Cher Public

Ma, deh! Non dirgli, improvvido…

callas_window“Le pene d’amore non uccisero la Callas” reads the rather sensational headline: “The pains of love did not kill Callas.” The actual story in La Stampa is more sober, telling of an investigative study into the causes of the diva’s vocal decline and eventual death.

The reasons for Maria Callas’s vocal decline and death, on September 16, 1977 in her Paris apartment, have never been completely clarified until today, although several theories have been put forth, including suicide, firmly denied by her servants only in recent times. But now science and technology have eliminated false deductions, narrowing the field to medicine and phoniatrics, revising past diagnoses, adding them to new research and providing a convincing picture.

It appears that the soprano suffered from dermatomiositis, a disorder that causes slackening of the muscles and tissues in general, including those associated with the larynx: hence the discontinuity and the vocal decline that began showing already in the early 1960s. The treatment for dermatomiositis is based on cortisone and immunosuppressants, the side effect of which can include heart failure.

Two phoniatric experts, Franco Fussi and Nico Paolillo, have presented the results of their research at the University of Bologna in an panel organized by Marco Beghelli of the publishing house Il Saggiatore and devoted to the scientific analysis of the Callas phenomenon. The starting point was to examine, using modern scientific instruments,  Callas’s recordings, both studio and especially live, so as to ascertain what really changed in her voice between the 1950s, her prime years, and the 1960s, when her voice started to show increasing problems in the passaggio and uneven registers, until the difficult concerts of the early ‘70s.

Recording of the same arias recorded in different years have been subjected to a spectrographic analysis, which revealed that in her last period Callas had de facto become a mezzo-soprano: this explains the unnaturalness of her top, now harsher and less pleasant. Fussi and Paolillo have also analyzed Callas’ last videos, which reveal muscular slackenin: her chest does not expand when she breathes; on the contrary, every time she inhales, she raises her shoulders, and contracts her deltoids, a most incorrect manner to support one’s voice.

On this basis the dermatomiositis diagnosis, first formulated by Dr. Mario Giacovazzo, who visited the soprano in 1975, but revealed his findings only in 2002, has received a further confirmation. Fussi and Paolillo have also investigated the clinical picture connected to this pathology, to the extreme consequences of a cardiac arrest. In this way they have on one hand unequivocally eliminated the barbiturate hypothesis and on the other verified in artistic terms how her decline should not be attributed to the excessive vocal effort or to external causes, such as the emotional and wordly tensions linked to her liaison with Aristotle Onassis.

Married to the Veronese industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Callas had a relationship with the Greek tycoon from the summer of 1959, giving birth to a son who died in April 1960 right after delivery. Callas, who had in the mean time separated from Meneghini, was left by Onassis, who in 1968 married Jacqueline Kennedy.

There is, however, a relationship between her decline and her weight loss; she shed 30 kilos, about 66 pounds, in 1954 with a method that is still obscure, since nobody has ever been able to discover whether she actually ingested the Taenia solium, or tapeworm. Fussi and Paolillo pointed out that, on the basis of recent cases, a weight loss can cause a decreased physical support of the vocal apparatus and a lesser homogeneity between registers.

On the basis of these observations they have re-examined the famous episode when Callas interrupted the opening night of Norma at the Opera of Roma on January 2, 1958, sending home even the President of the Republic Giovanni Gronchi. The two experts have spectrographically analyzed the archival recording of that performance, after having it restored. It is the document of a fatigued voice, uneven in its registers, not as well controlled as before. It wasn’t a whim, Callas was truly unwell; she had tracheitis and her muscles were perhaps already yielding: her decline had started.

  • Joe Conda


    • Harry

      I find such a comment incredibly dismissive, in the light of those that have taken a forensic approach.

      • ardath_bey

        Forensic? Hardly. Only a complete autopsy at the time or an exhumation of her body now could be called forensic and lead to the real cause of Callas’ death.

        Listening to her recordings is highly speculative and subjective. Worthless.

