Maria Callas at the Met
On the centennial of her birth, a look at her Met career, what it was, and what it might have been.
No opera singer of the 20th century, with the possible exception of tenor Enrico Caruso, has been the subject of so many articles, books, documentaries, speculations, and general interest outside the narrow world of classical music as Greek American soprano Maria Callas (pictured above in the title role of Bellini’s Norma, 1956). Within that circumscribed, often conservative, and intensely opinionated body of devotees to lyrical art, it is generally acknowledged that Callas changed what we listen for and expect of an operatic performer. There were, of course, many great singers both before and after her, but it is impossible to point to one with a similar combination of attributes. The timbre of her voice was decidedly unconventional, with a very identifiable, haunting quality that often defied standard critical analysis. But Callas the artist was an undeniable phenomenon. Her intense musicality and expressive abilities revealed the dramatic genius behind the works she sang, from the most familiar operatic warhorses to the rarely heard novelties so often revived expressly for her.
Beginnings of the Relationship with the Met
Though born in New York City, Callas only gave 21 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, the city’s preeminent company. The reasons for this paucity of appearances by the century’s most influential singer in her native city require some explanation.
As far as we know, the first time anyone at the Metropolitan Opera heard of Callas was in 1945, when she auditioned as Mary Callas for Paul Breisach, a member of the music staff. Breisach, who had conducted in Berlin before fleeing the Nazis, joined the Met staff in 1941. He was a cousin of Rudolf Bing, and the two had worked together at Berlin’s Städtische Oper from 1931–33. It is unknown whether he ever mentioned Callas to Bing, but Breisach seems to have been impressed with her audition, writing simply, “Exceptional voice—ought to be heard very soon on stage.” Two weeks later, she auditioned again, this time on the stage, singing arias from Bellini’s Norma, Puccini’s Tosca, and Verdi’s Il Trovatore. On this occasion, the unspecified auditioner’s only remarks were “Good material, needs work on her voice.”
Callas, Bing, and tenor Eugenio Fernandi
It is very possible that the callback audition included Frank St. Leger, who oversaw the Met music staff at the time. And, in fact, it was St. Leger who wrote Bing a letter dated August 1, 1949, giving his assessment of the singers he heard in Europe that summer in advance of Bing’s appointment as Met General Manager in 1950. After praising a number of young singers such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, Cesare Siepi, Boris Christoff, and Victoria de los Ángeles—all of whom eventually became major stars—St. Leger wrote the following: “There is a girl [sic], Maria Callas, who is magnificent but whom I could not hear. We did hear her sing in New York some two years ago. It was then a wild but interesting voice. I am told that Serafin has worked miracles with her and if it is possible for you to hear her, I think it would be advisable. She is the Norma today.”
This letter is the only mention in Met archival correspondence of Callas having possibly reauditioned for the Met around 1947. In interviews, Callas often said her auditions for the Met (she’s not clear about the year) led to an offer to sing Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio in English and the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but that she turned down both. The reasons she gave were that she was physically too large for Butterfly and did not feel comfortable singing Fidelio in English. Edward Johnson, the Met’s General Manager from 1935 to 1950, gave an interview in 1958, when Callas was much in the news, in which he corroborated her story that the Met had offered her a contract during his tenure, without specifying when the offer occurred. He also recalled that he was surprised at her refusal and her confidence that she was destined for a career.
The letter from St. Leger to Bing may well be the first time the future General Manager heard of Callas. Following her 1947 debut in Verona in the title role of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, she astounded the opera world by singing such starkly different repertories as the heroic Wagner roles (Isolde, Kundry, and Brünnhilde, all in Italian), dramatic Italian works (Puccini’s Turandot, Verdi’s Aida), and florid bel canto showpieces (Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and the title role of Norma)—and she was still in her 20s! Her primary mentor was the esteemed conductor Tullio Serafin, who had been the Met’s principal conductor of the Italian repertory from 1924 to 1934. (He also led many new American works.) By the time St. Leger wrote Bing in 1949, Callas had sung all over Italy, though not yet at La Scala, and had just completed a triumphant engagement at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. In those days, the Colón was the equivalent of the Met in prestige, hosting the great artists from Europe and America during the northern hemisphere summer.
