On the threshold of a new obsession, I ask: how much do I want to know of Maria Callas?
Did she really throw a shoe at someone?
Was she better fat or thin?
What was the texture of her exile?
How much of the transcendence I feel is because I do not understand the words she sings and how much is just the sheer miracle of her voice?
My brother Sean reminds me of the poet Frank O’Hara who, as Allen Ginsberg once said, “loved everything.” O’Hara understood that a poet could not afford to fall out of love with poetry. Frank O’Hara loved movie gossip and he loved painting and he loved the ballet. Sean loves punk rock and film noir he loves baseball and he loves ballet and he loves Maria Callas. Once Sean took me to the Boston Ballet. As beautiful as it was, I felt alienated. It’s a story of gesture, I told myself, of yearning, of emotion. Get out of your head. While Sean swooned and even cheered his favorite dancers, while he transcribed his rapture in a worn pocket notebook, I fell asleep. When I woke up and there was a huge ship onstage. The ship seemed to cleave straight through my gauzy dream shreds, and the elegant, muscular and utterly alien narrative that had unfolded on that stage. Admire ballet? Marvel at it? Yes, but “get” it, even on a visceral level, no.
Around that same time, Sean gave me “Master Class” by Maria Callas. I don’t know Puccini from Verdi. I don’t know Italian. Sure, if the opera is “Macbeth” or “Medea,” I have a bit of a frame for the foreign sounds, but otherwise I have no clue what’s being mourned or exalted. But it doesn’t matter. When Maria Callas sings, I am enthralled. I want to live inside the story of her voice, a place both cavernous and intimate. Maybe it’s the draw of the unfamiliar. Her voice reminds me of unexplored Aegean, all the places I never got to see on my all-too brief tour of Greece. Her face is the drama of landscape, the stark, savage, beautiful and frightening.
Part of my deep attraction to “Master Class” is its documentation of process, of Callas’ comments to her students at Juilliard:
Remember always feel the words you are saying.
You must do it a little cleaner.
No. The “R” must not be heard.
I know it’s difficult on the breath, but it must not be heard, eh?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the poetic process was as collaborative? If there were some rehearsal hall of the mind, where the predominant voice was not the relentless critic, the internalized harpy, but the compassionate master there with us as we construct each line, test it, cross it out try again, the voice that never overwhelmed us with its own skill, but remained a guide there to remind us:
Love the phrase that you are singing
However difficult Maria Callas might have been in reality doesn’t matter to me. I only want to find within myself that voice that understands the nuance of word and breath, the abiding presence that cares how and where the notes or words are placed and will not be fooled by “fireworks,” but insists on “expression.”
All my main gods are men. John Lennon, James Joyce, Bob Dylan. I have a few goddesses: Virginia Woolf. Marilyn Monroe. What does a goddess give one that a god does not? I don’t know. But when I see scenes from Pasolini’s film adaptation of Medea, I want to scale the stark Anatolian hill and follow Maria Callas inside that severe temple.
My old writing teacher John Rechy used to keep pictures of his goddesses on the wall: Garbo and Marilyn. “She was a creation!” John used to cry when trying to articulate the majesty of Marilyn. I loved that description. A creation! Equal parts self-invention and natural force. John’s students met at a dining room table underneath these glamorous triptychs—two Garbos and a Monroe, if I’m not mistaken.
While we worship the cheekbones and shadows and fierce eyebrows, we often forget that creation is a process. “Master Class” reminds us of how instructive, how valuable it is to see how a song, a phrase, a voice is made.
Once I stepped out of a New York blizzard into the sanctuary of a quiet library to see the original manuscript of “The Wasteland” and I remember thawing out under the yellow light and looking at the marked up pages, Eliot’s naive and simple stanzas nearly obliterated by Pound’s insights, his demands. I remember the delight of driving from Boston to New York with a fellow Beatles freak who found listening to twelve consecutive versions of “No Reply” to be not only a delight, but a serious education in phrase and harmony and desperate joy.
We each have our own masters inside already– echoes and layers—all that we’ve read and heard and loved and memorized. We don’t need to dissect their legends, but to draw on the deep pool of their mystery, of genius. We need those teachers, those great loves to become strangers to us again and again, their eternity fresh, and powerful and sharp, their names forgotten, unknown.