The Great Return: Maria Callas and Lyric Opera
The year was 1954 — Marlon Brando was in movie theaters everywhere, Elvis Presley's music was rocking and rolling on the radio airwaves, and a new opera company was taking up residence in Chicago. The company, originally known as The Lyric Theatre of Chicago, opened its first official season in November of 1954.
The brightest star of Lyric’s first season was Greek soprano Maria Callas. Callas—who already had an impressive career in Europe—made her American debut in the title role of Bellini's Norma. A blonde at the time, she was described by the Chicago Sun-Times as "a European Marilyn Monroe who can sing, too."
When Callas first arrived at the Lyric Opera House in 1954, everyone thought she would be preoccupied with glamour and stardom. However, she was only interested in rehearsal — her first questions were, "Where is the maestro? When do we start work?"
Callas continued to triumph in Lyric’s short inaugural season. That November, she took on the roles of Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, and the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy wrote this about her Lucia: “There was an avalanche of applause, a roar of cheers growing steadily hoarse, a standing ovation, and the main aisles were full of men pushing as close to the stage as possible...calling her before the curtain 22 times in an ovation than lasted 17 minutes.” She sang two performances of each of the three killer operas in just over 2 weeks, a marvelous vocal feat.
The following year, Callas opened Lyric’s 1955 season as Elvira in Bellini’s I puritani, followed by Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore and Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Influential New York Times critic Howard Taubman said: “Miss Callas is the 31-year-old soprano who is credited with having restored the ancient lustre to the title of prima donna. Her voice is so wide in range and so flexible that she can be coloratura, lyric and dramatic soprano...Tonight, they were waiting for her with palpable excitement. When she stepped out on the stage in the second scene of the first act, there was such an ecstatic greeting that the show was stopped dead in its tracks. Thereafter she could do no wrong. Chicago is that way about her. And you can't blame Chicago.”
Her Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly was such a hit that a third performance was added. As soon as the additional performance was announced, the line for tickets stretched around the corner and over the Washington Street bridge. The 3,563-seat house sold out in 98 minutes.
The 1955 Lyric performances were the only staged Madama Butterfly performances that Callas ever gave. She benefited hugely from working with the production's director, legendary Japanese soprano Hizi Koyke; the Chicago Daily News reported that she performed the role "as if she were a fully trained member of the Kabuki, Japan's national theatre."
“That last night her death scene was pure Callas distilled into heartbreak,” wrote Cassidy. “As she struck the fatal blow her coiled hair flew out like a wild thing to shield her face. When the faithless Pinkerton called her name from outside, joy touched her, meeting death on the journey. The audience, many in tears, burst into continuous, rapturous applause, calling her before the curtain many times. Finally, a limp, visibly exhausted, tearful Callas retired to the wings, and almost literally collided with Mr. Stanley Pringle, U.S. Marshall.” (Chicago Tribune)
Callas's association with Lyric basically ended that night when she was served with a summons backstage. She had refused to pay a New York manager, who was demanding $300,000, hence the serving of the legal summons. Pictures of the furious Callas, still in her Butterfly costume, were seen in newspapers around the world. She returned to Chicago in concert only three more times before her death in 1977 at the age of 55. Lyric held a memorial concert on November 1, 1977—23 years from the date of her debut—which was attended by 5,000 people. General manager Carol Fox said from the stage: “Maria Callas could have made her American début anywhere in this country. But she chose us. She loved a challenge.”
On September 7, the legendary diva returns to the Lyric Opera stage for Callas in Concert – The Hologram Tour. Often remembered in the world of opera as “the definition of the diva as artist” and among the greatest sopranos that ever lived, Callas remains one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists.
Through cutting-edge technology from BASE Entertainment, this first-of-its-kind live concert tour will present Callas in state-of-the-art digital and laser projection, accompanied by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under the direction of conductor Eímear Noone.
The international tour is directed by Stephen Wadsworth, whose credits include Terrence McNally’s play Master Class on Broadway and productions at many opera houses associated with Callas, including La Scala, the Met, and Covent Garden.
Tickets for the one-night-only experience on Saturday, September 7 at 7:30pm are on sale now. For more information, visit lyricopera.org/Callas or call Audience Services at 312.827.5600.