Tuesday 28 November 2023

Sophia Lambton introduces her new book, The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography

Sophia Lambton introduces her new book, The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography
Novelist and music critic Sophia Lambton's new book, The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography, will be published by The Crepuscular Press on 2 December  2023, the singer's 100th birthday. Lambton has mined extensive sources, some 3395 spanning 80 years and 21 countries, to present an in-depth picture of the singer. Here, Sophie Lambton introduces the book, the project and herself.

What made you want to write the book?

I was thirteen when my father introduced me to Maria Callas through her Carmen. Infatuation with the voice soon followed but I had no interest in her as a person – even as I grew intrigued by other greats that had defined her era: Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Herbert von Karajan. Back then a Google search or mere glimpse at her Wikipedia page suggested she was one of those erratic divas capable of coming off the spool.

For this reason I was stunned to stumble upon somebody entirely unknown to me at eighteen. When YouTube searches led me down a rabbit hole of interviews I found that I identified with her – especially in all discussions on the need for consummate perfectionism in the opera world. She very much appeared both a consistent and coherent personality: nothing to do with this bête noire that figures in the Callas literature and fictionalised versions of her life.

I was aghast and at a loss to think that millions of adorers of her art did not know such a person. I was also horrified at how dismissively a portion of them wrote her off: I remember being at La Scala’s museum in 2012 and witnessing a group of German tourists eye a portrait of her on the wall. My German’s pretty limited and was quite non-existent then, but I distinctly heard one of them say something along the lines of: “What was his name…? Oh, yes – Onassis.” The moment you begin to research her you find too many scribes and filmmakers want to know nothing more than information about him. Sometimes it’s as if that giant Callas art never existed.

The Callas Imprint is the first biography to guide the reader through her life through her eyes. My mission is to let her fans (and, for that matter, her detractors) live through her experiences onstage and off- through her perceptions; let them share her soul.

How are you qualified to write about Callas?

I became an opera critic aged seventeen. The first reason I fell in love with Callas as a person was a shared sensibility on the criteria for operatic gold: a strong technique sustained by never-faltering legato; manipulation of the voice to mould a character; engagement of the body; a well-crafted set design. Most biographers who’ve written about Callas either shove aside her contribution to the world of opera altogether, or extend fusty analyses of roles that lack in empathy.

As a fellow artist – I’m primarily a novelist – I wanted to convey this woman as a single entity. I don’t divide the artist from the person: that’s not life. I juxtapose her glorious – and sometimes, short-of-glorious – achievements on the stage and in the studio and the rehearsal hall with banal moments like her play with poodles, marital disputes, shopping excursions. I seek to prove that genius is not a lightbulb moment: Callas’ great apexes were worked toward obsessively and furiously and not always attained. As every other life, it is a journey weaving in and out of shoddy days and hazy headiness; euphoria and uproar.

My discovery of crucial documents – primarily Callas’ correspondence with her manager Sander Gorlinsky, as well as letters to her legal separation lawyer, Augusto Caldi-Scalcini, directors Luchino Visconti and Alexis Minotis and many others – offered me insight into Callas’ dizzying rollercoaster of a life. That and a heap of 3395 sources spanning twenty-one countries made over eighty years add up to make a narrative rich in real dialogues and vivid exhibitions of the episodes in her career and in her private life. It feels like a novel but nothing is made up.

What is different about this biography?

I would say that most Callas biographies up to the present day have been obsessed with pushing authors’ concepts about her. Of course, like other scribes I have my thoughts – nobody can be neutral about Callas – but The Callas Imprint is so saturated with her quotes combined with others', with her renditions beside miscellaneous ones; with Callas’ own contradictions that I leave the reader space to make up their own mind.

She is a complex personality who puzzles many. I could set forth an agenda implore the reader to believe my version, but I won’t. The mix of excerpts I’ve derived from letters and interviews both by her and her peers; from quotations from books that had a single print run maybe fifty, sixty years ago and since then haven’t seen the light of day; from my own interviews with those who knew her and a horde of other sources will permit the reader to know Callas very well. After that they can determine who she was.

What do you want a music lover to get out of it?

This sounds hard to believe but I still think most fans don’t understand the sheer enormity that is the Callas art. I want music lovers to detect that Callas was not just a strong performer, but a true creator: that she sculpted characters through an extraordinary (and sometimes dangerous) manipulation of the voice; that her vast impact on the opera stage was not confined to her soprano role alone. She helped construct her colleagues’ craftmanship – including that of Franco Corelli, Alexis Minotis and Tito Gobbi. She had a hand in choosing costumes, wigs and set design and choreography. She argued about tempi and encores with maestri. Her art was not just the supreme extension of her Violetta, Gilda, Norma, Tosca. It was the ultimate rendition any given opera could become. It’s Apollonian idealism. There hasn’t been another artist of this calibre on stage or film. There likely won’t be for at least a century to come.

What does Callas mean to you?

A rare artist who was able to examine the whole picture of an art of which she only formed a part. We don’t like to admit this, but most actors know when they play in a bad movie. A lot of opera singers contribute to paltry stagings knowing full well they’re in scenic dregs. But compromise is understandable: artists go hungry and they need to pay their rents and feed their kids.

Callas was born not like that. From her teenage years she had a vision that she craved to execute. I can’t think of any other textual or musical interpreter who cared so much about the output as a whole, not just their incarnation. She made me look at art from an entirely panoramic standpoint – thus inspiring me to learn about aesthetics not just from my fellow writers but the theatre, film and music. She made me realise art’s creation is the finding of a new world. I feel as though the world she found is very much alive. But people, maybe just subconsciously, don’t realise she’s behind it. 

Further details of The Callas Imprint from the The Crepuscular Press.
The Callas Imprint on Amazon.

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