, some of them top-shelf legendary in the first post-war decade and a half: 20 complete operas, 12 roles she never recorded in the studio, plus five Blu ray films of Callas on stage in concert and two versions of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca.

  Maria Callas

Maria Callas

Monsieur Lanceron’s formal professional bio is as follows: he currently serves as President of Warner Classics and Erato at Warner Music Group. Mr. Lanceron leads Warner Classics' creative direction as well as oversees A&R, brand-related projects and global catalogue development. He spearheads Warner Music Group's global classics operations, strengthened following the acquisition of Parlophone Label Group (PLG) which included the renowned EMI Classics and Virgin Classics labels. He also directs local French catalogue development. Mr. Lanceron joined WMG following the PLG acquisition, having previously served as President of Virgin Classics and Director of EMI Classics France.

I’d like to say we were chatting over an appetizer of escargot before our main course of frog’s legs with a split of champagne at Chez Andre, Rue Marboeuf off of George V in Paris, but hélas, I’m in the USA tickling away at the keys of my laptop on a damp Monday morning while he answers my questions via a landline from the magnificent City of Lights in the afternoon. C’est la vie!

OM: Bonne après-midi, mon ami!

AL: Bonjour!

OM: Cutting to the chase so soon, tell me first, s’il vous plaît, about your personal experience with Maria Callas, her voice, her art. You’re a fan, of course.

AL: Mais oui! My first encounter with Maria Callas was through the Cetra recording of La traviata that my father bought when I was a kid, and which came as a revolution at the time interpretation-wise: all the notes were there, and it all seemed disconcertingly easy for her. But there was also what really made La Callas, her theatrical probing into the music and her way of making the notes say so much more than what the other singers did.

I then listened to her first recital, also on Cetra, with in particular the LoveDeath of Isolde in Italian and this incredible I Puritani aria, then, little by little, I discovered with amazement her first EMI recordings. Maria Callas recorded for EMI over a relatively short period of time, mostly between 1953 and 1960, at a rate that we could not dream of today: some year she recorded up to 4 complete operas! After this, in the 1960s, she greatly reduced her recording activities.

OM: Yes, I, too, had many of them, though most of them, particularly the older monaural ones, were difficult to find in the USA in stores outside of the major cities. The Angel and Seraphim labels here were our first introductions to Maria Callas, except, perhaps, for those lucky enough (or old enough) to have seen her in the 1950s at the Met, in Chicago, or in Dallas. For me they were the albums of Lucia, La Gioconda, not Cetra but the later one in stereo, La Forza del Destino, fabulous recording, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, also highlights of Norma. When it was announced that she would be appearing at the Met in Tosca in the spring of 1965, I purchased her newly released stereo recording with Bergonzi and Gobbi. Were you fortunate enough to see Callas perform live on stage?

AL: I heard her sing only once on stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1974. That was part of the recital tour she gave with Giuseppe di Stefano. Her voice was already damaged but the artistry remained. She had an incredible triumph that night. You have to remember that the last time she’d performed on stage was July 1965 and her fans had hoped for a possible comeback on stage that had been postponed again and again. There had been talks of a possible Traviata with Giulini, of a Werther, and others, but none of these projects came to fruition. This farewell tour, 9 years after retiring from the stage, was therefore the ultimate gift she gave her fans. However, Maria Callas was still very present on other fronts: as a film star in Pasolini's Medea, as a teacher with the masterclasses she gave at the Juilliard School, as the stage director of the Vespri Siciliani she directed in Turin. She was also often seen on television talking about her past career. I remember in particular a program on the French program L’Invité du Dimanche, for which she was reunited with famous people from her past such as Visconti.

OM: From these, and from her recordings, the videos and the books, we actually know a lot more about her than we do about most other opera singers from that, or, for that matter, from any other time period.

AL: Actually, we have very few videos of her, no complete operas on film – which seems incredible to us today at a time when any young singer has at least 20 entries on their YouTube channel. Her videography is limited to two versions of Tosca Act II and her recitals in Paris, Hamburg and London. But this scandalous lack of stage footage also has a silver lining: with just her recordings and numerous photos, the younger generation discovering Maria Callas today can imagine their own Callas, beyond the dresses, make-up and jewelry, which, though iconic, can seem quite outdated today. This is the reason why Callas remains so modern.

OM: Tell me, s’il vous plaît, about the newly remastered set of live recordings, La Callas on stage. 

