Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of Maria Callas
to the Metropolitan Opera,March, 1965
On the morning of March 13, on Broadway, fifty years ago, I awoke face down on the sidewalk. I’d met the woman I was with only once before, standing, mind you, not face down. We were awake, though not quite thawed out yet. But chaos threatened: there were police, even cameras around. The big event loomed less than a week away.
The rest is history.
Deeply touched by the art of Maria Callas, OperaMetro interviewed (via email) two others equally smitten by her: one, as I, who was there for her return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in March of 1965 and one who was not there but, at a young age, was profoundly touched by her voice, images, and now, importantly, is committed to preserving her recorded legacy.
The first is Ira Siff, who is Commentator for the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts and also a recognized Voice Teacher/ Interpretation Coach; the second is Andrew Ousley, who is Director of Marketing & Publicity, Warner Classics North America.
As customary on these pages, OperaMetro’s Q & A is patched together as if we were in the same room, responding to the questions, enjoying each other’s company, and negotiating who will spring for coffee.
OperaMetro (OM): First about that ’64 – ‘65 season. Maria Callas hadn’t appeared at the Metropolitan Opera since 1958. She was, therefore, more or less off the local radar, so to speak. How did you find out she was coming back to the Met? Ira.
Ira Siff (IS): My friend Lex Seldin was an opera lunatic like me. While at camp together in the summer of 1964, we read in the Times that Callas coming back to the Met the following March to sing Tosca. We were definitely looking forward to it. You?
OM: Well, I didn’t know she was coming until much later in the year. ‘64 – ’65 was my third season at the Met. Most of my first performances were with my parents, most often it was my mother and my sister or I’d go alone, sitting upstairs on one side of the house or the other. But I had a friend George in high school who sang and loved tenors. He used to scour the Jersey flea markets for 78s of Caruso, Martinelli, Gigli, and the like, he had a real crank up 78 player with the horn in his basement, the whole bit. He and his two brothers invited me to stand with them to see Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters in Rigoletto at the Met the Friday after Thanksgiving. Once I discovered the standing room option I went to lots of performances.
Each time standing I’d hear more and more buzz about the Callas Tosca. It approached mania as we got closer to March: I remember talking with others during the day-long line for the first Die Walküre (with Nilsson, Rysanek, Vickers, London, Dalis, et al., February 22, Washington’s Birthday, which, lucky for me, was a school vacation day). At that point I figured the only way for me to see Callas was to do the line. Same thing?
IS: Yes, more or less. For the March 19th, the Callas and Corelli performance, I had to wait in the street in front of the opera house from late afternoon the Friday before until they sold tickets on Sunday the 14th. But getting there was sort of last minute: Lex lived in Manhattan and he’d saved me a place on the line until I could get to the Met that Friday. He phoned me, I raced into Manhattan, just left a note for my parents. Two nights I spent sleeping in the street. You too?
OM: Sure. No other way to get a ticket. That Friday, March 12, my mother and sister had seats to Der fliegende Holländer with Rysanek and London (I told them they absolutely HAD to see this one!). We drove up from Jersey together; I stood for that Holländer, why not? But then, afterwards, said I goodbye to them for the weekend. See you Sunday. I also went backstage to visit Rysanek. Talk about an intense performer! I’ve always loved Leonie Rysanek.
IS: I, too.
OM: You’ll recall that there were two standing lines for Callas: the long line for the March 19th Tosca, which stretched around the left corner of the Old Met into the night, and a shorter line for the other performance on the March 25th Tosca [with Richard Tucker, not Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi], which stretched around to the right. This was so no one could have a place in both lines. The second line was filling up rapidly. Right?
OM: No question I wanted the 19th even though my spot in that line was pretty far around the corner. I don’t think I’d have made the cut for Orchestra level standing room, which meant I’d end up near the ceiling in the Family Circle. Anyway, that’s how the night began. How’d you fare?
