When NPR Music published its list of 150 Greatest Albums By Women two weeks ago, we who created it firmly intended that this be just the beginning of a conversation that puts women's musical artistry at the center. Immediately, others took up our call. Lists began proliferating, representing different taste affinities, time periods and genre focuses than what our list encompassed. In that spirit, today NPR Music introduces two ongoing series of essays: Forebears, celebrating women whose recording careers made the most impact before the time period our list encompasses, and Shocking Omissions, honoring women whose albums did not make the initial list, but which still deserve special recognition. These essays act upon our belief that the feminist music canon is a living, constantly evolving entity.
No opera star has shone brighter in the public consciousness of the last half-century than soprano Maria Callas. Born in New York in 1923 to a couple of struggling immigrants who had just arrived from Greece a few months before her birth, Callas — who throughout her life bore an undeniable feeling for music, a pronounced taste for luxury, and an iron will — climbed to the pinnacle of international fame.
Much of that notoriety had nothing to do with her artistic life. Her long affair with the world's then-wealthiest man, Aristotle Onassis — and his eventual marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy instead of to her — guaranteed that she was a gossip-column staple. Her epic battles with other singers and opera impresarios made for prime publicity fodder, too, and included a feud with the Metropolitan Opera's then-general manager, Rudolf Bing, that left her barred from the Met, and an episode in which she was served a lawsuit backstage in Chicago that became the catalyst for an iconic photo of a furious Callas.
But all of that was surface noise. Long after the newspaper headlines have faded away, her art remains. None of the high-society chatter, nor her high fashion sense, nor the contours of her deeply unhappy personal life, nor her mercurial personality was what made Callas La Divina, "The Divine One." Onstage, she possessed one of the greatest voices of all time. She was an indelible presence whose artistry made her the icon and envy of performers across many genres. (From its inception, "Turning the Tables" — a readdressing of the pop music canon — was not meant to include classical musicians. But such an accounting is long overdue in its own right, particularly considering the extent to which female classical artists are still so routinely denigrated, slighted, dismissed or rendered invisible.)
Vocally, Callas was a chameleon. At the beginning of her career, her richly textured voice was deemed right for weighty, dark-hued Wagner, but she could also dispatch fizzy, frilly roulades in Rossini's Barber of Seville, and take her listeners to the stratosphere in Verdi's Aida.
Although she never sang the role on stage, her recordings as the coy, sexually irrepressible lead in Bizet's Carmen set a standard — as she also did in another, far different signature role when she played the tormented high priestess and mother of two in Bellini's Norma.
Her dedication to the bel canto operas of composers like Bellini and Donizetti also paved a career path way for singers, including the likes of Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne, to excel in that formerly neglected repertoire. A nickname like "The Divine One" might imply that Callas possessed a voice that was ethereal and sweet, perhaps more like that of a choirboy than of a grown woman, and certainly a technically perfect one. That was not Callas at all. What made Maria Callas La Divina is how she fought, every step of the way.
"Mine is a big destiny," she once told an interviewer. Her divinity was like that of a classical Greek goddess: rife with insecurities, trauma, jealousy and outsized aspirations. And like the deities of myth, she didn't always win her battles. Callas' performances were a high-wire act: Either she thrilled audiences or exasperated them, with little middle ground. She was no stranger to hearing boos, or to having vegetables thrown at her. And she stood on even less sure technical terrain as her voice declined fast and early — while she was still in her forties — before her untimely death at age 53.
But the ultimate goal of Callas' performances was not obtaining plush vocal perfection or a simpering prettiness: it was glory. That singular voice was a penetrating, ferocious weapon that she wielded to extract maximum emotional truth from the roles she played, no matter what the cost. She shaped words and lines with great care, lending dramatic form and heft to even the silliest operatic frippery. She expected her audience to listen with as much intelligence and focus as she put out. Callas was a compelling, magnetic, fiery, impassioned presence — and she gave her characters immortality.