A guest post by Ginger Dellenbaugh
One hand, clenched in a fist, in the middle of a puffed chest and the other outstretched as if the voice were launched like a frisbee. If one could distill a genre to a gesture, this would be the posture that portrays opera. Similarly, if one could delegate the idea of an opera singer to one figure, it would be Maria Callas. Instead of gestures, however, we have myths. Such was my induction into opera—long before I knew anything about its history or craft, I struck the pose, and before I had ever listened to a Callas recording, I had heard stories about her performance antics and dramatic exits. The latter were tales retold with some relish by the first Callas fan I ever encountered, my disillusioned drama teacher.
Most of these stories revolved around Puccini’s Tosca (1900), one of Callas’s more celebrated roles. The opera is known for its dramatic climax, where the eponymous heroine, in despair at the execution of her lover and wanted for the murder of her tormentor, leaps to her death from the walls of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. The staging of this moment involves some practical back-stage necessities, most importantly, some kind of soft surface, usually a padded trampoline, to catch the soprano after her leap. Needless to say, there are so many ways that this can go wrong.
In the first anecdote, the temperamental diva, too busy for rehearsals, arrived in a South American opera house on the eve of the premiere. To augment the action in the final scene, the opera house hired several dozen extras to play the soldiers pursuing Tosca before she makes her final leap. Legend has it that in the hurry to prepare for the performance, these extras were simply given the command to “follow Callas wherever she went,” which had nearly deadly consequences. The extras, obeying their orders to the T, pursued Callas/Tosca in the last scene up to the wall of the castle, onto the parapet, and when she jumped, they, too, began to jump after her, like lemmings. Rumor has it she was nearly crushed by the onslaught of enthusiastic extras in armor leaping on top of her back stage.
The second event is also purported to have taken place somewhere in South America—a continent well suited, it seems, for theatrical catastrophe. Again, the temperamental diva, too busy for rehearsals, arrived at the house on the eve of the premiere. The stage hands, apparently overwhelmed by other duties, didn’t calibrate the mattress/trampoline mechanism for the final act. Thus, when Callas/Tosca leapt from the parapet, the audience was stunned to see her reappear, her final death cry transformed into a scream of humiliated fury as she bounced back up behind the set as the curtain fell.
Act II, as well, was not without purported mishaps, particularly in the final scene. Tosca, in attempt to save the life of her soon to be executed lover, has agreed to submit to the sexual demands of the villain, Scarpia. Just as he signs the documents freeing the prisoner, Tosca takes advantage of a knife found on the table and stabs Scarpia to death.
This gossip around this act comes, apparently, from noted Callas collaborator Tito Gobbi, who often played the role of Scarpia to Callas’s Tosca. At the climax of the Act, having just committed murder, Tosca is supposed to rush from the room. However, legend has it that Callas was very near-sighted and unable to wear contact lenses. During one premiere as she was stumbling around the stage, a helpful Gobbi/Scarpia revivified just long enough to add some extra death throes to point her in the right direction. Callas apparently didn’t notice him at first, so he had to redouble his efforts, twitching about the stage like a banked fish until Callas finally noticed and groped her way to the exit.
Like the opera posture I struck as a child, gleaned from some forgotten source, these stories primed my perception of Callas before I began to think seriously about singing and its labor. There is, of course, a grain of truth in both the affectation and the fiction. The diva pose, as with many of the stereotypes around opera (like large ladies and horned helmets), is an imitation of actual practice. Singers do puff out their chests to expand the rib-cage, and extending an arm to the audience for dramatic effect is a common gesture that aids in finding the vocal “sweet spot”; in addition, many singers have had robust physiques, and those infamous helmets were a staple in early productions of Wagner. Similarly, Callas did have some stage mishaps and, at times, made questionable professional and personal choices that compromised her public image. Perhaps that is why it is telling that so many apocryphal takes about Maria Callas involve Tosca, that willful, passionate singer who takes her own life rather than submit to the law. There is just enough parallel with Callas the singer and Tosca the character to lend these tales of humiliation a touch of schadenfreude.
Whether these gestures and tales are fact or fiction, however, is not of primary significance—these superficialities do their own kind of cultural work. On the one hand, in making the genre and the practice both reductible or even ridiculous, they denigrate the aspirations of both craft and genre. The pose of the working body becomes a pretentious affectation and performative exceptionality is tempered by humiliating accidents. On the other, they offer demystification—a bodily gesture enabling the first step in imagining an unknown behaviour, while tales of stage accidents humanize an otherwise larger-than-life figure. Callas as human, perhaps all too human?
Ginger Dellenbaugh is a music historian who has taught and written about music and politics, the cultural techniques of the human voice, and vernacular notation systems. She lives in New York City and Vienna, Austria.