IS: I’d never experienced anything like the scene on Broadway and 39th Street that first night. Lots of sleeping bags. I remember seeing a man apply cold cream…never saw that on Broadway before, and [that Friday night] [Franco Corelli and his wife Loretta] were working the line with hot coffee and doughnuts, carrying their poodle. Loretta would inquire who you were there on line to see. I felt like if you said “Callas,” the dog would bite you! Maybe you wouldn’t get a coffee and a doughnut. I played it safe and said “Gobbi!” I’d say the fact that we had to wait for days in the freezing cold for it made it unique, a much bigger event. But, on the down side, many standees had the flu for the performance [the following Friday].
OM: Certainly I remember Corelli and his wife graciously serving coffee to the standees. He was quite striking close up in person. And also I’ll never forget how much darker and colder it became once past midnight. But then some of the regulars came around to make a numbered list of those standing so as to reserve everyone’s place in the line. A good number of them then went home or to nearby hotels for the night. The first 30 or so in the line were from out of town, I think # 1 was a fellow from Maine. They’d been on the streets since Monday or Tuesday and had no other option but to brave the cold. Thank heaven it didn’t snow.
It became very quiet, even for Broadway and folks on the line began to wander about. I recognized a young German woman whom I’d met on the Walküre line (I think…could have been the Salome line). Jutta was her name. She graciously shared her blanket with me. We managed to keep somewhat warm by snuggling in the left door well that framed the great wooden doors of the Old Met. But it was cold; neither of us got much sleep.
Then sometime before dawn one of the great doors creaked opened: the Met’s management came out to make an official standee place list. I remember some of the regulars who were still there at that hour frantically searching for dimes and a pay phone to call those who’d left their places for a hotel, others racing to the parked cars in which their friends were sleeping. I went from number 200 something on the old list to number 40 on the Met’s list.
IS: I was number 44. I saved the green stub for years.
OM: I think I still have mine. I know I have the program from the performance. Then the next morning all hell broke loose when the rest of the line returned, those who’d not received the call. They demanded their places in line. Maybe it even made the news on TV. But the Met’s list ultimately ruled the day. Believe me, no one left the line Saturday night into Sunday morning. Jutta’s younger sister Holda, appropriately named because she was petite and lovely, joined us, thankfully with a heavier blanket. That night was much more cozy. They sold tickets early in the afternoon Sunday.
IS: Once I had my ticket, a bunch of us went to the airport the night she was scheduled to arrive to see her, greet her, but also, I guess, in order to make sure she was really coming. She had canceled performances recently. Francis Robinson [of the Metropolitan Opera] met her, and we all screamed and waved as she emerged from the arrivals section. There she was in her mink coat and hat. I recall the sort of semi-chilly way she said, “Hello Frahn-cis” with her mid-Atlantic accent as she greeted him.
OM: Not I. Seriously, a hot bath, some real food, and my bed with an actual mattress and springs were all I craved when I got home late Sunday afternoon, ticket in hand. I had homework from Friday to do, school and track practice all the next week.
Okay, now to the night of the performance.
IS: It was not only Callas’s return, but a Metropolitan Opera Guild Benefit performance on top of that. The audience was star-studded. And we were out front waiting to be let in. Limos were already arriving, photographers, there were these guys in street clothes in the front of the house carrying placards that read “Bravo Franco!” Ironically, Jacqueline Kennedy was there. It was over the top. Actually, I was fortunate enough to go to both performances of Tosca with Callas.
OM: How did you swing that?
IS: The first I stood for, as I said, but my mother got me a ticket to the second performance from a member of her Pioneer Women organization that raised money for Israel. At a meeting the woman said she didn’t want to go because she didn’t like that Callas woman - in spite of the fact that Richard Tucker was singing.
OM: How did the two performances compare?
IS: They were quite different for me in several respects. The first night I was really close to the stage on that side in the downstairs standing room. So, I could see the nuances of her acting with Gobbi. She and Corelli were quite playful in the first act; in the first act love duet the voice, although small-ish, was far more lyrical and beautiful than I expected. The ovation at her entrances and after Vissi d’arte seemed endless, full of welcome and gratitude from the audience.
But that Thursday, the second performance, I was up in a seat in the Family Circle, which was rare for me, but from there I could see the geography of her performance, the famous red gown in Act II darting across the stage to try to get to Mario as he was being dragged off. At both performances, her whimpering sounds she made after she killed Scarpia were chilling. It was a thrill to hear in person as opposed to on recordings the many famous Callas readings of the text. Indelible memories.