Callas as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata
In his initial response to St. Leger, Bing stated simply that the Met’s board had requested that he come to New York to begin his transition into the General Manager’s job earlier than originally planned, and that consequently he could not go to the continent to hear singers until the next year. Very probably, however, he had St. Leger’s letter in mind when he wrote his friend Erich Engel, a music staffer at the Vienna State Opera who had recently returned from the Teatro Colón. In his letter (in German) dated November 20, 1950, Bing asks Engel about Callas, “who is now recommended to me as the best existing Aida … and even suggested for the Queen of the Night.” He requests Engel’s advice on “whether in your view Miss Callas is vocally really as outstanding as I am led to believe. How would you compare her vocal qualifications for instance with Ljuba Welitsch [Bulgarian soprano then making headlines in the title role of Strauss’s Salome]?” Then, in an example of how far opera gossip can veer from reality, “I gather she does not look well and is an uninteresting actress. Does the beauty of her voice make up for these defects?”
Engel, who had worked as an opera repetiteur with some of the great maestros in Germany and who was married to the soprano Editha Fleischer (heard as Hänsel on the first-ever Met radio broadcast), was, we can be sure, an expert judge of singers. His response is that he remembers Callas from her Buenos Aires performances very well. “She sang in a short time span Turandot, Norma, and Aida … her achievements were remarkable. If she has developed normally (and this seems to be the case from information I received), she will have a big career. Already today she is incredibly versatile, sings also Fidelio, Isolde, and Kundry. Serafin thinks highly of her … she is absolutely not ugly—a good appearance and an absolutely skillful actress.” He says he cannot compare her to Welitsch, whom he has heard only in small theaters, but “Callas’s voice filled the big Colón without effort. Her coloratura technique was astounding as Norma.”
Before Bing’s exchange with Engel, Callas had shown particular interest in performing at the Met. Her agent, Liduino Bonardi, sent Bing a letter on January 21, 1950, with the message, “The artist Maria Callas Meneghini [she was now married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini] is very anxious to be in the company of this very well-known theatre and she agrees to accept $200 each performance.” Her fees were about to skyrocket, and Bing’s lack of attention would cost him dearly.
When Bing finally becomes serious about trying to engage Callas at the end of 1950, Bonardi responds that she would like to come for one month at the beginning of the season and give eight performances at a fee of $700 each, plus travel expenses for two. In his counteroffer, Bing notes that she is “completely unknown here,” and that beginning singers are generally paid weekly, rather than per performance. However, he is willing to offer Callas a $400 fee for each of 20 performances if she commits to three weeks of rehearsal and 12 weeks of the season. Travel expenses are never paid for anyone beside the artist.
Bing and Callas, 1965
From this exchange in these early negotiations, we immediately begin to perceive the primary problem between Callas and Bing. The Met was a repertory theater that performed seven times a week for 20-odd weeks in New York, then went on a national tour for another eight weeks. The system was entirely different from today, when casts, repertory, and dates are published eight months in advance and planned years before that. In the 1950s, singers were contracted for somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks in New York, and management often wanted them to add another eight weeks for the postseason tour. The contract contained a list of roles the artist would be available to sing but usually without a guarantee of exactly which roles or dates. Specific dates and repertory were only decided a few weeks in advance of the performances and published in the newspaper for the public. By contrast, opera houses in Italy worked on the “stagione,” or season, system, which only required that an artist commit to singing one role in a specified period. They were then free to move on to other engagements.
Rudolf Bing’s Mandate as Met General Manager Begins
In 1950, Rudolf Bing began his first season as General Manager of the Met. He planned a new production of Verdi’s Aida to open the 1951–52 season and offered the opening night performance to Callas. She agreed to a fee of $400 per performance, but she and Bing could not come to terms over the amount of time and number of guaranteed performances. Reading the slight differences in their positions now, one can hardly believe that Bing’s intransigence caused the Met to miss the vocal prime of one of the century’s most important singers. Meanwhile, Callas made her La Scala debut as Aida in 1950, initiating her relationship with the opera company that would be her artistic home for the prime years of her career. She was also recorded for the first time in late 1949, and numerous performances were broadcast, some of which were circulating and adding to her growing reputation.
