By C. E. Gatchalian
Published in 15.4
C.E. Gatchalian provides a personal retrospective on the life and musical contributions of famed opera singer, Maria Callas.
My journal entry, dated April 5, 1994:
“Homosexuality = shamanism = the chosen = antennae of the world.” Further down: “Art points skyward, defies nature, transcends the muck. It is, without question, the highest human faculty.” Anthropology and Camille Paglia nudging a Filipino gay boy towards self-acceptance. The ego consolidation of a newly out sophomore. But despite a new-found Buddhist emphasis on ego-devaluation, those ideas are still with me, still motor my daily existence.
I want to write an essay about Maria Callas, the greatest operatic soprano of the 20th century. Most modern classical music stars dwell in rarefied peaks, free from the glare of the masses, subjects of esoteric study. Maria Callas was an exception. She was a pre-Stonewall icon, the gay cultural intelligentsia’s Judy Garland. To adore Callas in the 21st century is to retreat. Regress. Which is why I am writing this essay: to remember a fabled, war-torn time.
The essay I want to write is about adoration and inertia.
La Boheme was my favourite opera once upon a time but I eventually tired of it, coming to see it as “opera lite.” But surfing YouTube two years ago I happened across an audio recording of Mimi’s Act One aria rendered by Maria Callas, a singer I’d never particularly cared for. Her voice emerges from my laptop—that hard-to-describe, naked sound that has always divided opinion. Two and a half minutes in, the aria swells towards its high point: Ma quando vien lo sgelo, il primo sole mio. The simple, virginal Mimi singing of how spring’s first kiss is hers. Callas and orchestra in perfect synchronicity as the world, for a moment, lifts the veils from sensuality and a stodgy, effete art form becomes a container for living truth. I’ve listened to more renowned Mimis—Tebaldi, Scotto, Stratas—but none achieve the miracle that Callas pulls off. I’m not hyperbolizing when I call my Callas moment one of existential clarity, when my east met my west, when all came to librium.
So began my personal study—one undertaken, so it seems, by many other gay men—of the life and art of Maria Callas: ugly duckling, musical genius. The narrative of her life, informed by egomania, willpower, metamorphosis, sexual frustration and fulfillment, and finally tragedy, is undeniably queer: the lonely outsider who pays the price for professional and personal acceptance. But the most efficient manifestation of her queerness is her art, a masterpiece drawn from imperfection, insecurity, and a bit of hate.
The Callas voice is too flawed, too human for escape: the dark, eerie timbre; the ferocious, almost manly chest tones; the bottled middle register.
Callas’ voice takes me inside myself and out again—the exact opposite of what happens when I listen to a more conventionally beautiful voice. The latter is escapism—a fireworks display from which I return unchanged. The Callas voice is too flawed, too human for escape: the dark, eerie timbre; the ferocious, almost manly chest tones; the bottled middle register; the forced and wobbly high notes (especially later in her career) were the musical equivalents of her personal flaws and, in turn, mine. Tito Gobbi christened her “La grande vociaccia”—the Great Ugly Voice; but it was ugliness contained in the most refined and exquisite musicianship. The impeccable diction; the flawless weighing of every note; the silken fioriture; the perfectly placed portamenti—what was great was not the voice but rather what she did with it.
It was, in short, a voice from the closet.
You know the story—he’s bullied and ostracized. So the young gay boy retreats to be the best at whatever he’s good at. Not the best he can be, but the best, period. Just as society invokes “objective standards” in condemning his burgeoning sexuality, so the young gay boy invokes them in his quest for perfection. Callas attracts a lot of gay men because she’s the best, period. And she became the very best despite a bevy of disadvantages: a broken home, a difficult mother, an ungainly figure, and a seemingly untameable voice. In The Queen’s Throat, his brilliant and now-legendary paean to opera, Wayne Koestenbaum writes, “The listener’s body is illuminated, opened up: a singer doesn’t expose her own throat, she exposes the listener’s interior.” When I listen to Callas, every trill, every cadenza becomes a journey out of the dregs, a manifestation of her personal triumphs and by extension, mine. In her unflinching artistry I see my own obsessive-compulsive perfectionism; in her astonishing mid-career weight loss, my metamorphosis from willowy geek to muscle-bound quasi-Adonis.
As a young gay boy I was shy and artsy, and while I managed to escape physical bullying, back-talk and exclusion were inevitable. Scholastic excellence was my weapon, as was success as a classical pianist (which lessened the trauma of my teenage years by significantly abridging my school schedule, including exemption from P.E.). Egos that are mutilated eventually balloon, and for most of my life it’s been egomania that’s gotten me up in the morning, a narcissistic search for vengeance against a world that I was convinced was against me. (Therapy and meditation are doing their job, I’m happy to report.)