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Profound Gesture

The way Maria Callas moved—or didn’t—was part of her magic.
By Alastair Macaulay 

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Callas (on floor) in rehearsal with dancers for Margherita Wallmann’s La Scala staging of Alceste, 1954
Erio Piccagliani/ © Teatro alla Scala
As with a number of ballerinas, SOME PHOTOGRAPHS capture more of Callas’s physical artistry than do the films.
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As Cherubini’s Medea in Margherita Wallmann’s La Scala staging, 1953
Erio Piccagliani/ © Teatro alla Scala
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In the title role of Gluck’s Ifigenia in Tauride, 1957, staged by Luchino Visconti
© Willy Rizzo/Paris Match via Getty Images

MOST OF US TODAY KNOW MARIA CALLAS through her singing, and that’s as it should be. Her musicianship was surely  the most profound part of her being. When we listen to her without watching her face or her movement, we often find she has entered into us more profoundly; it’s as if her singing had become the expression of our own nervous system.

Nonetheless, Callas, dramatic by nature, let music enter her body, as well as her voice, early on. From conductor Tullio Serafin she learned to stand still and to move only when the music impelled her. Before her celebrated weight loss of 1953–54, her acting was already forceful. Director/choreographer Margherita Wallmann, who worked with Callas from 1953 to 1957, said of her first Milan performances of Cherubini’s Medea (December 1953):

At that time, she had just begun to lose weight, but not too much. Her figure was still powerful. She really looked like one of the caryatides on the Acropolis, those great women who stand like pillars supporting the temple. She had enormous impulse in her gestures—you felt her strength. She dominated. For Medea, her physique was an advantage, which gave the character a quality of antiquity. Her portrayal lost this special kind of presence when she became too thin. 

Wallmann says this in the 1974 Callas book by John Ardoin (The Art and the Life) and Gerald Fitzgerald (The Great Years). This book’s many photographs often bring the physical side of her genius to life. From this, before I saw any of the films of her, I began to realize how many physical styles Callas could employ. 

CONDUCTOR Charles Mackerras remarked before his death that today’s singers were often much better at naturalistic behavior onstage, but that they lacked the grand gestures of the singers of several decades ago. He was right: many operas are diminished without the supposedly old-fashioned arm movements that often accompanied them. Actually they look dated (and often looked dated then) because most singers had a very limited assortment of gestures. Callas’s gesticulatory lexicon, however, seems to have been infinite. Especially in the pre-1850 roles in which she specialized, from Gluck, Cherubini and Spontini through to Bellini and Donizetti, she exemplified the eloquence of supported gesture. Sometimes she opened her arms in lines that charged the distance between herself and other singers; sometimes her arms—and her entire stance—addressed the infinite. 

The connections she made between head, eyes, hands, fingers, wrists were supremely eloquent. The ballerina Natalia Makarova, who danced in Callas’s 1973 Turin staging of I Vespri Siciliani, wrote:

Callas was an actress from head to toe…. I recall saying to her once that in classical ballet, particularly in the West, very few can use their hands expressively and make them speak…. For instance, in Giselle almost no one can render Bathilde’s gesture at that moment when Giselle, with simple-hearted delight, pats the thread of her gold-threaded dress. This gesture should be regal and at the same time a casual ‘turning with the hand’ to Giselle, as if to ask, ‘What is the matter?’ Usually it looks trivial, theatrical, because the hands and the wrists of Western dancers are not utilized properly. ‘I’m sure you could do this gesture easily,’ I said to Callas, who instantly performed the very movement with such sovereign grace and simplicity that I was stunned. The turn of the head, the neck, the expression in her eyes—everything came of itself and was absolutely right. 

Although Callas’s instincts were all to do with projection in large-scale theaters, her several televised concerts show one of the most uncanny features of her acting. She enters as La Callas, acknowledging the applause. Then, as she prepares to sing, her facial features change. Their very muscles realign. We see her shift gears to become Imogene or Rosina or Carmen.

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In the mad scene of the Herbert von Karajan production of Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala, 1954
Erio Piccagliani/ © Teatro alla Scala

Wallmann, even if she knew the power that was lost with Callas’s extra poundage, saw that with the newly slenderized Callas she could devise new effects. Callas played the title role in Wallmann’s 1954 production of Gluck’s Alceste. As Act II ended, Alceste’s body was to be borne aloft into the temple. Callas, having been fat all her life, had never been carried above people’s heads—so Wallmann acted out the scene to show how the lift would work. Persuaded, Callas went ahead. A photograph shows Callas’s sovereign physical grace—with a sense of line few dancers can equal—as she prepared to be lifted. She lies cruciform; her legs taper together into a single column; her arms effortlessly extend into space; her head is nobly turned, her jawline ideally parallel to her left arm. 

Zeffirelli remarked that the best direction she ever received was from Karajan in the 1954 Lucia di Lammermoor, paradoxically because Karajan didn’t try to direct:

He just arranged everything around her. She did the mad scene with a follow-spot like a ballerina against black. Nothing else. He let her be music, absolute music. It was the best you could do with Callas…. It was tremendous, that half-smile of hers, the mouth, the eyes. She was enchanting, living music, the perfect illumination of the music. No director taught her this, she was born with it, she found this way of trusting herself, the right gesture, the right moment, not one motion more or less than was necessary. She somehow knew the incredible trick of achieving the maximum with a minimum of effort. 