Callas as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, with tenor Daniele Barioni as Alfredo
Callas’s unique abilities spurred a series of rarely performed revivals in Italy. In 1951, when the Florence May Festival staged Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani with Callas in the challenging role of Elena, Bing decided it was time to hear her for himself and attended a performance. He wrote that she had “remarkable material” but “has still a good deal to learn before she can be a star at the Met.” Nevertheless, he had a cordial meeting with her afterwards and discussed a Met debut in the 1952–53 season. Yet again, the disagreement between the number of weeks Bing demanded of Callas and the repertory she wanted to sing scuttled their mutual desire for her to come to New York.
Defending his decision years later, Bing wrote in his memoir 5000 Nights at the Opera that Callas, in 1951, was “monstrously fat and awkward.” Photos of her in I Vespri Siciliani in 1951 show that she was certainly heavier than the lithe woman she would become a few years later, but she was hardly “monstrously fat,” especially by opera singer standards. Similarly, pirated audio recordings of the performance reveal her amazing vocal range, thrilling musicality, and expressivity, belying Bing’s judgment that “she had a good deal to learn.” And Bing’s conclusion about Callas in his 1972 memoir shows that his opinions evolved after that initial encounter. He wrote: “Nearly everything she did spoiled that opera for me; I never fully enjoyed any other artist in one of her roles after she did it.” He goes on to regret that she sang so few performances at the Met—only 21—but maintains that he could not have bowed to her demands.
To Bing’s credit, he continued attempts to bring Callas to the Met, though always on his terms, hoping to fit her into the company’s machine-like structure. She agreed to sing Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata in the spring of 1953 on the condition that her husband accompany her. But the U.S. State Department declined to grant Meneghini a visa, so these plans were scuttled. Meneghini claimed he was denied the visa because he had quit his business to manage his wife’s career and was therefore unemployed and suspected as an “immigrant searching for work.” Whatever the visa problem, his management of Callas’s career became a major stumbling block for her engagement at the Met, as Meneghini was more interested in high fees than a theater’s prestige. He and Bing butted heads but in different languages, as Meneghini only spoke Italian and Bing only German and English. Bing got on much better with Callas directly, but her husband often remained the point person for business affairs.
Meanwhile, other considerations arose. First, in 1953, Angel Records, the American branch of EMI, began issuing their now legendary series of recordings made at La Scala, featuring Callas in her artistic prime. Bing, who had earlier supposed that she was unknown to the American public, now found himself pressured by the music-loving public to engage her for the Met. While this irritated him greatly, his vexation only grew when the nascent Lyric Opera of Chicago signed Callas for two seasons, in 1954 and 1955, at the dizzying fee of $2,000 per performance. (Bing was offering $800). The young Chicago company vaunted the fact that they had gotten Callas first, along with some other La Scala stars that the Met had been slow to engage. Bing was livid.
Callas in the title role of Puccini’s Tosca
The Met pursued negotiations with Meneghini and Callas through Bing’s Italian talent scout, Roberto Bauer. At long last, in the fall of 1955, Callas agreed to open the Met’s 1956–57 season in the title role of Norma. Bing himself travelled to Chicago to hear her in Il Trovatore and have her sign the contract in the dressing room. He reported to Bauer that their encounter was “very pleasant” and, with his customary wit, related that “Just before signing she confessed to me that she was a little afraid of me, but she laughed when I told her that she could not be nearly so afraid of me as I am of her!”
All was now set for Maria Callas to finally make a triumphant entrance into the flagship opera house of her native land. Then, at the end of her Chicago engagement, a fly fell into the ointment in the form of a subpoena delivered to the diva as she left the stage. Richard Bagarozy claimed that Callas had signed an exclusive contract with him as her agent in the 1940s before she left America for Europe. He was suing her for a huge sum, though he had had nothing to do with her career. In order for her to return to the United States, the Met and its lawyers had to figure out a way to pay her so that her earnings could not be entailed by the court. According to Bing, Meneghini insisted he be paid in cash after each performance. (Her Met fee was $1,000.) Eventually, the case was settled out of court, but not before the Met was obliged to have her accompanied everywhere to avoid summons servers like the one who pursued her backstage in Chicago, leaving her furious and paranoid.
