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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.

55 comments

  • Niel Rishoi says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

    “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 says:

      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 says:

          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.

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

          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.

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    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 says:

    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 !@
    http://www.nerdpocalypse.net/dinitrophenol.html

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