OM: I nearly missed it: the day of the performance, Friday the 19th, my bus from Princeton to the Port Authority left just as we pulled into the parking lot to drop me off. Bless her, my mother, driving like James Bond, followed the bus to a stop light a few miles away. I ran ahead and pounded on the doors to get on. I also ran the two or so blocks from Port Authority and made it just in time. I think they let the standing line in early to prevent too much congestion or chaos out front, and as the line was beginning to go in, I remember a fellow stepped out of a limo and offered me $500 for the standing room ticket, which was $2.50. I shook my head, tied my tie (dress code the Met had for Standees), and the rest is history.
Most of the folks with lower line numbers went to the back center of the orchestra, which I normally did for the view of the entire stage, but this night, on advice from those around me, I dashed to the standee railing at lower left hand corner of the orchestra, the so-called Milanov Corner, named by fans of the great Zinka Milanov, another famed Tosca at the Met. Pre-performance, the house applauded as one celebrity after another appeared down the aisle of the Orchestra seats or in the Parterre Boxes. Jackie, Rose, and Bobby and probably Ethel Kennedy made their entrance. I literally collided with Bette Davis in the stairwell during the first intermission.
I remember the chill that ran through me, through the entire audience as a body, when Callas uttered her first off stage “Mario, Mario.” I still shake. She was striking in appearance, beautiful in person. She was only 41. She also moved beautifully on stage, as if every motion were choreographed to Puccini’s score. Her hands and arms, in particular, were captivating, particularly from as close as I was to her. She had such graceful hands…still photos simply cannot convey this motion. Vocally the performance itself met every expectation set by her newer recording, though her voice was a little smaller than I’d expected. Maybe it was because I was so far to the side of the stage.
I felt that her recordings, wonderful as they are, were completely complemented by her persona on stage. I was a real fan now: I understood in the space of that night what the legend was all about. Most impressive was Callas’s sheer intensity of character. She was ‘on’ every second of the evening, especially when interacting with baritone Tito Gobbi, with whom she frequently performed in Tosca. Callas played the coy but jealous lover with Cavardossi; she was the caged woman with Scarpia desperately making moment-to-moment decisions about how to save her man; she was herself trapped with no one to save her. The house erupted volcanically with applause, certainly at her entrance, but also after her big exits, arias, and duets. It was a total performance…as I recall it ended very late, almost too late for me to catch the bus back to New Jersey.
IS: Indeed it was a total performance.
OM: Yet when I think back to that same season, I saw Nilsson’s Turandot, Salome and Brünnhilde, Rysanek’s Sieglinde and Senta, London’s Holländer and Wotan, Corelli’s Don Alvaro, Bastianini’s Don Carlo, Gedda’s Hoffmann, Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin with Della Casa, Rothenberger and Edelmann, Vickers as Samson, and so on. Believe me these were equally exciting and truly memorable performances. But I felt that, if not in the same role, I’d probably see the same artists next season and beyond to the new Met. That first season at Lincoln Center I saw Nilsson’s Elektra with Rysanek and Rysanek as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. But with the Callas I was sure this time would be my only chance to see her on stage, and also probably Gobbi’s Scarpia. Sadly, too, I never saw Schwarzkopf or London again on stage.
IS: Yes, one sort of knew this was very likely our last chance to hear Callas on stage. And the irony of her career, a large portion of which was spent before the public “got” her, particularly in New York, was not lost on me even then. Now that the voice was somewhat compromised, and her future questionable, she was unconditionally adored by thousands of people. At the peak of her powers years earlier, she was an object of controversy.
OM: Andrew, you weren’t there.
AO: No, I was born 6 years after her death, but if there’s one artist I’d go back in time to hear live it’d be Maria Callas. The video of the 1964 Tosca, Act II, from Covent Garden makes me think that every time I see it.
OM: Excerpts of this performance can be found here on the page Show and Tell. How did you first discover Callas?