Callas Makes her Met Debut
Callas debuted at the Metropolitan Opera on October 29, 1956, in the title role of Norma. She was, by her own admission, not at her best, and the reviews were mixed. The audience gave her an enthusiastic reception in spite of unflattering pre-publicity, some of which repeated dubious anecdotes. Skeptical fans of rival prima donnas and writers who expected a conventionally beautiful voice found reason to disapprove, but those who valued musical quality and interpretive creativity, such as esteemed critic Irving Kolodin, ardently defended her artistry.
The title roles of Tosca and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor provided evidence of Callas’s diverse abilities, and a scene from Act II of Tosca was televised from the studios of the Ed Sullivan Show toward the end of November. The Met had arranged a series of five operatic scenes to appear on the popular national program, with Callas and baritone George London as Scarpia in the initial show. The Met had initially hoped to have complete performances televised, but the plans never materialized, and the Ed Sullivan Show was a fallback solution. From a publicity point of view, however, nothing could top the Ed Sullivan Show, the top-rated television program in the U.S. on Sunday evenings with a huge audience.
Callas in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
Callas’s 1956 Lucia was broadcast live nationwide as part of the regular Saturday afternoon series from the Met. It was her sole feature on that storied series, and although her performance was far from her best, her musicality and immersion in the character were quintessential Callas.
For the 1957–58 season, Callas returned to the Met to sing Violetta in La Traviata and reprise Tosca and Lucia. The Traviata production premiered the previous year with her frequent rival, soprano Renata Tebaldi, in the title role, which may have partially accounted for Callas’s low opinion of the staging. Her displeasure may also have been due to the comparison with La Scala’s 1955 production by famed film director Luchino Visconti, which was built around Callas and her unique artistry. In any case, Bing agreed to have new costumes designed by Rolf Gérard for her Met Traviata debut.
Then came the famous events surrounding the Callas–Bing relationship during the Met’s 1958–59 season. In planning each season, Bing had tried to find a way to fit Callas into the Met’s repertory system, but it was difficult to compete with the offers the diva was receiving elsewhere. La Scala had already staged six rarely heard operas especially for her: Cherubini’s Medea, Gluck’s Alceste, Spontini’s La Vestale, Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena—not to mention featuring her in standard repertory. Her Milan appearances were conducted by first-rank conductors such as Antonino Votto, Vittorio Gui, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Gianandrea Gavazzeni. The productions were directed by the cream of Italian directors: the aforementioned Visconti, Margherita Wallman, and the young Franco Zeffirelli.
By contrast, Bing wanted Callas to step into old productions restaged by house directors. She may have agreed partly because Dino Yannopoulos, who had staged her first Tosca in Athens during the war, was now on the Met staff and restaged Norma and Tosca with her. For Lucia, she was stuck with a 1942 production restaged by old-school staff director Désiré Defrère. In addition, the Met had few available conductors. Dimitri Mitropoulos, the eminent Greek conductor of the New York Philharmonic, was engaged for her Tosca performances, but Norma, Lucia, and La Traviata all fell to Fausto Cleva, a Met house conductor whom Callas originally protested, having quarreled with him in Verona in 1954.
Callas as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata
The bel canto operas that featured Callas in Milan were not only huge personal successes but launched a general reassessment and new appreciation of the whole genre that swept the opera world. But Bing held to the then commonplace view that bel canto opera was principally about vocal display and of poor musical value. He had no intention of following La Scala’s lead in exhuming forgotten works. In his defense, Bing did offer Callas artistically interesting roles, beginning in 1952 with the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, which he proposed transposing down for her. Then, for the 1957–58 season, he suggested Strauss’s Salome and made overtures to have her create the title role in Barber’s Vanessa, but Callas never sang in German and was not interested in singing in English, even though it was her native tongue. In short, Bing and Callas were simply not on the same page when it came to repertory. Then, for the 1958–59 season, Bing finally offered Callas the sort of production she desired.
