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Undivine divas

Undivine divas

Jeal, Erica

Maria Callas: sacred monster

Stelios Galatopoulos

Fourth Estate (London, 1998);

540pp; L25. ISBN 1 85702 826 0.

Kiri: her unsung story

Garry Jenkins & Stephen d’Antal

HarperCollins (London, 1998);

iii, 374pp; L17.99. ISBN 0 00 255942 0.

Divas come and go, but perhaps there are only two who, in Britain at least, have become true household names: Maria Callas and Kiri te Kanawa. Both were pushed early into their careers by overbearing mothers and went on to give definitive performances. Public attention has focused almost as much

on their lifestyles as on their singing, and both have generated their fair share of gossip. These two books set out to provide fuller and more authoritative accounts of the singers’ lives and stories than have previously been given, But there the similarities end.

Galatopoulos writes as a musicologist and as Callas’s friend; after meeting her backstage in Verona at her Italian debut, he followed her career avidly and eventually became a close confidant. So many rumours and misconceptions about Callas still abound that he writes, he informs us, to set the record straight. His prologue makes the project seem rather indulgent, emphasising his privileged situation

as the great singer’s loyal friend, and of course one expects a partisan account to follow However, on most counts the book is surprisingly balanced. His defence of Callas is usually reasonable and qualified, and the descriptions of her rows with the management of various opera houses are not sensationalised. Likewise the details of her marriage break-up and subsequent liaison with Aristotle Onassis. Callas is not presented as a saint, but as a real person; with affection, but with an acknowledgment of her faults. The topic on which Galatopoulos is totally inflexible is the extent of her artistry While he tries to see both sides of other arguments and misunderstandings, he makes it quite clear that he believes those who have made sweeping criticisms of her as a performer are absolutely in the wrong.

The book is beautifully presented and sensibly priced. While the text is interspersed with photographs of Callas, her family and friends, the chapters are separated by numerous plates showing (mostly black and white) pictures from her roles. Many of these have not been previously published, and they even include a shot of Callas’s operatic debut as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, aged just 15. The most interesting chapters are those of the final section, containing transcriptions of conversations between the author and Callas toward the end of her life, revealing an insight into her approach to her art and her reasons for choosing the roles she did. The detailed discography and performance catalogue at the back are another strength. The book is an exhaustive and beautifully presented account of Callas’s career in words and pictures, and her admirers should be delighted. It would also serve as a commendable introduction for those unfamiliar with the details of her career, provided that the reader is aware of the author’s loyalties.

However, fans of Kiri may be in for a shock on reading Her unsung story. Strange, because it is presumably for those fans that the book is intended.

It is written as the story of a personality rather than a musician – neither of

the authors appears to have particular experience of the world of music, although a genuine appreciation of her singing does shine through writing which, at times, is cliche-ridden and reminiscent of a bad novel. The first unauthorised biography of Kiri, it was compiled either without her cooperation or, as the authors state, of most of the people currently associated with her meaning, of course, that many of the people they did interview are those who, for one reason or another, are now estranged from her. While some of them give what seem to be fair and balanced accounts, there are those who struggle to find much to say that is pleasant.

The book is interesting Purely as an account of her extraordinary life, from her upbringing as a foster child in New Zealand, her early stardom in her own country, her subsequent studies in England and her international fame as both a ‘serious’ singer and a crossover artist. While it does quell one or two

of the more salacious rumours regarding Kiri’s private life, it supplies other bits of tittle-tattle, such as the fact that her world-famous performance at the Royal Wedding in 1981 was made without underwear (she says she forgot).

Generally the book is written in a smug tabloid style, in which Kiri’s indiscretions or instances of selfishness are defended as artistic temperament in a way that is half-hearted and patronising to their subject. The pictures it paints of the singer and the person are two-sided. On one hand, she is portrayed as warm and capricious, an artist of incredible instinct, possessing a beautiful voice and the ability to mould herself to the interpretations of the great conductors. On the other, she is described as someone to whom learning the music did not come naturally, and who is lazy, ruthlessly competitive and infuriating to work with. The book is readable – in the best tabloid tradition (one of the authors used to write for the Daily Mail) the pages just keep on turning. But whatever Kiri’s career may need, it is certainly not this. And her audience doesn’t need it either.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Winter 1999

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