AO: I first encountered her voice as a teenager when my mother (who was an opera singer in her youth) played Vissi d’arte from the 1953 Tosca. What immediately captivated me was her sheer expressiveness. Obviously Puccini’s music and the orchestral performance were both extraordinary, but it was her voice and its ability to communicate such a powerful combination of despair, strength, anger and everything in between which converted me led me to explore all of her other recordings and videos. Even as the vocal technique wavered in time, she never lost that expressiveness…the 1953 Tosca is always the first recording I turn to. Un bel di was the second aria my mother played me, from the 1955 Madama Butterfly with Karajan, followed closely by the 1954 Norma (I can’t not include this one on my list of favorites!) and the 1964 Carmen. Again, it’s the way she cuts to the heart of the character and her situation that makes this a must-listen.
OM: You and I have talked separately about the Callas Remastered project for Warner Classics.
AO: Yes it’s been a particularly gratifying project to work on and now do publicity for. The restoration and improvement of the sound is remarkable. Many nuances and subtleties in her performances, recorded in the studio on the masters but lost on the original vinyl pressings, have been uncovered.
OM: We also first encountered her voice on recordings.
IS: Certainly. I had LPs of highlights of her two Lucia recordings (the 1953 and the 1959). At first, I really didn’t understand the second Lucia highlights - it was my first recording by Maria Callas, and with the wobble in her voice, compared with Joan Sutherland, the only other soprano I knew at that point…I just didn’t get it. Yet, as I listened over and over to it I was mesmerized by certain phrases. Now I adore it. The Puritani excerpt on the Callas at La Scala, taken from her complete 1953 EMI Puritani, showed me what the voice was like when she was young and heavy, and what she was capable of. I adored it instantly. The Anna Bolena Mad Scene on the Mad Scenes album always affected me deeply, especially Al dolce guidami. Miraculous! I knew nothing of “live” Callas performances until about a year after the NY Toscas. But, as soon as those appeared on LP’s (often published a half tone sharp by a rabid fan who wanted to conceal the slow vibrato!), I was hooked on them. I also eventually had her complete Butterfly, both Toscas (1953 and the then-new 1964), and highlights for several operas, including Norma (1954) and Gioconda (EMI 1959), and several recital LPs.
OM: Well, most of my Callas recordings were from late in her career and in stereo: Callas’s EMILa Gioconda was my first, I think, still a favorite, but I also had highlights of the stereo Norma, an album of Mad Scenes, as well as La Forza del Destino (mono). My sister had Il Barbiere di Siviglia in our house. I swooped on the Callas Tosca in stereo but by then I knew she was coming. My exposure to her voice on recordings was closer to what she actually sounded like in ’65. Callas at the Met brought Tosca to life for me, made me understand her art much better than ever before. Since then I have grown to love many of her other recordings, particularly those from 1953 to 1958, especially now in their remastered versions.
Thank you, gentlemen, for your contributions!
Photo of standees: Tony Ray-Jones, from The Golden Horseshoe: the life and times of the Metropolitan Opera House by Frank Merkling, John W. Freeman, Gerald Fitzgerald and Arthur Solin. New York: The Viking Press, 1965, p. 279
Photo of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca. From Callas, which includes The Art and the Life by John Ardoin (pp 1 – 46) and The Great Years by Gerald Fitzgerald (pp 47 – 264), plus Chronology, Statistics, Index. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1974. p. 216 top from Covent Garden by Houston Rogers (London)
As mentioned above: on the OperaMetro’s page Show and Tell, please find three excerpts from Tosca with Maria Callas, live on the stage. The first two are video clips from Act II of her Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia at Covent Garden in 1964 (alas, but without subtitles): Vissi d’arte followed by the murder scene to the end of the Act; the third is an audio-only file of the entire historic March 19th Tosca at the Met in 1965 with Callas, Gobbi and Corelli. Bravi!
Please refer to the page Opera Recordings on OperaMetro for a discussion of these remastered studio operas of Maria Callas on Warner Classics.
Please refer also to the page Programs on OperaMetro of a few scanned pages of the Metropolitan Opera program from the night of March 19, 1965. In addition to cover and cast, three artist ads from Angel Records, as well as the Met casts for the following week. Those were the days my friends.
You're only as old as you feel. Seems like only yesterday.