Learning From The Past

This week I have been researching, planning exploring music history.  How different composers taught each other, and people learnt from other people’s work’s – pastiche composition.

So as I was digging around I thought why not do some more research into one of the singers I am inspired by. What can I learn from watching their performances or listening to them singing?

So here is a small insight into part of my project, it is a work in progress and one that you may be able to help me with 🙂

Maria Callas

Maria Callas 

Maria was born in New York City on December 2nd, 1922 and was christened by her Greek parents Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou, her father in an attempt to make their surname more manageable later shortened it to “Callas”.

Her mother and father split up when she was 14 and along with her sister and mother they moved back to Greece where she continued her education.

After initially failing to gain entry to the prestigious Athens Conservatoire she was accepted by the Greek National Conservatoire and studied under Maria Trivella. During her time there, Maria was considered a hard working and dedicated student, completely uncompromising in her approach to her studies. She progressed quickly and was soon
tackling arias from some of the most challenging international operas.

After three years Maria auditioned again for the Athens Conservatoire and was taken on to study under Elvira de Hidalgo. Callas threw herself into her studies where she was often the first pupil through the doors in the morning and the last to leave at night. She loved her time studying and believed no matter how good you were you could always learn something new from those around you.

What do I find inspiring about Maria Callas ?


I love Callas’ energy on stage and in her recordings. Every note holds a significant importance giving her the most beautiful and sincere legato line. She uses a huge range of vocal colours from sensitive sighing to alluring and sexually-heated brash low notes.

Her overall tone is beautiful and warm, and sits easily on the listener’s ear similar to a mother’s lullaby to her baby.

She is like a fire-cracker on stage when she performs, exploding with energy and spontaneous acting ideas all of which make her so exciting to watch. I hope to take this aspect of her performance into my own.

I said previously in another blog post that one of her sayings was to prepare until in performance you can forget your techniques and improvise. This is a very exciting concept as one of my aims when performing is to make it seem like each thought and action has only just entered my head.

I would have loved to have seen her live, apparently her voice had a deep yet piercing resonance that cut through the air like a hot knife in butter.


Plus she always looked so glamorous, dripping in jewellery and her hair pristine. It must have been fabulous dressing up for the concerts. I think I will have to stick to the crystal at the minute and use my imagination.:)

Here is Callas singing Habanera from Carmen in Covent Garden

I would love to know if you have ever watched or listened to any of Maria Callas’s performances and if so what stood out to you about her performances?  What do you think made her such a fabulous and engaging performer ?

36 thoughts on “Learning From The Past

  1. She sounds wise in that her success was predicated on intense preparation and effort – one rarely sees or understands that in the glamor of achievement

    1. I read on the Maria Callas Chronology that she undertook strenuous vocal practise to perfect her technique. The sad thing is she died at the age of only 53, in 1977, a virtual recluse. Her main career ran from 1947 aged 24 to 1965 aged 42. They called her ‘La Divina’.

      Best wishes

      1. I’d love to know if she was truly alone and why? She chose older men as her partners possibly as father figures, but perhaps she just kept her love life private because she shared so much of her soul and emotions in her music.

        I read Italian heart specialists said she had an un-diagnosed congenital heart defect and she died of a heart attack. Yet speculation at the time said it was a failing voice and unhappy love life and implied she was taking pills, but who truly knows what was going on in her mind?
        Best wishes

  2. Always a treat learning things from reading your posts 🙂

    “…This is a very exciting concept as one of my aims when performing is to make it seem like each thought and action has only just entered my head….”

    One of the reasons I love to jam with others as everything I play is off the top of my head as blues or rock/blues/country riffs. It’s never the same twice. Improvisational stylings where no two are the same. If you get in on time and get out on time, you can jazz and rock it up ad lib and let the notes go where they fall from your head to your lips to your fingers from your heart.

    The classical art that you perform is so perfect in so many ways .. that a single off note or pause in phrasing would be glaringly heard as being different from the accepted norm. Your art form must be so more structured and formal and yet you can obtain a personal input through your modulation and expression that must be subtle in its presentation.

