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Mysterious chemistry

Maria Callas - Diaries of a Friendship
by Robert Sutherland (Constable 1999)

'A sad tale's best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins,' wrote Shakespeare. At the century's turn, Robert Sutherland's 'insider' account of one its major icons and her musically ill-fated final recital tour has sadness aplenty and the mischievous egos of at least a brace of elfish characters to spice the entertainment.

In 1973, Sutherland was asked to cover for the ageing and increasingly unreliable Ivor Newton as accompanist for the Callas and Di Stefano comeback tour of Europe, the States and Japan. Misunderstandings and machinations quickly elevated him to senior role. Poor old Newton was ditched with little finesse and went off in a major huff never to forgive his erstwhile friend for the (real and supposed) perfidy. The bandwagon rolled its way around the world amidst fanatical public adulation but critical embarrassment at shoddy standards of performance. Petty bickering and more serious recriminations, tantrums and cancellations fuelled the experience as intoxicatingly as did the champagne lifestyle. When the tour ended in the Far East in November 1974, it was obvious to all that the career was finished - though not, of course, the legend.

Sutherland makes much of the public / private dichotomy. He portrays the vulnerable Maria racked by sensitivity and self-doubt as a figure of artistic humility and endearingly concerned for the welfare of others. But, when the spotlights shone and the flashbulbs exploded, the befrocked and bejewelled character of La Callas would truck no contradiction. 'I am the prima donna,' was always a cry best met with fawning agreement by anyone valuing their survival in her entourage. There's nothing very new in being told that sundry tyrants can be kind to dumb animals or weep at Greta Garbo movies but Sutherland does manage to convey the confusion of a deeply insecure woman without becoming too great an apologist for the many episodes of atrocious behaviour on grounds of artistic temperament.

There is a fair amount of amusing detail about the working-methods (or, rather, lack of them) involved in repertoire selection and rehearsal. The touring concerts consisted of a mere three or four duets, a couple of arias from both singers and an encore or two if either or both of them had managed to avoid having their temper aroused by some lapse or imagined slight. The high-paying audiences were, apparently, happy to pad the evening out to reasonable length with their own contribution of clapping and cheering. Meanwhile, agents and the managers of assorted glitzy international hotels tore out their hair in the thankless task of keeping things sufficiently 'just-so'. Things were, rather predictably, rarely quite good enough. How could they be when, 'If you're Callas they're out to get you,' was the major star's abiding philosophy?

Di Stefano ('Pippo' only on carefully chosen good-days!) emerges as a similar concoction of childish petulance, volcanic rages and occasional honeyed sweetness. What both singers so obviously lacked at this late stage in their careers was much in the way of professionalism. Rehearsals (often scheduled but much less often achieved) seem to have consisted of a quick run-through, a hasty decision about necessary transpositions and an early realisation that that was quite enough for one day. There were, after all, shopping expeditions, gourmet meals and the constant lure of the cinema and television to accommodate! Items to perform were usually chosen on-the-hoof as the concert progressed and transposition decisions revoked at the very last moment.

You do wonder how Sutherland retained his sanity let alone his professional integrity. Perhaps that explains why it has taken him twenty-five years to discover the necessary equanimity to recall it all. He has certainly now managed to write a page-turner both brisk and entertaining (sometimes in the sense that a horror movie can hold you simultaneously appalled and enthralled). The essential question is whether he has added significantly to our knowledge and understanding of this extraordinary woman. I would suggest that, thanks to the closeness of his personal and professional relationship - and the detailed diary he was persuaded to keep at the time, he has enabled devoted fan and agnostic alike to enquire anew into what mysterious chemistry produces such elemental artists. You must not expect too many answers but you should find that the questions reverberate in the mind as unmistakably as the voice.


Copyright © 8 January 2000 by David Wilkins, Eastbourne, UK

Read David Wilkins' review of Callas on EMI >>




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