Viewpoint: Sweet Inspiration
Cover girl Isabel Leonard puts her feet up
© James Salzano 2012
Fifty-six years ago this month — on October 29, 1956 — Maria Callas made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Bellini’s Norma. The Norma premiere, which was also the opening night of the Met season, was one of the most talked-about events of the musical year in New York. The demand for tickets was enormous. The occasion remains an important date in Met history — and in the brief, twenty-two-performance chronology of Callas’s Met career — but it was not an unqualified triumph for the soprano, although her reviews were generally quite favorable. Explanations vary as to why Callas was not at her best in her first Met season — in his 1991 Callas biography, Michael Scott offers the opinion that her vocal decline had already begun by 1956 — but the soprano herself was aware that her success in New York was well below the adulation she had received elsewhere. In February 1957, in response to a congratulatory message from Met general manager Rudolf Bing about her return to Covent Garden, Callas wrote to him, “I am still trying to discover what happened in New York. I am only sorry I couldn’t give you personally what other theaters have. I hope next year.”
One of the glitterati in attendance at Callas’s Met debut was professional party-giver and newspaper columnist Elsa Maxwell, a ball of ambition and high-octane snobbery from Keokuk, Iowa, who spent most of her waking hours either rubbing elbows with the rich and famous or writing about them. For a brief period in 1957, Maxwell and Callas had a very public friendship, an alliance that is detailed in the excerpt from Sam Staggs’s brand-new biography of Maxwell that begins on page 32 of this issue. Maxwell didn’t make Callas a star — the soprano’s own talent and hard work did that — but she did create a great deal of the buzz that made Callas an international popular celebrity.
Maria Callas was not a “crossover” artist in the sense that we use the term today; when she appeared on television, Callas sang opera, rather than pop standards or musical-comedy numbers. But Callas crossed over in another sense by being one of the first opera stars to be a frequent subject in the popular press: from the 1956 Time magazinecover story devoted to her Met debut to her television interviews with David Frost and Mike Wallace in the 1970s to countless mentions in gossip columns and the tabloid press, Callas was good copy for the rest of her life. People who knew nothing about opera knew who Maria Callas was — and knew her reputation for temperamental behavior. Maxwell wasn’t above throwing a few logs on that particular fire, claiming (inaccurately) that Callas had canceled a 1957 Edinburgh Festival performance of La Sonnambula in order to attend a Maxwell party in Venice.
Callas’s media celebrity is one reason her recordings will probably never go out of print. She’ll always be a star, and she’ll continue to inspire and motivate artists such as this month’s cover subject, Isabel Leonard. During her days as a Juilliard student, Leonard told OPERA NEWS that Callas was one of several artists who were an inspiration to her. One need look no further for proof of this lovely young artist’s excellent taste.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS
do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild
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