AL: Maria Callas Live is, so to speak, the other side of the mirror of the remastered studio recordings box set, which we issued in 2014. We felt it was a necessary complement to her art with this wide range of performances, and above all the wide range of repertory: 12 out of the 20 complete operas contained in this box were never recorded by Callas in studio. It is therefore an essential document if you want to have the best insight into the art of Maria Callas with, as we did for the first box-set, a radically improved sound. As an example, can you imagine this: several parts of some of these previously published recordings were not even in the right pitch! We have of course corrected all these defects for this box set. And of the eight operas which have studio duplicates, it’s so fascinating to compare her performances of the opera on one single evening, compared to one recorded over many sessions. These are Norma, La Sonnambula, Lucia, Aïda, Rigoletto, Tosca, Medea and La traviata.

  The remastered Maria Callas Live

The remastered Maria Callas Live

OM: I imagine it was quite the dilemma of what to do when two of her live performances are highly respected, praised, but different and unique in their own ways. There are several live recorded performances Callas in Norma floating around.

AL: Yes, and it is equally true for operas that she did not record in studio. For many operas associated with her name, she only sang 1 or 2 seasons, but for the operas that she sang and recorded more frequently, we have a difficult choice to make.

OM: I noticed the famous Lisbon Traviata from 1958 is in the box of remastered live recordings, but, I’d argue, the equally excellent, some would say the “ground breaking” La Scala Traviata from 1955 certainly should have been a contender for the box. The La Scala Traviata is sublime, as if all singers are on the same page. However, I also remember when the lost Lisbon Traviata was, like, the searched-for Holy Grail of Callas recordings.

AL: Yes, what a dilemma! Should we include the Lisbon Traviata or the legendary one in Milan with Giulini? We finally chose Lisbon because of the quality of the sound.

OM: My dear wife bought for me the Lisbon Traviata for Christmas when it was first released on LPs.

  Callas at La Scala as Anna Bolena, April 14, 1957

Callas at La Scala as Anna Bolena, April 14, 1957

AL: But then, should we add another Lucia when she already recorded it twice in the studio? We thought that we should, given the historical side of this great event in Berlin with Karajan. Was it necessary to add a third Tosca when we already have two studio recordings? We voted for the Covent Garden one of 1964 in order to show her vocal evolution, since in this box the earliest recording is her 1949 Nabucco. This allowed us to cover a period of 15 years until her virtual withdrawal from the stage.

OM: This Covent Garden Tosca was a little over a year before I saw Callas at the Met in March of 1965 with Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi. Thankfully the second act of that ’64 Covent Garden Tosca is preserved on video. For a long time the VHS of this was a treasure in the underground! Some of the live recordings mentioned above had been released by EMI in the ‘90s, but some are completely new, n’est-ce pas?

AL: Mais oui! It is the case for Alceste, Armida, Vestale, Vespri, NabuccoRigoletto and Parsifal. And these, yes, all have been remastered as well. We should remember that, as a young singer, Maria Callas sang Wagner: Isotta, Kundry, Brünnhilde. These roles, like Gioconda and Turandot, fit her voice perfectly. With this Warner remastered set one gets the fabled complete Parsifal, not just Act II from 1950, in Italian, of course! She is a wonderfully dramatic Kundry and the Gurnemanz is Boris Christoff, the great Bulgarian basso. You know, although Maria Callas is remembered for reviving the interest in the bel canto repertory (Puritani, Norma, Sonnambula), she traversed an enormous range of roles in the dramatic soprano repertory. In addition to the Wagner roles she sang Abigaille in Nabucco, Lady Macbeth, Anna Bolena, Cherubini’s Medea, Gluck’s Ifigenie…These were recordings which, we felt, would present the full range of her vocal artistry for posterity.

OM: Over here in the United States, for many years her live recordings were the only access we had to these operas. I mean, except from tapes of her performance at La Scala in 1952, who knew of Verdi’s Macbeth, save a random aria here and there?

AL: They were not easily available back then in Europe either.

OM: But now they are.

AL: Oui! And, thanks to our new box, in the best possible sound quality. In addition to the new repertory we have with the live recordings, we also get a better understanding of the transformation Tulio Serafin brought about for her voice. It was Serafin who, based on her performances of Gioconda, urged her to sing Isolde with him in 1947 and again in May of 1948. In January of 1949, again under Serafin, Callas was singing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre in Italian at La Fenice in Venice when Margherita Carosia’s sudden cancellation left Serafin without an Elvira for Bellini’s I Puritani ten days before its premiere. He approached Callas to learn and sing the role of Elvira, a role which she premiered at La Fenice just eleven days after her first Brünnhilde there! Just as he sensed Callas would shine as Isolde, so, too, did he sense she would master bel canto. Serafin, mon Dieu, he was a genius! He helped her transform her voice; he literally ushered in the beginning of a new career for her. He could do this because he heard the potential in her voice. Each opera takes a singer in different emotional directions, a different tessitura, different placements of the voice, and so on. He sensed Callas could master this.