As a perfect example of the “alternation of tension and relaxation” that can make a performer compelling, the director Sandro Sequi, who had studied dance with Alexandre Sakharoff, a pupil of Isadora Duncan, described her arm movements in the mad scene of Lucia: 

They were like the wings of a great eagle, a marvelous bird. When they went up, and she often  moved them very slowly, they seemed heavy—not  airy like a dancer’s arms, but weighted. Then, she reached the climax of a musical phrase, her arms relaxed and flowed into the next gesture, until she reached a new musical peak, and then again calm. There was a continuous line to her movements, which were really very simple. 

Milan’s Teatro alla Scala was where she worked most, as the house’s 2017–18 Callas exhibition documented. There, Luchino Visconti collaborated with her on five productions—La Vestale (1954), La Sonnambula (1955), La Traviata (1955), Anna Bolena (1957) and Ifigenia in Tauride (1957). Visconti, like Zeffirelli, had already been wild about her before her weight loss:

She was fat, but beautiful onstage. I loved her fatness, which made her so commanding. She was already distinctive then. Her gestures thrilled you. Where did she learn them? On her own. But with La Vestale, we began systematically to per fect them. We selected some from the great French  tragediennes, some from Greek drama, for this was the kind of actress she could be—classic. 

Visconti had to persuade Callas that the style for Gluck’s Ifigenia should be not Greek-archaic but “like a Tiepolo fresco come to life.” Eventually, she more than fulfilled his idea:

As the curtains lifted, a storm was raging and she had to pace frantically the stage…. At a certain moment she ascended a high stair, then raced down the steep steps, her cloak flying wildly in the wind. Every night she hit her high note on the eighth step, so extraordinarily coordinated was her music and movement. She was like a circus horse, conditioned to pull off any theatrical stunt she was taught. 

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In rehearsal for Alceste at La Scala, 1954
Erio Piccagliani/ © Teatro alla Scala

DANCING WAS ONE REASON Callas avoided playing Carmen onstage. And yet she had danced in one opera—Rossini’s Turco in Italia. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1955 production, as Fiorilla, she danced a brief tarantella, tambourine in hand. In the late 1990s, her choreographer, Alfred Rodrigues, enjoyed recalling that Callas’s first rehearsal with him was unusual in the extreme. Sitting, she told him to show her the steps that he was considering putting into her tarantella. So, isolating individual steps, he demonstrated them to her. Callas, still seated, approved some steps but vetoed others. Satisfied eventually, she told him to go away and make the dance for her.

Rodrigues told me nothing of the process whereby she then assimilated that dance. But he recalled how perfectly she delivered it—except for one detail, which she turned to her advantage. Kneeling and arching back as she shook the tambourine in an arc behind her, she overtipped. Saving herself by immediately slapping her spare hand forcefully to the floor, she continued the gesture with the tambourine.

Dance came also to the mind of Michael Scott when he saw her Violetta at Covent Garden. In his Maria Meneghini Callas (1991), one of the best books on her, he evoked her return to the stage to meet Alfredo in Act II, scene 2, running, her feet hitting the semiquavers “like a ballerina’s.” 

Callas’s interplay with Tito Gobbi in Act II of Franco Zeffirelli’s Covent Garden production of Tosca in 1964 is caught on a well-known live television performance. The way she spots the dagger is renowned; the rhythmic interaction of her eyes and hands has a piercing brilliance. Yet more haunting is a description of something no film of that production shows—Scott’s account of the musicality with which she ended the Act I duet with Cavaradossi. “She turned back to gather up the silk stole she had put down,” writes Scott, “and then left hurriedly—as it floated out behind her it seemed perfectly to mirror the orchestral reprise of the melody.” 

As well as two films of Act II of Tosca (1958, Paris; 1964, London), we have film fragments of her Medea, Norma and Violetta. These are too few and too brief, but it’s thrilling to see how separate a movement idiom she invents for each. The footage of her entering Flora’s party in the Lisbon Traviata (1958) shows the seamless flow of her acting. While she makes each moment distinct, it’s fascinating to see how naturally she moves from the private soliloquy “Ah, perché venni, incauta?”—addressed out, standing front—to the exchange with Flora, in which she invites Flora to sit on a sofa beside her. The views of her Medea, filmed at La Scala in 1961, are frustratingly silent, yet they run quite a gamut—not least how she makes her cloak flare up around and behind her like a dragon’s wings. In Norma’s recitative before “Casta diva” (Paris 1964), you see how majestically she both sustains proclamatory gestures and keeps inflecting them with changing nuance.

As with a number of ballerinas, some photographs capture more of Callas’s physical artistry than do the films. Motion pictures concentrate on the close-up; they diminish the amplitude with which the body can galvanize the vast arena of theatrical space that surrounds a performer onstage. Photographs show how Callas varied the coordination of eyes, head, neck, arms, hands and stance, and how she, like a beacon, sent that into space. Each character, indeed every moment, becomes singular. We also see why she felt that the naturalism of Tosca fulfilled her less than her older roles. Above all in roles by Gluck, Cherubini, Spontini, Donizetti and Bellini, she created classically heroic drama, often when alone in onstage soliloquy, on a superhuman scale we no longer find in opera. More than forty years after her death, when so much else has been learned from her example, it’s to be hoped that her physical genius will continue to instruct. spacer 

Alastair Macaulay is the chief dance critic of The New York Times.

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