    Does that make any sense? I know little or nothing about opera …


    1. Yes it makes perfect sense. The behind the scenes learning in practical musicianship; sight reading, aural skills, conducting, composing are all very intensive. Sometimes I wish it was all about the singing 😉 especially during my aural exam yesterday! ;/
      Callas took master-classes at Julliard that Phil bought to my attention below in 1971/72, she spoke of ‘arrows within a piece, that took the singer and listener from one word to the next, then one phrase to the next, giving it direction’. On stage Callas was said to have a radiance which reflected every mood and movement. At Julliard the conductor Nicolai Rescigno said that “she had three hundred voices, every role she portrayed had a special voice, and within that particular timbre she would constantly change colours to convey the message to the composer”.
      I would love to be able to talk with her.

      Best wishes

  3. Callas is a hand that catches your soul and dragged into a wonderful trip to circles of fire and ice. It is a vibration that takes you and envelops you and you entrainne in an explosion of light and crystal, soft as a feather and sharp like a claw … It’s orgasmic.


    1. Hi Pascal, She has such a sad personal story though; they said her mid-career weight loss of around 30 lbs contributed to her vocal decline, although she said she lost the weight because she couldn’t move freely and was tiring herself, perspiring too much, this intense critique of her must have been hard going. Wikipedia says that in 2006, Opera News wrote of her “Nearly 30 years after her death she’s still the definition of the diva as artist – and still one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists”.
      “It is not enough to have a beautiful voice,” Callas said “when you interpret a role, you have a thousand colours to portray happiness, joy, sorrow, fear. How can you do this with only a beautiful voice?” Magnificent!

      Best wishes

    1. It’s a shame Maria Callas didn’t write a blog in her own words that I could read, she is an extraordinary example of a great singer. Her voice was so unique, I dream that one day my voice will be recognised with a single note wouldn’t that be marvellous.

      Best wishes

    1. In the last years of her active career Callas made only a few appearances in the opera house, she did give a number of concerts and made recordings. She threw herself into this relatively behind closed doors process. She said “the microphone magnifies all details of a performance, all exaggerations, in the theatre you can get away with very large, very grand phrases. For the microphone you have to tone it down”.
      If those recordings were toned down imagine her live on stage.

      Best wishes

  4. I grew up with music in my house. My father had several recordings of Callas, and my music teacher was passionate about Opera, and had seen and heard Callas many times in his life. Sadly I was too young to bear witness of Callas in any live performances, but to listen to those who had, I admit a bit of envy. What strikes me is her consummate professionalism and commitment to the music and the role. She had the ability to act the part with her voice, coloring it, painting emotions and pathos, and bringing the music to life on stage. This came from immense understanding, and constant thought about the musical score, coupled with immense preparation.

    Since you are discussing a topic of how composers and artists learn from each other, I thought I’d find you an excellent example of Callas passing along the tradition. Her immense understanding and interpretive skill shines through in a series of Master Classes Callas gave at the Julliard School of Music in the early 1970’s. Here is but a small sample of her devotion to the art, mentoring another student with that trademark skill. What I find amazing is her capabilities to influence all singers, not just sopranos – here she is mentoring a Baritone in Rigoletto’s dark and emotive aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” in the Opera Rigoletto. She allows the student singer to complete the aria before dissecting the part and giving him excellent interpretive advice, singing along with him and imparting intelligent insight into the role and emotion. Amazing devotion to the art, even 10 years after retiring from the performance stage.


    Charlotte, you’ve selected well for a topic. I wish you well on this project!

    1. Thank you so much Phil for your help with this, and the link to the master-class at Julliard. She said of her coach Serafin ‘he opened the world to me, showed me there was a reason for everything, that even fiorature and trills… have a reason in the composer’s mind, they are the expression of the state of mind of the character, the way he feels at the moment, the passing emotions that take hold of him”. So she found lots to learn from her male coach as she had lots to offer her male pupil. She said Serfain “taught me that pauses are often more important than the music. He explained that there was a rhythm – these are the things you get only from that man!”