        • Harry

          Yes,it does come within the area of valid forensic research, ardath_bey

          I see you are wanting to push the Callas matter -- strictly on the basis of a physical autopsy alone as the great panacea. How crudely simplistic can you be?
          Have you ever been present at an actual autopsy? Like a lot of other people, I have. Have you ever considered the fact that some straight physical autopsies are deemed inconclusive and instead a considered expert judgment presented, suffices in any case. When other allied confusing information is also presented about behavior or lifestyle of the deceased.

          But unusually in this particular case, the trajectory of her deteriorating voice was so fully documented in sound and picture. Her physical behavior / animation is therefore also available and clearly on show for expert examination of ‘the patient’ WHILST SHE WAS….LIVING! It is a remarkable unique coincidence and situation , in these circumstances. Imagine this: could she have ever considered such ‘performances’ of her, would be there ‘to be medially not just musically autopsied’ too!

          Voices in order ‘to sound’ require the use of muscles, organs and tissue. What a dumb statement one has to make here, to discredit such a stupid statement you make ardath_bey!
          If they are not behaving in synch.. I believe you do not wish to give credit to the abilities of modern experts in the relative departments of medicine to ‘work backwards’. That is, to rigorously test made medical thesis’ in the face of other conflicting data already available. Especially when various former records and professional confidences become perhaps finally available for the first time to fill the jig-saw that narrows down causes and explodes long held myths.

    • Mi Chiamano Mimi

      Could not agree with you more. Diagnosing disease and cause of death by listening to old recordings and seeing a handfull of videos……Please.

      • armerjacquino

        Plus the highly scientific ‘her weight loss affected her voice because some people say that’s happened to people since’.

      • MontyNostry

        Parterrians diagnose all sorts if things from listening to old recordings, don’t they?

  • quoth the maven

    well, at least it retells the story as something other than the vulgar soap opera of the conventional Callas narrative.

    I’ve personally noted the shoulder action on those later videos, like the Hamburg 1962 performances, and found it odd from a singer with such a highly developed understanding of technique.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Yes, I’ve noticed it too, but it’s a habit loads of singers succumb to when they’re tense or nervous.

    • Mi Chiamano Mimi

      I worship the woman as a singer and an artist, but her life was, maybe not vulgar in today’s sense, but certainly a soap opera.

      • quoth the maven

        well, it’s less of a soap opera if you allow the possibility that the decline in her health and vocalism was due to something other than her love life.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Most of this looks like highly subjective nonsense. How can anybody say she had become de facto a mezzo soprano for instance, as if what a mezzo soprano is can be defined by scientists. A clapped out soprano is still a soprano.

    I love Callas more than any other singer, and I hate to see her demise raked over in such a pompous way.

    • Nerva Nelli

      “A clapped out soprano is still a soprano.”

      How DARE you criticize Roz Plowright!!???

      • mrmyster

        But Herva, don’t they have a cure for that nowadays?
        Antibiotics or something?

      • Harry

        Plowright? Soprano, in name only from the very first moment. If anyone wants the slightest evidence why classical CD’s went ‘down the tubes’…just try Plowright -- in DG’s Forza del Destino………. pure indelible FILTH! The person that pushed and promoted her to be ‘a star’, should be taken out and flogged mercilessly for inflicting savage pain on our ears. She certainly plowed right through the notes.

        • luvtennis

          I so agree with you, Harry. There were so many egregiously HORRIFIC recordings issued in the 80’s. They just threw shit out there, and there were so many inexplicable recordings -- inexplicable given the unacceptable quality of the performances, probably very “explicable” from a “s(he)’s screwing him” standpoint.

          I always think of the ’80s as the lost decade of operatic recordings.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        And a pushed up mezzo is still a mezzo…..

  • louannd

    a weight loss can cause a decreased physical support of the vocal apparatus and a lesser homogeneity between registers.

    Any idea where this information came from? It’s a very interesting subject.

    • louannd

      The diagnosis of dermatomyositis can be confirmed by muscle biopsy, EMG,and blood tests. It should be noted, however, that only muscle biopsy is truly diagnostic (pathognomic); liver enzymes and EMG are relatively non-specific.

      From Wikipedia.