Verdi’s Macbeth—starring Callas and baritone Leonard Warren, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, and directed by Carl Ebert—was to have been the crowning event of the 1958–59 season. Alas, Bing attached strings to Callas’s contract that required her to alternate performing Lady Macbeth with other roles to accommodate the Met’s repertory system. The agreement was that she would sing Tosca, Lucia, or Violetta in between Macbeth performances. Had Callas been in the vocal form she enjoyed when she sang Macbeth at La Scala in the 1952–53 season, this might not have phased her. However, by 1959, the strain of singing so much difficult repertory made her voice less reliable, and the weight of her reputation only added to her anxiety. Few sopranos would even consider singing Lady Macbeth interspersed with another role, and certainly not one as light as Violetta or Lucia. In retrospect, the whole plan seemed unreasonable, but she had, in fact, signed the contract, and for Bing, that was all that mattered.
Callas’s Met Contract Terminated
In October 1958, Callas arrived in Dallas, where a young opera company was staging Cherubini’s Medea—one of her most successful portrayals—expressly for her. Bing sent message after message asking Callas to confirm the dates and roles she would sing in addition to Lady Macbeth, only to have her evade giving any concrete answer. As the Met season began, he still could not announce the February performances without confirming Callas’s dates other than for Macbeth. It seems never to have occurred to either of them to let her come to the Met just for Macbeth, which would be standard procedure today. Although he desperately wanted Callas for the season, Bing felt his authority as General Manager was at stake, and that allowing Callas to avoid something she was contracted to do would leave him powerless to enforce agreements with other stars.
Callas and tenor Franco Corelli in Puccini’s Tosca, 1965
So, after sending Callas an ultimatum that she must agree to perform other roles besides Lady Macbeth and receiving no reply, Bing sent a telegram firing Callas on November 6, 1958. He simultaneously released a press statement that all her performances for the season were canceled. The scandal exploded in the press worldwide, making frontpage headlines and nightly TV news stories. Reporters interviewed Callas in her dressing room in Dallas, where the diva made withering comments about the poor production standards at the Met.
Planning the Return
Curiously enough, despite many vituperative comments passed back and forth around the firing, Bing and Callas remained in touch. Conflicts in the diva’s personal life added to her vocal difficulties and led her to scale back her career considerably in the years after her break with the Met. Opera performances were less frequent while concerts and recordings took up more of her artistic energies. But Callas was now recognized as a living legend, and Bing wanted her back at the Met. By now, he realized that he would have to offer her something that would highlight her greatest qualities and not overly strain her vocal resources.
With the new Metropolitan Opera House opening at Lincoln Center in fall 1966, Bing tried to entice Callas to return for a new production of Carmen, an opera she had recorded in 1964. The idea included hopes that Aristotle Onassis, with whom Callas was now amorously linked, might pay for the production. Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, also slated for the opening season at Lincoln Center, was another possibility floated to Callas, though it is unlikely she considered it seriously. Medea was the obvious choice, and Bing proposed borrowing the Dallas production and staging it for her at the Met.
Callas in the title role of Puccini’s Tosca, with tenor Richard Tucker as Cavaradossi, 1965
In the end, it was an old warhorse, Tosca, that Callas finally agreed to sing for her return to the Met in 1965. It would also be her Met farewell. The two performances, both with her old friend baritone Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and two different tenors, Franco Corelli and Richard Tucker, created a furor for tickets the likes of which the Met has rarely seen. Lines formed outside for standing room the previous day. Bing was constantly by her side.
Following those Tosca appearances, Callas never sang again at the Met, although she did visit as an audience member. For several years, Bing continued to try and entice her back with anything she wanted to do. Medea was again proposed, but Callas retired from the opera stage for good in 1965. She returned to New York for master classes at the Juilliard School and for joint recitals with tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano in 1973, but neither was at the Met.
Reading Bing’s memoirs, one senses that, despite his self-justifications, he realized that a true operatic phenomenon of his time had slipped through his hands. If he had grabbed the opportunity to engage Callas in 1950 or 1951, those amazing broadcasts that aficionados still hold as paradigms from her early career might have come from the Met. Or, if he had agreed to stage new productions of works like I Vespri Siciliani, Macbeth, or Anna Bolena with a great conductor in the early 1950s, the Met might have shared the glory with La Scala. The Met’s role in the Callas legacy, however, was fated to be much smaller than anyone would have wished.
—Peter Clark, Consultant/Historian and former Director of the Metropolitan Opera Archives