If you happen to be an opera buff, and you buy your recordings at Amazon.com, you’ll see, from customer reviews, that the Callas clique is alive and well.
I’m not exactly an opera buff. Most 19C opera music is second-rate at best. But I do have a soft spot for the female voice, and if you wish to hear great voices, opera is where you go to hear them.
Why is it that so many fans of Callas can’t stand Sutherland, while so many fans of Sutherland can’t stand Callas?
The same thing holds true for the Callas clique in relation to Renata Tebaldi.
What accounts for the emotional investment in a mere opera singer?
Callas has been dead since 1977. And she retired from the operatic stage in 1965. Tebaldi retired from the stage in 1973, while Sutherland retired in 1990.
At one level it’s a choice between passion and beauty. A choice between womanly passion or sexual passion, on the one hand, and a different sort of sexuality—the sensuous or sensual appeal of a lovely voice, on the other hand.
But it runs deeper than that. Each soprano projects a feminine ideal.
A beautiful soprano voice is, itself, a feminine ideal. It projects a distinctively feminine allure.
In addition, there is more than one feminine ideal. Early Sutherland had a girlish timber. Flagstad had a maternal tone. So does a contralto like Forrester.
Tebaldi had a womanly tone, while Sutherland later developed a more womanly timber as well.
Some opera buffs prefer Frida Leider to Kirsten Flagstad because Leider’s instrument was womanly without being matronly.
For many opera buffs, this is sufficient. A soprano needn’t be an expressive actress, as long as her voice is expressive as well as emblematic of certain feminine virtues.
But for others, that’s not enough. They want a voice that’s suffused with emotion. Given a choice, they prefer an emotive timber to a sensuous timber.
They also judge a soprano by the eye as well as the ear. Does she physically embody a feminine ideal?
Of course, voice lovers like beautiful women as well. But they don’t hold a soprano to that standard. If she happens to be nice on the eyes as well as the ears—like Te Kanawa—that’s a bonus point.
Beyond theatrically, they also judge a soprano by her star-power, her charisma—the glam factor.
In other words, they want a diva who personifies in real life what she impersonates on stage.
Callas was a soprano who projected another feminine ideal. Whether you like or hate her, or have mixed feelings, depends on whether the image she projected happens to correspond to your ideal of womanhood.
She was a fiery performer on-stage, with a fiery love-life offstage. Her exciting good looks complemented her electrifying stage-presence.
One of the ironies of this type of feminine ideal is that her personal and professional crises, rather than diminishing the appeal, augment the appeal.
Can you imagine Joan Sutherland having a fling with Aristotle Onassis? Leaving Richard Boning for the life of an international jet setter and socialite?
But, for her fans, the ill-fated affair with Onassis made Callas all the more compelling. So did her vocal crisis, which forced her into premature retirement. So did her death at the early age of 53.
For some people, tragedy and romanticism are intertwined. A life that is more intensive because it is less extensive. A shooting star. A life of highs and lows, rather than a happy mean.
This exemplifies the escapist version of the feminine ideal. Of those who risk all and lose all for a few moments of undiluted ecstasy.
At a still deeper level, there is another feminine ideal. The idea of the church as the bride of Christ.
Unlike any other religion, Christianity has an integral role for feminine and masculine virtues alike.
Feminine appeal has a theological grounding. God has encoded these universals in the human psyche, and when a woman (or a man) exemplifies the universal, this triggers a subliminal association with the theological fabric of the universe. For the material order is a metaphor for the moral order.
Callas represents the anti-heroine—the fallen woman. Delilah, as the flipside of the Church. The attraction of the candle to moth. Brilliant, but brief.