November 25, 2023

We All Make Mystiques

The unforgettable night in New York when Jackie Kennedy watched as opera’s greatest diva sang Tosca and bungled the high C

Anyone who came to opera in the mid-1950s, as I did, knew Maria Callas, because unlike her contemporaries—but very much like Leonard Bernstein—she attracted media attention wherever she went. Lenny was on television and featured in New York reviews (mostly negative) and glamorous photo shoots, and Callas, who maintained a private and adoring press agent—the redoubtable Elsa Maxwell, who was also a gossip columnist—was seemingly always surrounded by scandal, controversy, conicting critical assessments, and wild adoration.

As a boy, I knew what she looked like because there would be articles about her in popular magazines, like Life magazine. Edward R. Murrow interviewed her live in 1958 on his interview series, Person to Person. She performed a scene from Tosca on the popular variety program e Ed Sullivan Show. All other sopranos were somehow small compared to Callas. Her biggest rival, Renata Tebaldi, had the most enormous and warm soprano voice and was a tremendously empathetic presence onstage, but Callas dismissed her publicly when she was quoted in Time magazine saying that comparing her to Tebaldi was like “comparing champagne to Coca-Cola.”

Callas seemed always to be in the news, even as her voice—never beautiful— disintegrated before us. But that never stopped...

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