Undoubtedly the greatest singer in the world in her time and since, Maria Callas (1923-1977) needs no introduction. What she does need is the highly intelligent and discriminating attention that Michael Scott has devoted to her. It is Mr. Scott who needs an introduction—to some at least, if not to everyone.

Michael Scott will be familiar to anyone who has read his volumes The Record of Singing or The Great Caruso or who has been aware of his work as the founder and artistic director of the London Opera Society. He is internationally known as a critic, connoisseur, and analyst of vocal art and has assiduously cultivated a historical perspective that gives his commentary a unique authority. That angle of vision—or should I say, of audition—is particularly revealing as concentrated on Maria Callas, an artist who remains “difficult” even 16 years after her death.

I suppose that Mr. Scott’s treatment of Callas can be called revisionist, though I do not use the term invidiously. I mean, first, that he accounts for her in a completely fresh way; second, that he treats her with the same “objectivity” he would extend to some singer born 50 years before her; and third, that he separates “life” from “art” in a way that is almost unique in comparison not only to the preexistent commentary about Callas but to the norms of contemporary “biography.” As a result, Scott’s Callas is an incisive and illuminating treatment of a tormented topic.

Why is Callas a tough assignment? There is the problem not so much of her fame as of her celebrity—the Parisian gown-glossy photo-publicity agent-lunch on the yacht-but watch those calorics-Aristotle Onassis-nightclub-Elsa Maxwell nonsense with which she congested her life after her best singing days were gone. There is the problem as well of Callas as an industrial commodity—all those EMI CDs are still paying off, though few of them are as good as the live performances on the Melodram label of Norma, Lucia, La Sonnambula, and Anna Bolena. There is the problem of conflicting testimonies, including those by the subject. There is the problem, perhaps the paramount one, of an idiosyncratic voice that was abused. There is the problem of Callas’s lonely last days: the cruelty of her self-imposed fate is so sad that sentimentality is hard to resist. Worst of all, there is the Herculean difficulty of rescuing her from the “legends” and gossip and cliches—that quicksand in which Maria Callas has been buried since long before her death and for which she herself was partly responsible.

Michael Scott has emphasized the musician over the woman, the artist over the human being. He has had the courage to meet Callas on her own ground arid at her greatest, not out of her real context and at her weakest. His extensive knowledge of musical performance has released him to view her in the perspective of history. He understands her neither as a canary, a clothes horse, nor a camp figure, but as a great artist to be compared to other giants. And so he shows her, meanwhile easting light upon the degeneration of music in our day. Of the Vespri Siciliani of 1951 in Florence, he writes:

The Act IV andante, “Arrigo! ah parli a un core,” is one of her most distinguished pieces of singing. How responsive is her voice and how complete her rhythmic control. She reminds us how rhythmic mastery is, or was, a basic feature of great performing musicians: we may think of Patti, Battistini, Paderewski, Chaliapin, Caruso, Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, Cortot and many other famous singers and instrumentalists. But since the Second World War it has become steadily compromised by the declining vitality of classical music. Rhythm, we should not forget, is the heart beat of music, it will not stay vital for long without it. Nowadays the increasing influence, directly and indirectly, of Afro-American popular music has led, in the interpretation of classical music, to a semantic confusion between rhythm and beat. Whereas “beat” is certainly rhythmic, the performer is locked into it. Rhythm, on the other hand, does not just beat time. If we listen to Callas in this andante, as she repeats the words, “Io t’amo,” the first time she marks the notes a little ahead of time, but so discreetly as not to need any accommodation from the accompaniment, the second time, she is at one with it. This is what Garcia calls, “an exquisite feeling for rhythm, an imperturbable poise.”

How right of Scott to compare Callas not only with his favorite singers, but with great instrumentalists as well. And how right to identify her sense of rhythm, her ability to phrase and to express the Gestalt of a particular passage, as she so often did in a unique and unforgettable manner. Such an accomplishment goes beyond vocalism and distinguishes a great musician. Other people have pretty voices or nice clothes or get photographed in nightclubs, but only Callas could sing Norma and Elvira and Violetta as she did at her best. Her immortality is secure, even if the most refined estimate of her accomplishment is only now beginning—with Michael Scott.

Without credit of received opinion and without compromise of human frailty, Mr. Scott has thoroughly explored the life and art of Maria Callas— a woman whom he sees as truly alive only through her performances. He emphasizes the early years as her greatest ones and punctures the notion that hers was a specifically dramatic talent. I don’t completely agree with every one of his judgments—I like the 1955 Berlin Lucia and the 1957 Anna Bolena better than he does—but I find his treatment more than convincing. I never thought anyone could elevate my regard for Callas. As it is, he has taught me much about her—and something too about straight thinking in the composition of a biography.

In the context of excellence I will mention that the word “fulsome” is misused more than once and that comma splices abound—there are two in the paragraph quoted above. But as Emily Litella used to say, “Never mind.” Scott’s life of Callas has fixed for us the image of an heroic talent—the gift that drove her to sing recitatives better than her rivals could sing arias. He has even reported acne and dandruff in order to dispel a cosmetized image that nevertheless represented someone grand. That is not to say that the woman Maria Callas, as distinct from the musician, is not here. I mean only that for once a contemporary biography does not drown in details; the tail does not wag the dog, or perhaps I should say that the train of the gown does not direct the diva. It was the grandeur of the artist that made the woman of interest, and not the other way around. Yes, Callas is here; the truth of her personal life is here. But that truth is held firmly in proportion to its value and significance. Scott knows well the magnitude of the real achievement and quotes an early witness to the labor that beauty demands: “When she came on the first day of rehearsals I gave her the score and told her that I would go through her part the next day from start to finish. But when she arrived I found that she knew it all in detail, phrase by phrase. . . . She had learned it all in one day. . . . That is talent. It was not just a question of having a voice, it was also the love of hard work. . . . Talent means a strength which impels you to study.” W.B. Yeats—who wrote “Adam’s Curse”—likewise understood, “That we must labour to be beautiful.”


[Maria Meneghini Callas, by Michael Scott (Boston: Northeastern University Press) 312 pp., $29.95]