Biographical sources differ on when Maria Callas was born -- one book covers all bases by listing her birth date as "Dec. 2, 3 or 4, 1923" -- but every reputable source agrees that this soprano, who would have turned 90 this week, ranks among the best of the best. (Google is going with Dec. 2, which explains its nice graphic today.)
Callas worship is a cliche by now (Terrence McNally built a whole play, "The Lisbon Traviata," around it), but for those of us fully under the spell of "La Divina," there's nothing cheap or silly about it. We find in Callas an incredibly satisfying artistry that gets to the heart and soul of opera -- of music, period.
The fact that she lived something of what you might call a melo-operatic life certainly adds to the fascination, but that never counts as much as the talent the soprano unleashed onstage and in the recording studio.
If only more video of her survived. But maybe it's better that most of what we have is just audio, which makes us focus all the more on the voice and the myriad emotions, images and insights it could conjure.
When I give talks on musical interpretation, whether vocal or instrumental, I like to play some Callas. And I don't need much -- only three notes, really, that demonstrate her greatness. The three notes for the line "Son io" from the finale of Bellini's "Norma," as sung in 1955 live at La Scala. It's the moment when Norma admits that she is the one guilty of betraying her sacred vows.
Callas always made those unaccompanied notes meaningful, but she outdid herself on that occasion, holding onto the second note for what seems like an eternity of regret. I'm undone every time I hear it. (Several people in the La Scala audience, fully aware of just how unusual and powerful that moment is, cannot resist voicing their opinion.)
If I were adept at uploading, downloading, editing and what-not, I would have created a YouTube entry of just those three notes. But, fortunately, a Callas fan somewhere out there in cyberville has already compiled an assortment of "son io" moments from the singer's live and studio recordings of "Norma," along with another brief line from earlier in the opera ("Come del primo amore ai di, ai di felici") that demonstrates her extraordinary ability to communicate.
The selections start with a live 1950 performance in Mexico and end with a live 1965 evening in Paris, when Callas was far from her best, but still a force. (The I-can-prove-Maria-Callas-was-the-greatest-in-just-three-notes excerpt, it starts at 3:58.)
The soprano died much too young in 1977, but she seems more and more alive, more and more inspiring, every time I hear her voice.