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Sylvia Sass and her five hours with Greek Diva Maria Callas July 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Ballet Dance Opera, Music Life Classical.

For the first time after 31 years, the Hungarian soprano Sylvia Sass, opera star during the ‘70s and ‘80s, tells all the details about her encounter with the Greek Diva Maria Callas.

A meeting arranged by Leonard Bernstein which had remained a mystery until now. Many Callas biographers have wanted to pry into the facts of that autumn of 1976, but Sylvia Sass kept silent. Before that she told two or three things, but she never went into the details of the dialogue, neither the gestures nor the deep impact that visit had upon her life.

During the sixties I heard for the first time the sublime and unique voice of Maria Callas. While I listened to her recording of Puccini arias, I felt that, that voice had suddenly entered my life. She was a great artist who revolutionized the operatic world by creating a new style, a new need which had not existed till then: the actress-singer. By listening to her I learnt how to transmit emotions, how to create an atmosphere, how to make myself present in the life of others through art. Although it was only a recording… I felt as though she had been before me. I could see in her the strong emotions she transmitted, so strong was her presence mixed with the vibrations of the music’s waves.

Thus did Maria enter my daily life. From that moment on I looked everywhere for her recordings and she became much more to me than an admired artist. She was not an idol for me, but far more than that. She did not know that by listening to her we had created a deep friendship. I knew her without having met her, I could understand her profoundly without having spoken one word to her.

In 1951, when I was born, Maria was having a glorious success in the Scala of Milan. I could not imagine, being a student, that in 1976 I would get to know her personally. I could never have believed at that time that this great artist, who shone in the celestial spheres, in that world of legend where the Greek goddesses live who seldom come down to earth, would walk one autumn day towards me in her sumptuous Parisian apartment, dressed totally in black, elegant, beautiful and mysterious.

She stretched my hand, asking with a slightly irritated voice: So…, you are the new Callas? It felt like waking up after a deep sleep. Her presence would no longer be a brilliant picture of imaginary fancy, but pure reality.

I could see her profound eyes. A disturbing look that questioned. A determined, strong and direct look. But, at the same time, a difficult look. A look which inspired fear. Before her I felt very small, as before a superhuman, volcanic force. And I, a small, burgeoning flower. I felt that Maria could see hidden things, as happens in archaeological searches where the past which has lain buried during centuries, is uncovered. A science ruled by a mysterious and profound wisdom which penetrates the heart. She was capable of seeing subtle vibrations which no one before had ever been able to see.

I also saw insecurity in her eyes. An infinite sadness and, at the same time, a passion for search with respect to art. She was never satisfied with the results she obtained. She was truly a constant investigator who wanted to discover more and more of the real will, the real motivation of the composer. She wanted to transmit her humbleness, her thirst for finding the key… how to pronounce a word, how to find the precise color. A sincere color.

But I must tell the facts. How this encounter with Maria Callas in 1976 became a possibility when she no longer wanted to see anybody. She was practically a recluse in her apartment on Georges Mendel Avenue, a place I remember as the loneliest place on earth, living with two little dogs which she treated with great tenderness one moment and the next as two pestering things.

The story started in Vienna. I had a contract to sing Verdi’s “Aida’’ in the Staatsoper, under the conduction of Leonard Bernstein. That year, Bernstein had decided to record exclusively Beethoven works during the year and he therefore asked the Staatsoper management to perform “Fidelio’’ instead of “Aida”. As the Staatsoper was in a delicate situation, he said we should meet to discuss the matter, and so we did. They asked me to travel from Budapest to Vienna, where Bernstein was staying at the Sacher Hotel, one of the finest in the city, where he had a huge suite.

I went into one of the rooms where there was a grand piano. Bernstein arrived shortly after, with his open and warm smile and a glass in his hand. After some very kind words, he spontaneously started playing the piano and we sang together the last duo from “Aida’’ without the score. It all came out very natural, as if we had played every day together, feeling the slight ritardamenti, without any word being necessary. We could fly together over the music’s waves without fear of falling.

I must confess that due to my very shy nature, I could not believe it myself. How could it be that I should not feel afraid before him, one of the greatest musicians in the world? It was all so simple and clear. It was obviously due to an almost childish joy of making music together. Later on he suggested that I should sing in his “Fidelio” production… “Aida’’ was already a slightly risky role for me who was only 25. But as I felt so happy to be able to make my debut in the prestigious Staatsoper, I didn’t dare to say no. But “Fidelio’’ is really one of the hardest parts. I answered with all sincerity that I didn’t feel sufficiently prepared to take upon me such a heavy and complex responsibility and he respected my opinion.

We were sitting beside a small table when he suddenly said to me: You look like Callas… as much as if you had been her daughter. Would you like to meet her?

Stunned, I could hardly answer, but after a while, managed to say: Yes, yes, yes, it would be a great honor.

He promised that he would arrange everything. He wanted us to go together to see Maria when he would be in Paris recording, and an important journalist should go together with us.

I was singing in Salzburg in the Festspielhause when Bernstein’s secretary called saying that Maria Callas had agreed to this meeting, but without any journalist. She only accepted that my husband should accompany me. 

I arrived in Paris and stayed at the Crillon Hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels of the city, where Bernstein was also staying. He looked for a pianist from the Paris Opera Theater who could accompany me in case I should have to sing before Callas and also for a car to take me to the building on Georges Mendel Avenue, which would have to wait for me to take me back to the hotel. As Bernstein was in the recording studio, he told me that he would be going too during the break.

And there was I, before her house. I went up in an iron elevator richly ornamented with flowers. I could see behind the rails. Thus I arrived at the place, where this woman who was for me almost not a human being, lived.

The door opened and a liveried man appeared who took me to the living room. Then she made her entrance, beautiful, elegant, with the carriage of a queen. And she said almost at once in English those words that left me in such a flurry: “So… you are the new Callas?’’. When I had sung “La Traviata’’ that year in the Aix-en-Provence festival, journalists had called me “the new Callas’’… Naturally, she had taken offence… but it was not my fault… I hadn’t invented it.

What did you bring to sing with me?

Some “Tosca’’ arias…

It’s too easy, she answered.

We went through my scores and she herself chose the aria from the first act of “La Traviata’’. But she didn’t want to look at me while I sang, she just wanted to listen to me, so she stayed in another room. It was then that Bernstein appeared.

She was delighted to see him. Suddenly they began to talk to each other in a conspiratorial manner. Maria talked to him as if he had been a child: “You work too hard’’, she told him. One could see that there was a deep and sincere friendship between them.

While I started to sing Violetta’s “recitativo”, they went on talking. I admit I felt offended… I could understand that.

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