Gay Iconography

Gay Iconography: Singing the Praises Of Maria Callas

Callas

While some bristle at gay men’s adoration for (often straight) female performers, there’s an undeniable allure to some of history’s most over-the-top starlets to which many in the community are frequently drawn. Before Mariah, Whitney, Barbra, Bette and others occupied the overlapping space between icons and divas, few typified the archetype more than opera singer Maria Callas.

2_callasYes, that’s right, an opera singer. We’ve come to expect this sort of glamour, scandal and attitude from our A-list actors and biggest pop stars, but Maria Callas broke the mold to become not only one of the greatest opera singers of all time, but also one of the gay community’s most beloved performers.

There are lots of elements of Callas’ story that are common to other gay icons. For starters, she had a very difficult relationship with her family. When she born, her mother was so disappointed she didn’t have a son that she refused to even look at the baby for four days. She would have a strained relationship with her mother -- often playing out in the press -- throughout the height of her career, eventually severing ties all together. Callas was also something of an ugly duckling turned beautiful swan story -- sort of. The singer transformed her body, losing around 80 pounds. Her svelte physique and chic style (which she modeled off Audrey Hepburn) made her an iconic beauty. Sadly, many attribute her dramatic weight loss to the deterioration of her voice.

In addition to her singing and style, she made headlines for her diva-like behavior. She gained a reputation for being “temperamental” and shrewd (shades of Streisand). The press built up a rivalry between her and fellow soprano Renata Tebaldi that looks like a blueprint for the sort of common narratives pitting female performers against one another we still see today (Nicki Minaj vs. Mariah, Katy vs. Gaga, etc.). Her personal life, especially her affair with Aristotle Onassis, made her a tabloid fixture.

Of course, none of this would have made her so memorable had she not also been extraordinarily talented. See some clips of Callas in action, and her lasting impact, AFTER THE JUMP

  

Callas is known for her distinct voice. She was a versatile singer, with a large, penetrating voice. But, for all its power and range, it wasn’t for everyone. Her style was off-putting to some conventional opera fans, and many music critics acknowledge her shaky high nights and “bottled” sound. “When you interpret a role, you have to have a thousand colors to portray happiness, joy, sorrow, fear,” she is quoted saying in Callas : The Art and the Life. “How can you do this with only a beautiful voice?”

 

  

Not only was Maria known for her unique voice, but her acting skills as well, which are on display in the clip of her performing “Vissi D’Arte” from Tosca, above.

 

  

Callas discussed her reputation for being difficult with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes in 1973, including the largely exaggerated story of her “walkout” on a 1958 performance in Rome. Whether you call it “difficult” or “temperamental,” some might say it’s inspiring to see an artist bold enough to assert herself the way Madame Callas had. (You can see part two of Wallace’s interview here.)

 

  

Playwright Terrence McNally wrote two plays inspired by Callas. The first, The Lisbon Traviata, centered around a rare recording of a real 1958 Callas performance in Portugal and relationships between a group of gay men. He also wrote Master Class, which told the story of Callas teaching at Juilliard in the early ‘70s. You can see Tyne Daly as Callas above, but the role was also performed by other gay icons Dixie Carter, Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway (who has been working on a film adaption of the play for years).

 

  

You also may be familiar with Callas’ work from its appearance in LGBT films, including Philadelphia (above) and Gus Van Sant’s Milk.

Does Callas' story resonate with you? Are you a fan of her work? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Seeing and hearing Callas was amazing (the few films of her performances do show what a great artist she was on stage). Unfortunately, just hearing her without the visuals is a vulgar, disgusting experience. Her voice is downright ugly, and despite the dramatic impact, it's difficult to listen to. Her high notes sound like a 3 alarm fire. That scene from "Philadelphia" is also one of the most ridiculous embarrassing things ever committed to film with Tom Hanks giving probably the worst performance in history. No opera lover talks like that. If you want to listen to the roles Callas sang, do yourself a favor and buy any recording with Joan Sutherland in the lead. Then you will know what it is supposed to sound like.

    Posted by: Jonathan | Apr 19, 2014 1:54:46 PM


  2. i've been a fan of the larger than life callas for longer than most of our readers have been alive, but let me be the first (or one of the first) to say she was certainly not one of the great voices of her time, nor was she a great beauty. she had a wildly expressive voice which, depending on the particular performance, might leave you emotionally bereft, or shaking your head because of the missed notes and wobbly phrasing. at her best, and in the right roles, she could take your breath away and leave you awestricken.

    as for her look, after her weight loss, and possibly some light plastic surgery, she became the model for streisand in making the most of your strong features, spotlighting them rather than trying to camouflage them. and she could wear clothes, an uncommon virtue for the opera singers of her day, who ran towards the stereotypical porkers.

    she also lived a glamorous but nearly tragic life. aristotle onassis, her long time lover rudely dumping her for jackie kennedy (later onassis) and dying young(53)with her finances and voice in tatters.

    what i am saying is that this review misses the mark pretty completely, not that callas wasn't all of the diva any of her critics or her allies loved her fore.

