In the fall of 1971, Maria Callas taught a series of master classes titled “The Lyric Tradition.” Callas was 48 at the time and had not performed in public for several years. Paul Thomason, who teaches classes in opera in the Extension Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, attended these classes as an observer. Following is one of his recollections of the great Callas as teacher.
Callas had very little sense of humor. The only truly funny moment I remember came when she was working with a young soprano on Violetta’s “Addio del pasato” from the last act of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The heartbreaking aria ends with a five-note phrase that is repeated four times, the last time going up to a high A. The score indicates that the last note is to be sung very, very softly. It is quite difficult to pull off.
Callas, one of the great Violettas of the 20th century, wanted the student to “build the tension” (a favorite phrase of hers) from one repetition to the next. When the student looked puzzled, Callas began singing the end of the aria in full voice. A shiver went through the auditorium as Callas’ voice rose securely. The phrase grew, exactly as Callas had asked the student to do, becoming filled with all of Violetta’s despair. It was a perfect example of the union of words and notes, drama and emotion into an overwhelming whole. As the phrase reached its climactic final note, Callas, rather than attempting the tricky A, stopped short and spoke. “So see, dear, you must gradually build it.”
When the audience groaned in disappointment, Callas turned to us, grinned a bit ruefully, and extended her arm, palm up, as if to say, “Well, you win some, you lose some.”