  • pernille

    Those of you who read Italian might enjoy this site:
    It seems to suggest that there is some serious work being done in the area where the art and science of singing overlap.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Well, it may be some truth to these findings. Sopranos have shorter and thinner vocal cords than mezzos, even if the differences are minuscule. Thickening of the vocal cords can change a soprano’s voice to a mezzo. A cello can play a violin’s line but never at the same pitch because cello has longer and thicker srings than the violin. Rapid weight loss without exercise leads to muscle waste, weakening the intercostal muscles that are important in inhaling, expanding the chest cavity, increasing lung capacity and storing large amount of oxygen. With dysfunctional intercostal muscles support, the voice support will be compromised. Callas will always remain a phenomenon that will never quench our curiosity.

    • Harry

      Ruxton: I must have confused you, along the way. Where are your deductive powers? I am and have always been a life-long moderate middle of the roader.

      Where the subject of Opera is concerned, then all bets are off!

      • Dear Harry it is hard to put the name Harry and moderate in the same sentance. Merry Christmas.

        • Harry

          Merry Christmas to you Ruxton, too.

  • Bluessweet

    I hate Harry. He is vulgar, a curmudgeon, right wing, opinionated and dismissive of other opinion.

    Unfortunately, the real reason I hate him is that he also usually right and quick to see the thing under discussion in it’s true light.

    1.1Harry says:
    December 14, 2010 at 4:21 PM
    I find such a comment incredibly dismissive, in the light of those that have taken a forensic approach

    Whether this whole study is an on-the-mark discovery or a shot gone astray has nothing to do with what Harry has said. He has merely said that a forensic approach beats throwing out a vulgarism because you remain unconvinced.

    Unless they dig up poor Maria, I guess the best we can do is analyze her recordings and video, along with any medical records that might be available, now or later.

    Certainly, MS. Callas declined (most of us do from our peak.) For some of us, it’s simply a process of aging but for others, various diseases and physical conditions are the underlying causes.

    Thank you for reporting this thought, Ercole Farnese and for the doctors in question for considering it

    • Will

      “Unless they dig up poor Maria”
      Callas was cremated and her ashes interred for a time. They were later scattered over the Aegean Sea as had been her intention.

    • Harry

      Bluesweet: Years ago there was an medical article published about various composers’ final illnesses, where doctors and psychiatrists took the historical medical records and written accounts from close friends as observances of progressive symptoms.
      For example it was interesting to see them shift the long held position of Brahms’ cancer to a different body organ, based on their current knowledge of sequential body effects set against date recorded information contained in various historical correspondence. That of comparing ‘which and how other certain organs progressively deteriorated in sympathy’ in making a final modern medical conclusion.
      In one instance being a sole observer: I sat startled and watched a medically trained, former performer / singing teacher tutoring a singer. I was flabbergasted when they out of usual character and ‘completely out of the blue’ politely asked the female pupil if it was in fact ‘their time of the month’. The pupil exclaimed “How did you know?’ The teacher: “I can hear a certain change in your voice from your last session. Therefore today, we will work around that” I have seen the same teacher listen to a performer on stage and afterward, tackle and wheedle out of them -- that they are smoking, based on what they just heard. Where do such people get this uncanny ‘instinct’ from, puzzles even cynical me. It is some form of deductive ‘gift’.
      The big question here we should both ask, of detactors of those searching for Truth : ‘Would anyone dare discount the experiences or the knowledge and facilities of 21st Century medicine detection or instead accept those of the 19th Century’?.
      Ditto …in the case of Callas. The last 33 years since her death ‘is a medical Century of discovery, in itself’. Even to how certain inherent genes effect certain cultures, or people in certain locations in their life endevours
      At least we now know most likely for certain, we are probably ‘much closer to the truth ‘ about Callas and her career than we ever were, before.

  • Whether one can agree with those two phoniatric experts, it would be unjust not to lend credence to Dr. Giacovazzo, a renowned physician who was summoned by a desperate Callas herself in 1975 and who diagnosed her with dermatomiositis. Dr. Giacovazzo is not a publicity hunter; he went public with this story a quarter of a century after her death, after he himself had retired.
    There have been so many rumors about Callas’ decline. I remember hearing one about extremely precocious menopause. For physicians listening: is it possible for a woman to enter menopause in her mid ’30s?

    • steveac10

      I’m not a physician, but I know my mother (and according to her, my grandmother) did. My mom remarried at 35 and had already started the change and could have no kids with my stepfather.

