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Remembering Maria Callas

Find out more about Maria Callas and her performances in Tosca.

By Emma Beatty (Former Features Editor)

15 July 2011 at 3.25pm | 3 Comments

It’s Friday afternoon, and The Royal Opera Season is very nearly at a close; Tosca on Sunday night is the last show. As a last hurrah to Puccini's great opera, here are some bits of Tosca trivia, all about Maria Callas (courtesy of Mr Barry Stewart, Backstage Tours Manager).

The body-con gown

Maria Callas made her debut in Covent Garden in 1952 as Norma, and went on to sang Aida, Leonora (Il trovatore), Violetta (La traviata), Medea and finally Tosca. For this her final role at Covent Garden she wore a dark red velvet gown in the Empire style with a seam just under the bust. This design is still the traditional style for the role today; however, Maria Callas’s dress had one main difference. She was extremely conscious of her weight, so the panel down the centre of the dress was reversed in order that the velvet looked darker and it made her look slimmer.

Stage fright in 1964

Before making her first appearance on stage as Tosca in 1964, Callas’s dresser had to physically stop her from leaving the theatre because of her nerves. It also took Zeffirelli the director pushing her on stage before she made her first entrance.

Smoking hot wigs

During the show, Tito Gobbi recalls in his autobiography that Callas leant too close to the candle flame during the scene between herself and Tito as Scarpia. The wig she was wearing brushed the flame and started smouldering. As the lecherous Scarpia, Gobbi leant around and extinguished the flame with his bare hands, burning himself quite badly. Callas didn’t miss a note however until the point at which Tosca has to stab Scarpia. She just lifted the blade and stabbed saying under her breath, ‘Grazie Tito…’.

Real-live guardsmen from Buckingham Palace

Real guardsmen were the order of the day in Callas’s  time, a legacy of the Victorian age. In the 19th-century Queen Victoria famously complained about the slovenly way the chorus and actors were performing as guards in Fidelio and offered to supply Royal Guardsmen to supplement whenever the theatre needed non-singing guards. This continued until 1978; the last performances in which guardsmen were used were in the March/April 1978 revival of Il trovatore.

The men were supplied from whichever regiment was on household duty at Buckingham Palace. On 4 August 2000 General Sir Charles Guthrie (then the Chief of Defence), being interviewed for Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, related that he had appeared as a guardsman in Tosca during Maria Callas's last appearance at the Royal Opera House in July 1965, during a gala performance in the presence of HM the Queen Mother.

Tosca runs 9 January–5 February 2016. Tickets are still available.

By Emma Beatty (Former Features Editor)

15 July 2011 at 3.25pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Jonathan Kent, Maria Callas, The Royal Opera, Tito Gobbi, Tosca, Tosca Trivia

This article has 3 comments

  1. irineide silveira responded on 22 October 2012 at 9:33pm Reply

    Teh legendary Tosca of 1964 was not Callas debut at Convent Garden. Her debut there was much before, as with Norna, and she had sang many times there, before 1964.That Tosca was her farewell from the operistic stages.

  2. charles Henry responded on 31 December 2012 at 5:10pm Reply

    'There were Giants in the land in those days' to paraphrase Genesis chapter 6. Callas was definitely a Giant. No one before or since comes close to her. I have watched ACT II of TOSCA from Covent Garden many many times. Brilliant...Sheer genius. Callas is sensational! My question to Covent Garden people or any TV technical people...Why just ACT II? This was legend...This was history. Why not let the bloody camera run through the whole thing? Ok just televise ACTII but have a record of the whole opera. The whole performance preserved forever. A most valuable treasure lost...forever.

  3. Paul Brooke responded on 3 March 2013 at 12:24pm Reply

    The smouldering wig incident was at a Dress Rehearsal, not a performance.

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