OM: And these 1949 performances led to those very first recordings on Cetra, on 78s originally. And, as fitting, Serafin would conduct her studio recordings of Puritani and Norma, among many others. But transformations notwithstanding, her voice is always ‘Callas,’ never like that of anyone else.

AL: Yes, of course it is her voice, but also her expression, her understanding of the character she portrayed. That, too, is Callas! She sought the meaning and emotion of every word, every phrase she sang, every pause between the phrases, the emotion behind the notes, the meaning underneath the layers of the orchestra. Yes, Callas is an artist in the history of opera, but in these recordings I feel she is also very modern, in that today’s singers can learn a lot from listening to her, watching her. Not that they should copy her, no, but they can discover what is possible in the process of learning and mastering a role. I feel that many singers today are content with producing a pleasing tone, but not willing to open their soul, to dig into the character. And consequently, they are not always the models for the next generation. Callas, on the other hand, is very modern as a role model.

OM: Time to get down here: of the live performances in the set of remastered recordings, please tell me you favorite one. 

AL: Impossible!

OM: Be brave, mon ami.

AL: Eh bien, Lucia di Lammermoor from Berlin with Giuseppe di Stefano, Rolando Panerai, and Herbert von Karajan in 1955.

OM: Of course! The Berlin Lucia has long been a favorite of mine since the very first day I heard it. There is such a looming, sort of hanging fatality to it, dark and misty like Scotland itself. There is sadness in her voice. This Lucia came to me even later, well into my adult life, long after I’d heard her earlier studio version.

AL: It is a favorite of mine. Toujours!

  Maria Callas as Maddalena in  Andrea Chenier , La Scala, 8 January, 1955

Maria Callas as Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, La Scala, 8 January, 1955

OM: In preparation for this interview, I listened to the remastered Andrea Chenier from La Scala in 1955. Interesting that Mario Del Monaco at the last minute wanted Chenier substituted for Il trovatore, thus giving him more prominence on stage, but, in effect, forcing Callas to learn the role of Maddalena in a short time. I bring this up because what’s equally interesting is that both Del Monaco in Chenier and di Stefano in the ’55 Berlin Lucia (and Rolando Panerai, too, for that matter) noticeably ramp up their contributions so as not be overshadowed by the intensity of character Callas brings to a role. Certainly makes for a wild night at the opera! As an aside, I think Callas’s live Anna Bolena at La Scala April 14, 1957, is superb from start to finish. One is aware as much from the aural ambience that it’s a great performance. Must have been electric in La Scala that night!

AL: Yes, that too is merveilleux.

OM: Judging by newly recorded CD releases, the audio world, certainly the younger generations, seems to be moving away from amassing a CD/DVD collection, shelves full of discs, in favor of various streaming options. Do you have plans to make the complete remastered sets, both studio and live on stage performances, available for streaming? Might there be a Sirius XM Radio station for Maria Callas, just as there is a station for the Metropolitan Opera, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles?

AL: We are working on developing a website dedicated to Maria Callas (www.maria-callas.com), which should be ready soon. And, as to great singers in the Warner catalogue, Maria Callas is of course not the only artist of the past for whom we prepare boxes with remastered recordings. We have already done the same for Mstislav Rostropovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Herbert von Karajan, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. We will continue to do so because the role and aim of a record label such as ours is, of course, to discover new talents but also to act as the guardians of the past and to make artists of the past known to future generations. Without question Callas holds in the discography a very important place that no other artist of our labels, or of competing labels, can hope to achieve. In this she remains very much an artist of today and will be an artist of tomorrow.

OM: Merci, mon ami, for talking with me this morning!

AL: Merci pour cette après-midi!

OM: Readers interested in the 2014 postings for Maria Callas, please access my piece on Maria Callas at the Met in 1965: http://www.operametro.com/remembrances posted along with a piece honoring the great Jon Vickers, and the piece on Callas Studio Recordings Remastered at http://www.operametro.com/historical-recordings posted along with other historic recordings. The home page of the site has a quick access to these titles as well: http://www.operametro.com .

Have a beautiful day! Speaking of Maria Callas, Norma at the Met tonight. J