Hommage à Maria Callas
I have always been astonished that people who have heard Maria Callas have not been able to get beyond hearing in her an extraordinary voice subjected to every conceivable peril. She was never—oh by no means—merely a voice in an age in which so many outstanding voices could be heard. Maria Callas is no “vocal wonder”; she is far indeed from being one of those, or very near indeed to being one, for she is the only creature [Kreatur] that has ever set foot on an opera stage. A creation [Geschöpf] about which the tabloid press must hold its peace, because every one of this creation’s sentences, every breath it takes, its weeping, its joy, its precision, its delight in producing art—a tragedy that one need not be familiar with in the usual way—are obvious. What is uniquely extraordinary is not her coloraturas—and they are staggeringly magnificent—not her arias, not her skill as a singing partner; but rather her respiration, her pronunciation. M[aria] C[allas] has a way of pronouncing a word so that everyone who has not entirely lost his ear for music owing to apathy or snobbery, who is not incessantly on the hunt for fresh sensations of the lyrical theater [---] she will never make us forget that there are such things as an I and a Thou, that there are such things as pain and joy; she is great in hatred, in love, in tenderness, in brutality; she is great in every mode of expression, and when her expressiveness misses the mark, as it indisputably has done on many occasions, she has still merely fallen short, but never been small. She can miss a specific target of expressiveness, because [she] knows what expressiveness in general is.
She was great ten or more times over, in every gesture, in every cry, in every movement she was great, which <…> is reminiscent of Duse: ecco un artista. She never sang roles, but rather lived on the razor’s edge; she had a style of recitative that seemed old-fashioned, newly made—ah, not newly made; she was so timelessly contemporary that all the composers who wrote her roles, from Verdi to Bellini, from Rossini to Cherubini, would have seen in her not merely their fulfillment but something vastly superior.
Ecco un artista: she is the only person who has lawfully acted onstage in this century in order to make the [listeners] in the stalls freeze to death, suffer, shiver; she was always art—ah, art—and she was always a human being, always the most wretched, the most haunted, of women, la Traviata.
She was, if I [may be forgiven for] drawing on the stuff of fairy tales, the nightingale of those years, and the tears that I have wept—I need not be ashamed of them. There are so many meaningless tears shed, but the ones shed for Callas—they were not so meaningless. She was the last fairy tale, the last reality whose blessings any listener can still hope to enjoy.
She always directly confronted those detours around libretti, around characters, that one must truly love in order to be able to accept them. She was the lever that set in motion a world inside the listener; one could suddenly listen through everything, listen through the centuries; she was the last fairy tale.
It is very difficult or very easy to acknowledge greatness. Callas—yes, when did she live? When will she die?—is great, is a human being, is an alien in a world of mediocrity and perfection.
1. Bachmann’s editors remark that she first heard Callas in a production of La Traviata by Luchino Visconti at La Scala in Milan in 1956 and that the draft probably dates from a few years later.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 342-343.