      Best wishes

    1. That is a lovely thing to say Eric thank you :). She was said to bring each character to life on stage, expressing the real meaning of the words. Leonard Bernstein said of her “She was pure electricity”. One day I hope to put shivers up someone’s spine too 🙂

      Best wishes

    1. I love to listen to Pavarotti, when I learnt “Vaga Luna” it was his version I listened to over and over again. James Brown is new to me thank you for the introduction.#

      Best wishes

      1. James Brown was one of the great soul artist in American music. He was known as the hardest working man in show business. Unfortunately he, like Pavarotti, is no longer with us.

  5. Wonderful way to learn from the best.
    Among so many, what I find outstanding for Maria was Habanera and Regnava nel silenzio.
    She lived the music and each part she played.

    1. I will put Regnava Nel Silenzio on my listening list 😉 I have got much catching up to do with my listening. Her music stands above her back story, happily, as a true testament to her fabulous talent.

      Best wishes

  6. It’s a testament to her level of fame that I knew nothing about her and have never even heard her sing, yet I still knew immediately who she was!

    1. Maria Callas is certainly one of the more dramatic, important and very recognisable opera legends. I know what you mean about her level of fame if my Nana knows an opera singers name you know they’ve crossed over into greatness 🙂

      I thought of you the other day, I have to leap off a table in an opera scene and I’d love you to be there to capture it on your camera 🙂

      All the best

  7. Love her and you,Charlotte ! Maria Callas is one of my favourite opera singers,I have all her works.Her career has so much to give you …

    1. She said “If you take the trouble to really listen with your soul and with your ears — and I say soul and ears because the mind must work, but not too much also — you will find every gesture there”. I am absolutely enamoured with her.

      Best wishes

  8. I admit, I’m not all that familiar with opera, though I have heard of Maria Callas. I think you’ve definitely picked the right artist to emulate: she clearly worked very hard to become as good as she did. You have a lot of natural talent, and I think that if you continue to study and work you just might be that good someday. 🙂 In any case, you’re absolutely right to study the greats (both of the past and present); it’s the best way to find out what works and what doesn’t and why, as well as pick up some techniques.
    On a side note, I have to mention that ever since Asylum of the Daleks I haven’t been able to hear Habanera without giggling.

    1. Hi Stephanie, I think it is a testimony to her enduring dedication to her art that so many people are aware of her without necessarily being a huge opera fans. It goes without saying that she possessed a rare talent which she worked tirelessly to perfect but she also was a charismatic artist who could connect with her audience and captivate and entrance them with her performances.

      As for Dr Who it often makes me giggle but my brothers used to watch it avidly 🙂

      Best wishes

  9. You have a lovely voice, Charlotte! Maria Callas is a personal favorite. I listen to her when I write, it helps transport me to another world 🙂 Thank you for your visit and for the follow! I’m happy to do the same. All the best to you, Ellie

  10. I just missed Callas performing live. Her recordings, and what you tell me of her life, give me a great admiration for her and I REALLY enjoyed the masterclass Phil put up. For my taste her voice is sometimes a little hard, though it could be unimaginably sweet as well. I also find the swooping (fashionable then) rather uncomfortable now. However, she had what for me is the greatest asset – which you have described – she lived the drama. She was never afraid to of emotion, she took chances to give the audience the thrill of feeling what she felt. You could hear in the masterclass what a terrific Rigoletto she would have made. Paverotti was almost the reverse. He rarely put a foot wrong musically, but he was so concentrated on the note that he made a very dull performer on the opera stage (and I have seen him several times).

    1. Hi Hilary, I had swooping drilled out of me, I’m sure I’m still a bit guilty sometimes. Thank you so much for your insights I appreciate them, if you hear me swooping let me know 😉
      All the best
      Ps looking forward to finishing ‘Unseen, Unsung’ over the Easter break I can’t wait, I just finished Morris’ studio when my studies took over.

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