    Posted by: bandanajack | Apr 19, 2014 2:01:50 PM


  3. Maria had voice! Sadly she used it too fast.
    @Jonathan, partly agree with you. I also listen to Joan, Tebaldi, B. Nilsson, Damrau among others.
    I saw Master Class years ago with Patti LuPone in a starring role. Poorly written, but LuPone was superb.

    Posted by: Matt27 | Apr 19, 2014 2:21:15 PM


  4. I disagree with most everything said by the two who have commented. Yes, listen to Sutherland, then Callas... who's words can you understand, who shows passion while singing? To me Callas wins. I find other voices may be more beautiful but I always come back to Callas when I want to hear the fire and passion the composer wrote. Interesting though, this argument about this woman and her ability continues 37 years after her death...have they written a play about Sutherland yet?

    Posted by: Rational | Apr 19, 2014 2:26:30 PM


  5. Thanks for this posting! I am familiar with her story, but not so familiar with her work. The clips showed her fire and passion. And, I felt for her in the interview segment. She seemed very smart and honest. I'm sorry she lived such a short life.

    Posted by: Jim | Apr 19, 2014 2:30:35 PM


  6. To me, she's one of the greatest performers to ever grace the stage. By no means am I an opera connoisseur, but I strongly disagree with some of the comments above. I absolutely love her, and to me her voice was astonishing and her passion palpable. It's unfortunate that her life had such tragic twists and turns, but her legacy will surely live forever.

    Posted by: Chris K | Apr 19, 2014 2:35:18 PM


  7. YESSSS!


    dramatic coloratura - incarnate.

    has anyone here read Ethan Mordden's "The Venice Adriana"?

    1960s-set novel, in Venice, with a young gay american sent over to help a Callas-inspired opera singer write her autobiography. Opera, film, 60s culture, gay life and more. It's funny, touching, sexy, and one of my favourite novels of all time. I highly suggest you all seek it out. You'll LOVE it.

    going to The Met in NYC was one of those amazing things for me - not just getting to experience tremendous art, but seeing so many of my, our, "brothers" there as well. "Stereotypically Gay?" iI prefer to think of us as "Classically Gay" :)

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 19, 2014 2:36:07 PM


  8. I don't get the discussion. Was there ever a question that Callas was the pinnacle?

    Posted by: Jerry | Apr 19, 2014 2:45:35 PM


  9. @ rational: No, no play about Sutherland but none of her recorded performances are out of print and she continues to outsell every opera singer of the last 100 years. Writing a play about a tragic has been trying to teach people to sing when she can't anymore is hardly a ringing endorsement. I listen to opera to hear the expression through the music. I grew up in Italy so I understand everything they are saying and trust me when I tell you that understanding the words does not make it better, it makes it much worse, because THEY ARE STUPID AND REPETITIVE. Callas's singing was severely lacking. I am a singer and if you want to know how NOT to sing, then pay attention. Callas's peak lasted 5 years, Sutherland's 25. It speaks for itself.

    Posted by: Jonathan | Apr 19, 2014 2:47:07 PM


  10. She could force you to believe she was beautiful.

    And that, my dear children, is the power of diva.

    Now I have to go yell at some kids. They're on my lawn.

    Posted by: Elsewhere1010 | Apr 19, 2014 2:47:52 PM


  11. un bel di , vedremo FOR THE WIn

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 19, 2014 2:59:59 PM


  12. man, you queens are old

    Posted by: Homo Genius | Apr 19, 2014 3:01:48 PM


  13. Leonie Rysanek who could sing and act circles around Callas. Her career on stage lasted about 45 years. She sang 299 performances at the Met, in 24 roles including the Met premiers of Macbeth, Nabucco, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, and Katya Kabanova. She was Bayreuth's first post-war Sieglinde. Here she is at the age of 64, high notes still true and gripping acting (in this scene Kostelincka decides to drown Jenufa's baby because the baby is a sin (born out of wedlock).

    http://youtu.be/RDM9a5quZxQ

    In addition to being a great singer and actress, she was also a cherished friend.

