Why do we still thrill to Callas?

December 28, 2017 by norman lebrecht


An online rumour of an unofficial Maria Callas recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo sent hundreds scurrying to Youtube this morning.

Forty years after her death, the Greek diva is still packing them in like no other singer in opera history.

She is the highest-selling soprano on record, the subject of several plays and the face that still launches products.

It can’t be the voice. Millions of words have been wasted analysing Callas’s vocal flaws.

Nor is her appearance so Hellenic that Troy would fall at the sight of her.

So what is it about Callas that keeps us coming back for more?

If there was a recipe, every opera singer would want it in a bottle.


Comments (35)

  1. DESR says:

    What of this online rumour, Norman? Where has it come from?

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Platea magazine, I think

      1. DESR says:

        But then look down the page, and…

        “¡Ojalá fuera cierto! Feliz Día de los Inocentes.”

        “I wish it were true…Happy April Fool’s Day…”

  2. Pianofortissimo says:

    Coming soon: “Callas – The Opera”. Who dares singing?

  3. V.Lind says:

    To venture an answer to the question: maybe celebrity culture is not as new as we like to make out. Callas had glamour and famous friends and all that as well as a large talent that had made her a legitimate star, even if she was not the greatest soprano who ever lived. There were considerably better actresses than Grace Kelly around, though she was good enough to warrant note, but her glamour and ultimate destiny made more of her than her work warranted. You could also say the same of Elizabeth Taylor.

    Callas was both good enough and iconic enough that a newly found recording would generate a lot of interest.

  4. Basia Jaworski says:

    She was La Divina, for sure….
    But there were more like her, in her time… So: what was it?
    I tried to find an answer in this article on Callas and her ‘stepsisters’:

  5. Aria da capo says:

    Maybe she was herself a piece of art, and thus, she was not meant to be explained but to inspire interpretations to infinity and beyond. Greetings from Greece.



    1. Una says:

      as well as enormous discipline, knowing her score, a very, very fine formal musician in other ways, and used what she had to her best ability.

  7. RW2013 says:


  8. AndyB says:

    Yes she had vocal flaws , but her timbre was unique, unmistakable. She could infuse that voice with such emotion and pathos. A great and intense musician who knew how to find the meaning of the composer by listening intently. An outstanding dramatic presence with a complete mastery of the stage and her characters – somehow this presence is reflected in her recordings and many phrases , so full of meaning, stick in the memory. No wonder she is still adored even by those who could never have heard her live.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Indeed…. depth of feeling and of personality, and a great sensitivity (which brought her down eventually in her private life).

  9. Nik says:

    There are many explanations for her enduring popularity, but I’ve rarely seen it so perfectly put as in this recent tribute by Michael Tanner.

  10. Lawrence katz says:

    Long ago I introduced Callas to a young friend who had never heard her before.

    His comment: “When she sings, I can feel it in my balls.”

    1. John Borstlap says:

      There are musical descriptions we would prefer not to know.

  11. Frederick West says:

    Why do we still….to Callas? No idea, and never had any idea either. The one singer that has always failed to thrill.

    1. Una says:

      How I feel about John McCormack whom everyone raves about …

  12. John Carpenter says:

    CLASS stupid!

  13. Tristan says:

    no wonder as she was by far the greatest among all!!! Callas and Carlos Kleiber – no one ever came or will come close to them!
    Just think what Callas did and the way she did! Brunhilde and Elvira within a week! Both she sang of utmost perfection and excitement!
    Callas the one and only

    1. Caravaggio says:

      No audio exists of her Brünnhilde so how can you say she sang it to perfection? Which of the Brünnhildes did she sing?

    2. Mikhail Likova says:

      Her complete understanding of the roles she sang,interpretation,add to that a technique that was phenomenal….these attributes made her the great artist that she was. At her peak, her voice had such range & beauty!!

  14. Robert Roy says:

    I have a friend who saw Callas on several occasions. He told me that she was such a phenomenal ACTRESS that the ‘flaws’ melted into insignificance.

  15. psq says:

    With exquisite timing, probably because of the 42 CD remastered Callas from Warner, the German radio Kulturradio will repeat in the new year a 26 episodes broadcast of the highly respected German music critic Juergen Kesting on La Divina, a warts and all musical biography. This series was on the air the first time in 2014. As before, the program will come on every Sunday from 3:04pm to 5:00pm, starting on July 7, 2018, for the subsequent 26 Sundays.

    I’ve have listened to nearly the entire 26 episodes in 2014. With streaming, probably one does not need to turn down all social engagements on the Sunday afternoons for 6 months.

    Incredibly helpful are the manuscripts for all the episodes that include the list of musical excerpts that will be played. They were available on request in 2014, and will probably be again this time around.

    This kind of German thoroughness is something to behold!

    By the way, not an insignificant point, both the broadcasts and the manuscripts are in German.

  16. John H. Haley says:

    <> That question has a real answer. It is not her voice, nor her appearance, nor her stagecraft, all of which were of course important but not unique enough to justify her continuing reputation. It is her total mastery of the style of the music she sang–her understanding of what the composer wanted and her ability to convey that potently to an audience. And that is what comes across so vividly in her recordings, even when her voice was no longer at its best.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Seems to be the best description.

  17. Theodore McGuiver says:

    Maybe it has something to do with the fact we haven’t seen that extraordinary mix of talent, intelligence and artistic integrity since. Hence Callas remains our sole reference.

    1. Stephen says:

      That’s too much of a generalization. One could say these things of many many singers, male and female.

      1. Theodore McGuiver says:

        ‘Many many’?? Some, maybe; but certainly not ‘many, many’…

  18. James Levister says:

    Nichols Rescigno made the point that through tremendous self discipline Callas worked her natural resources into a medium of exemplary expressiveness despite certain challenges of unorthodox timbre and as time wore on challenges with volume. I appreciate her work because she did have the ability to communicate the soul of her characters. The odd sepia colored tones the voice took on transport one back in time like a beautifully composed black and white photo. Her talent was just uncanny.

  19. Bruce says:

    I could never warm up to her for some reason. By this point I’m willing to accept my status as a lesser being rather than try to convince myself I like something because everybody says I should.

  20. Rob says:

    Some of us don’t. What a bloody screech!

  21. Antonio says:

    She was a great artist first than a great singer , she changed the opera world besides that you like her or not , she wasn’t a “lovely” voice everyone likes. After 40 years of her death she is the best selling classical vocalist . Callas will live forever.

  22. Harry Levy says:

    A friend said of her Tosca at ROH – “worst Tosca I ever heard but greatest Tosca I ever saw”

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