    • Harry

      Yes. Indeed! Ercole Farnese. In rare cases even earlier.

    • ilpenedelmiocor

      OK, let’s do a little chronology here:

      As I recall from the Callas documentary, in commenting on Callas’s student years, de Hidalgo mentioned her tremendous lung capacity and/or chest strength (don’t recall which, it was in French :-) )

      March 16, 1962: her shoulders are up around her ears in Hamburg

      1973: disastrous tour with di Stefano
      November 11, 1974: last public performance

      1975: diagnosed with dermatosiositis by Giacovazzo
      Does he prescribe cortisone/immunosuppressants??

      March 3, 1976: sounding surprisingly good again all of a sudden

      September 16, 1977: cardiac arrest

      I’m just sayin….

      • ilpenedelmiocor

        agh, dermatomiositis

      • richard

        There also are a few fragments of her working on the music of Forza which date from early 1977, not many months before she died. Like the Ah Perfido, they don’t sound bad, certainly a lot better than the 1973-74 tour and the Phillips recordings.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Yes, if she has a hormonal probelm that is left untreated, or if she has her ovaries removed like it was done in the olden days following mastectomy for carcinoma of the breast.

  • Bluesweet…”harry right wing?” You could have fooled me. I’ve always thought he was a Bollinger Bolchevik.

  • Niel Rishoi

    I believe Callas’s vocal problems were compounded by three major factors: her undertaking of heavy roles way too young which was exacerbated, by the way she used her voice in those roles, exacerbated further by the drastic weight loss.

    The vocal cords are like rubber bands, elastic and springy. like rubber bands, if pulled and pushed and stretch, they lose that elasticity. Uneven vibrating vocal cords equal a wobble. Callas sang, before she was even in her mid-twenties, Turandot, Norma, Bruunhilde, Isolde, Elena, Gioconda, Aida, Leonora, Abigaille…and documents preserve (aside from how musically she sang the roles) how heavily she pushed on the voice, how unknitted were the registers. Not being a true dramatic soprano, she had to force what I feel was a lyrico spinto coloratura. By the time she had her big weight loss, the voice was already in decline; they both coincided with each other. I think the starvation diet hurried up the falling away of the vocal robustness. Simply put, Callas took an unsettled voice and subjected it to a lot of heavy use, before it was allowed to strengthen by nature, and by failing to judiciously pace herself. it has been suggested that Callas wrecked her voice because of her emotional manner of singing, but I find that to be ludicrous hogwash and an insult to Callas’s musicianship and musical discipline. How can an opera singer use the “method” approach? Recalling bad emotional episodes in your life, that cause you to cry, will only cause you to lose the breath support and control. I don’t want to say Callas was greedy in undertaking all these roles so early on; but she certainly had a need to prove herself. Therefore, to my way of thinking, Callas’s vocal decline was a simple case of cause and effect.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      This is how I’ve always understood it too, and it makes perfect sense. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that it may have been exacerbated by other things such as the cited medical condition, and at the same time I don’t like to see too much emphasis placed on the weight loss, but it does surely boil down to excessive, rapid wear and tear on the vocal mechanism due to alternating a lot of crazy repertoire at a young age, very little of which was her true fach. Thrilling though it is, you can hear how wrong the early Turandot excerpts are for her opposite Del Monaco, and at the same time, one feels for her just as much in things like the Armida where she insists on interpolating insane top notes at each and every opportunity and then some. Her natural territory lay in between these 2 extremes.

    • luvtennis

      Assuming that medical issues are not to blame, I think that Maria’s management of her rep. really hastened her decline. The operatic voice is a lot like any athletic or physical skill, muscle memory strikes me as key.

      • Camille

        luvtennis: I just have to tell you how impressed I am with your girl, Jennifer Wilson, having finally listened to her the other day. Your enthusiasm for her is entirely justified and I am now happy to join her fan club.

        Why is this lady not at the Met? Who is her management? She is great.

  • Dawson

    “Fussi and Paolillo pointed out that, on the basis of recent cases, a weight loss can cause a decreased physical support of the vocal apparatus and a lesser homogeneity between registers.”