    Posted by: TomTallis | Apr 19, 2014 3:28:12 PM


  14. My money is on Leontyne Price, hands down.

    Posted by: kdknyc | Apr 19, 2014 3:37:19 PM


  15. @BANDANAJACK: How can you say this missed the mark when everything you said is almost exactly what the writer posted in the piece? Try reading next time before trolling to the comment section like a petulant tween.

    Posted by: Brian Krakow | Apr 19, 2014 4:56:26 PM


  16. I loved her young voice, but as with most performers they don't know when to stop.

    Posted by: Frogview | Apr 19, 2014 5:15:52 PM


  17. @HOMO GENIUS, as you yourself will someday be (if you're lucky) and then the kids will be talking about your great age.

    The best part is that the older you get the funnier it is.

    Posted by: Elsewhere1010 | Apr 19, 2014 5:22:13 PM


  18. as others have pointed out, she may not have had what people want as the 'perfect' voice but that was also part of her beauty. she would try!

    i think a lot of people would also come close to agreeing that she probably brought back the art of opera, almost singlehandedly. her 'disasters' were as important as her successes.

    opera was the 'pop' music of its day in the 16th-19th centuries. now it is part of the pantheon of music. you can hear its roots in all music, even rap & house.

    oh, HOMO GENIUS, please crawl back in your cave...

    Posted by: mike/ | Apr 19, 2014 6:41:03 PM


  19. It's great to look up to women for their accomplishments. I, for example, love Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the current president of Argentina. But it is very sad when some gay men latch onto women as "icons" because they see themselves as failed men, and further equate being a failed man with "woman." To the extent that this is what is going on, y'all deserve pity and therapy.

    BTW, no big shock that Little Kiwi loves the opera. A member of the 1% with a daddy who was the CFO of a corporation, he surely enjoyed performances at the Met, just as he enjoys a life of leisure while working people struggle day to day.

    Posted by: MB | Apr 19, 2014 7:21:52 PM


  20. @MB - one doesn't have to grow up wealthy to enjoy and appreciate opera. Many of us were introduced to the joys of classical music through PBS.

    re: Master Class. Zoe Caldwell originated the role at the Mark Taper Forum in LA and then premiered it on Broadway. Tyne Daly was good but Caldwell was amazing. As a side note, Audra McDonald was one of the students.

    Posted by: Stephen in Laguna | Apr 19, 2014 9:27:04 PM


  21. I like to see the life stories of the the DIVAs I love, Dame Kiri and Dame Joan and Maria and Leontyne. But outside of gays loving their opera I don't see anything gay-iconic about them.

    Here's two that are still alive:
    Spain's MONTSERRAT CABALLE was best friends with Freddie Mercury and has done numerous benefits in his and AIDS benefit. In the glorious 60's there were arguments who was the world's diva, and she was a contender.

    Our own MARILYN HORNE has probably been more active in civil rights than any other US opera singer. And she's a fighter having been battling pancreatic cancer for years. Her husband in the 50s was a black music conductor, which would have ruined a lesser white singer.

    Just remember they don't have to be dead to be iconic.


    Posted by: MIke | Apr 20, 2014 12:14:25 AM


  22. There's a wonderful YouTube interview in English with Montserrat Caballe where she talks about Freddie Mercury. "We were together alone and he said to me "I have to tell you, I have AIDS." And I said to him, no, you don't have to tell me that. But I'm glad you did because it means I am your friend."

    Posted by: MIke | Apr 20, 2014 12:21:12 AM


  23. Thanks for this. Callas is more interesting to me than most of the subjects of this column because she is not one of the regularly discussed divas. I learned a lot from this one. Please write about more of these "lesser knowns." The Mike Wallace interview was especially fascinating.

    Posted by: richard | Apr 20, 2014 1:14:47 PM


  24. @TomTallis Couldn't agree more, Rysanek trumps Callas, however both had incredible voices.

    @Mike I don't think Gay icons are exactly that because of their devotion to gay specific causes. There is more to life than mere political games.

    The only modern 'Diva' I respect is Diamanda Galas and she would be thrown under the bus if it wasn't for her incredible voice (her political views are questionable).

    Posted by: Shane | Apr 20, 2014 2:27:47 PM


  25. She was lovely. I first paid attention to her after reading Franco Zeffirelli's biography, and he touched on the night she realized she was losing her voice. It was heartbreaking. I don't know that she's a gay icon; I just know I like to hear her sing. She brings the music alive.

    Posted by: kyle | Apr 20, 2014 6:50:57 PM


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