Maria Callas: Voice Of Perfect Imperfection

Listen to Full Story and Callas Sing on NPR


Maria Callas defined diva, and she remains one of the towering figures of opera. But Callas began having vocal problems at a relatively young age.

As part of NPRs year-long series, 50 Great Voices, NPRs Lynn Neary explores what made her voice both exhilarating and controversial.

LYNN NEARY: The year was 1952. Maria Callas was performing what would become one of her legendary roles Norma at Londons Covent Garden. Opera critic John Steane was in the audience. Steane says there were high expectations about Callas appearance, but what he remembers vividly was the operas most challenging aria, Casta Diva, and the feeling he had that Callas might not hit the highest notes.

Mr. JOHN STEANE (Opera Critic): You felt that any miscalculation, just the tiniest degree of miscalculation - the thread might break, disaster might come. Now, it didnt happen. But there was a certain tension in the air.

(Soundbite of aria, Casta Diva from Norma)

Ms. MARIA CALLAS (Greek Soprano; Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: Just a few years earlier in Venice, Callas had stunned the opera world with the extraordinary range of her voice. She was performing Brunnhilde in Wagners Die Walkure, a heavy, challenging role that played to her strengths. Then, on very short notice, she was asked to step into the part of Elvira in I Puritani. James Jorden, editor of, says no one thought a dramatic soprano like Callas could sing the role of Elvira.

(Soundbite of aria, Vien diletto from I Puritani)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. JAMES JORDEN (Editor, It showed off an extremely high range. It also showed an ability to sing coloratura, which is a fast, fluid way of singing music that is ordinarily not that easy for the more dramatic singers. So people were looking and saying, shes the most astonishing singer anyones ever heard of, and yet no one had ever heard of her.

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