Maria Callas was of Greek decent, born in New York in December 1923. Just one year later, in 1924, Giacomo Puccini, who was from the small town of Lucca in Italy, died. They never met. They never even knew each other, and yet their lives will be forever entwined.
Maria Callas, of course, would come to know Puccini intimately through the miraculous beauty of his work. But it seems almost a tragedy that Giacomo Puccini would never know the woman, or hear the phenomenal voice, that would give such flight to his work.
It is almost inconceivable that Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential sopranos of the 20th century, detested her own voice. She thought it too nasal! The first time she listened to a recording of one of her performances, she broke down in tears. She had wanted to give up singing entirely. Though she later said she was able to accept her voice and be objective about it, it seems impossible that she might well have been the only person on earth left unmoved by the fluid power, that lilting delicacy and startling expression of authentic emotion, that brought audiences to their knees.
Given her tumultuous childhood, perhaps the very thing that gave her access to such raw emotion, it seems understandable that she might have viewed herself with a sense of remote disconnection. She commented often that “Callas,” the woman who went up on stage, was another person.
While the tone or quality of her voice might have been subjective—and there were detractors—through her style and phrasing, her voice came to be revered as the most telling, the most expressive and true voice of her time. With the fiery passion and theatricality she brought to each performance, she captured the hearts of audiences the world over.
But more: Victor de Sabata, the acclaimed conductor and composer, noted, “If the public could only understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” Tullio Serafin, another conducting giant of the time, considered her musicality “extraordinary, almost frightening.” And indeed, Callas viewed herself foremost as a musician, the first instrument of the orchestra, though she never thought of herself as “good enough.”
Thirty-five years after her death, she was still one of classical music’s best-selling artists. While the press named her the first “diva” of the opera and concentrated on the drama and spectacle of her private life, those who actually listened to her voice were transported to another world: a world where each moment caught your breath, where each phrase, in the best tradition of opera, was love—life or death.
Maria Callas’ first performance in a leading role was that of Tosca, written, of course, by Giacomo Puccini. Callas went on to sing the arias from every one of Puccini’s most popular operas.
Puccini came from a lineage of musicians who were well established in Italy. While they were certainly not wealthy, Puccini’s grandfather, after whom he was named, was the organ player and chief conductor at the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca. Members of the Puccini family had occupied that position going back to 1740!
After the death of his father, the family fell on difficult times. Giacomo was said to have been an unruly child, often playing truant from school, and at one point being accused of stealing the lead pipes from the church organ to buy cigarettes! Later on, he would actually elope to marry his wife, so it is clear he was not exactly a shrinking violet. There was a vibrancy to his personality, and it showed in the myriad colors of his work.
At age 17, he literally walked from Lucca to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s latest opera, “Aida.” At that point, Verdi was the rock star of Italian opera. Apparently, Puccini had no money and no ticket, but that did not stop him. It would not be long before Verdi’s ardent fan would equal his fame.
It was expected that Giacomo would follow in the family’s musical tradition. He was sent to study at the Conservatory of Milan, where he lived the bohemian life of the starving artist. His adventures there would inspire his later opera,
Apparently, apart from enjoying the nightlife of Milan, his schooling bored him to tears. But the Conservatory required he compose a piece as part of his thesis. Puccini responded with a composition for full orchestra entitled “Capriccio Sinfonico.” Writing for full orchestra, with just pen and paper, is an unfathomable skill. But Puccini’s remarkable symphonic talent and style were immediately clear.
It might have been expected that a man from such a background would become an excellent composer, but that doesn’t explain the incomparable genius that gave the world the operas “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.” It is an unparalleled contribution of such magnificence that words simply fail. To this day, these works still thrill audiences around the world.
As a musical dramatist, he was unequaled. As a writer of the most memorable arias, with melodies such as the impassioned “Nessun Dorma,” which became the theme for the 1990 soccer World Cup, he broke through the elitist notions of opera, bringing that magical world of imagination to the common people.
But neither Giacomo Puccini nor Maria Callas were common people. They may have grown up on the same streets as the common people, but the miracle of their uncommon gift was to distill everything of the human experience, from our highest ideals to our lowest cravings—the fears and secrets hidden in the corners of our hearts, desires, heartbreaks, the sacred and the profane—and reflect every one of us back upon ourselves.
It is a rare gift—so rare, in fact, that we still know the names of those few who have been able to do it. Their lives and their work enrich us all with a greater sense of the meaning, the depth and width, of our existence.
Giacomo Puccini and Maria Callas were not alike in terms of their personalities, but in their work, they appear as almost the same person. Their brilliance, of both sheer technical skill and deep, human, expressive passion, is truly as one. It is as if Callas was born specifically to bring ultimate expression to Puccini’s work.
I mentioned that they never actually met. Puccini was leaving this world just as Callas was coming into it. But there is a song, “Un Bel Dì, Vedremo” (one fine day we will see). It is an aria for soprano from the second act of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.” If you never listen to another piece of opera in your life, just read the outline to the story of Cio Cio San, and then listen to Maria Callas perform it. It is a piece of such searing drama and delicate beauty that it leaves me speechless each time I hear it. And each time I hear it, I am more convinced that Giacomo Puccini must be standing right there in the wings, listening.
Pete McGrain is a professional writer, director, and composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.