    Mhh, I wonder who they could be talking about? A certain soprano currently singing “The old maid of the West” at the Met? or Angela Brown (no, she is not famous enough).

  • There is another sad case of a singer losing her voice together with her many extra pounds, and perhaps they know her better, as she is Italian and living in Bologna. Her name is Francesca Pedaci. She emerged in the ’90s as a full lyric soprano with a creamy voice and was enjoying a good career, with leading roles in the most important Italian houses. Then she got a contract to sing a handful of Bohèmes at the Met, and decided to change her looks (I must add that the Met contract came with the caveat that she had to do something about her weight). She went brunette (her natural color, but before for years she has been dying platinum blonde) and lost a lot of weight (with no surgery, just starving herself), and by the time she came to the Met, her voice was unrecognizable. It goes without saying, the Met never engaged her again, and I am not sure if she is still singing. Sad, because she was truly talented.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Is this her in this clip from earlier this year? She looks painfully thin and you can hear it’s a decent voice but the line is never sustained:

      • Yes it’s her. She looks very good, i haven’t seen or heard her in a decade.

        • Dawson

          Another recent case of “voice gone along with the weight” is Fiorenza Cedolins. Now she looks like a glamour girl and sounds like Deborah Voigt. It’s interesting: when Callas lost weight, it was the top of her voice to suffer the most. With Voigt, Pedaci and Cedolins it’s the medium that has lost its core.

          • Yesterday the naughty boys who host La Barcaccia, upon hearing excerpts of Voigt in Fanciulla, wondered if it was Natalia De Andrade…

  • La Valkyrietta

    How wonderful it would be to have a Maria today!

    I was last night to one of my favorite operas, Don Carlo. That poor Korean boy just was not right and in spite of some lovely sounds that Russian gal had no clue. I almost shouted “Viva Verdi!” at the end, but just left enjoying in my mind Maria in that final duet. She was indeed divina.

    • scifisci

      Did you hear her sing Elisabetta at La Scala or is there some extremely rare recording I have yet to hear of??

      I’ve heard many good things about Lee….what exactly was the problem? I won’t be able to evaluate for myself until the final performance on Saturday.

      • I am sure you know of the several recordings she left of Tu che la vanita. There has been no rumors of the Don Carlo being recorded,unlike the Chicago Trovatore and the fedora

        • scifisci

          I know there’s no surviving recording, I was simply noting that it’s kind of strange to “hear maria in the final duet” if one has never heard it in the first place. Tu che le vanita is not the final duet as I’m sure you know.

          • Absolutely, but then there is this thing called imagination…

          • scifisci

            Well, then I guess i’m glad I apparently don’t have one, since “enjoying maria in my mind” would certainly ruin live opera for me.

  • La Valkyrietta

    Oh dear. Yes, there is imagination. I never heard Callas in the final duet of Don Carlo, but I certainly can imagine how she would have done it. Of course, knowing Callas, I know she would even surpass my imagination, and imagining how she would have done that is also a pleasure. I certainly have seen more than a dozen Elisabettas, and certainly have seen many tenors sing Don Carlo that have sang other operas with Maria on recordings. When the reality of the world is unbearable, imagination serves well, that is part of the many implied ideas of that duet, isn’t it? Not that the Don Carlo at the Met was unbearable, not at all, there was much that was enjoyable, I’m glad I went. I also want to hear someone say nice things about Lee. He just seemed lost to me, in a role to big for him to handle.

    Maria is a singer who contributed to my love of opera. If there is something that ruins live opera these days sometimes it certainly ain’t her. On the contrary.

  • drugdoc

    They are probably wrong.
    Dermatomyositis is a disorder of derma a myo. You can’t disguise it. Nobody said she went UGLY, only she went unhealthy. No derma no myo.

    On the other hand. Her breathing and energy went to hell. Weight loss is simple addition and subtraction. She didn’t starve, she didn’t binge/purge (although teeth records post-humously could confirm that she did not). She must have used up a lot of calories. Nobody mentioned her marathon running although if she DID, that would explain some things but not her respiratory problems.

    Either, her lungs gave out (primary pulmonary hypertension, really really bad heart failure), but again, we’d know. OR
    THIS !@

    a common diet pill during the 1950’s even up til the present