Callas’s vocal fall was legendary, ugly. Her hard-won artistic victories were Pyrrhic—unequalled greatness for a too-brief time. Pushing her voice beyond its natural Fach, tackling the most technically intimidating repertoire, giving every ounce of herself to each and every performance, she seemed constitutionally incapable of performing with a net. And while this cost Callas her voice (her career was essentially over by age 42) it is what gave her singing its abyss-defying, life-and-death intensity. “Singing for me is not an act of pride, but an effort to elevate toward those heavens where everything is harmony,” she once said. But she could never escape the abyss—indeed, she seemed always to be staring it down. Her singing, even at its most technically brilliant, never sounded easy, the way the vocalizing of her great bel canto rivals Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé did. It always carried with it a knowledge of the fragility of greatness—and of the unspeakable horrors that lurk beneath it.
“Death—the opposite…is desire,” says Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterwork A Streetcar Named Desire—a startlingly prophetic précis of the late 20th century gay male experience, defined as it was by the polarities of erotic fulfillment and deadly disease. Physical love – in the face of sordid, mythopoeically laden fatality, became even more intense, more transcendent – an act of ecstatic defiance against the ever-present threat of death.
Indeed, Early death is the final italicization of gay-icon status. Callas died at age 53 in her Paris apartment, sola, perduta, abbandonata. Onassis, the love of her life, had left her for Jackie Kennedy, and her final world tour betrayed a voice in irrevocable ruins. From la dolce vita and unprecedented heights of operatic artistry she had come to this: a recluse wasting away on Quaaludes and memories of a once-glorious voice. Apparently on her deathbed she had never looked lovelier or more immaculate: undimmed beauty even in her darkest moment. As it was will that allowed her to achieve artistic greatness and physical beauty, it was will that propelled her to her early, quiet death—if not technically a suicide, then a perfectly paced winding down. To die beautiful and young is in concord with gaydom’s cult of youth, with that familiar refrain of the vain club bunny, “Who wants to die an old queen?”
To mould beauty out of ugliness is the queerest of acts. From the channelling of deviancy into the creation of polychrome frescoes to the transmuting of HIV-positive statuses into marks of desirability, gay men are often expert alchemists, reliant on magic to survive.
La grande vocaccia. The ugly voice become the instrument of the century’s sublimest operatic expression. To mould beauty out of ugliness is the queerest of acts. From the channelling of deviancy into the creation of polychrome frescoes to the transmuting of HIV-positive statuses into marks of desirability, gay men are often expert alchemists, reliant on magic to survive. In the magic of Callas’ music we see the sanctioned version of our own all-too-private narratives, our own tortuous, ferociously willed ascents to greatness. Whether these ascents are actualized or merely dreamt of is moot; Callas reminds us that, no matter how brilliant we make ourselves or how accessible become the corridors of power, disaster is always just a stone’s throw away.
Alas, these are only notes towards an essay. To actually write one would be to regress completely to an age of masks, when passion was sublimated, when brilliance was borne of suffering. When we revered the likes of Callas because there was no out-and-proud icon to revere. When we fed off heteronormativity and built a parasitic culture out of parody and pastiche.
To align with Callas is to align with pre-Stonewall gays, the closet-dwelling, aesthetic types gays my age were supposed to have left behind. But I am attracted to the closet, cannot and will not leave it completely. For in it survive narratives whose universality not even postmodernism, with its rejection of the universal, can wish away. Narratives that will remain relevant as long as gays are a numerical anomaly. A space of shared experiences from which emerges the beautiful.
These love notes to Callas, then, are love notes to the closet, a place that inhibited action but that ignited imagination. Where unassuaged pain and suffering were catalysts for great art. Where a voice as queer as Maria Callas’ could be called beautiful.
“Notes Towards An Essay About Maria Callas” is part of a book-in-progress about literature, art, popular culture and gay male sensibility.