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Maria Callas defined diva, and she remains one of the towering figures of opera. But Callas began having vocal problems at a relatively young age.

As part of NPRs year-long series, 50 Great Voices, NPRs Lynn Neary explores what made her voice both exhilarating and controversial.

LYNN NEARY: The year was 1952. Maria Callas was performing what would become one of her legendary roles Norma at Londons Covent Garden. Opera critic John Steane was in the audience. Steane says there were high expectations about Callas appearance, but what he remembers vividly was the operas most challenging aria, Casta Diva, and the feeling he had that Callas might not hit the highest notes.

Mr. JOHN STEANE (Opera Critic): You felt that any miscalculation, just the tiniest degree of miscalculation - the thread might break, disaster might come. Now, it didnt happen. But there was a certain tension in the air.

(Soundbite of aria, Casta Diva from Norma)

Ms. MARIA CALLAS (Greek Soprano; Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: Just a few years earlier in Venice, Callas had stunned the opera world with the extraordinary range of her voice. She was performing Brunnhilde in Wagners Die Walkure, a heavy, challenging role that played to her strengths. Then, on very short notice, she was asked to step into the part of Elvira in I Puritani. James Jorden, editor of parterrebox.com, says no one thought a dramatic soprano like Callas could sing the role of Elvira.

(Soundbite of aria, Vien diletto from I Puritani)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. JAMES JORDEN (Editor, Parterrebox.com): It showed off an extremely high range. It also showed an ability to sing coloratura, which is a fast, fluid way of singing music that is ordinarily not that easy for the more dramatic singers. So people were looking and saying, shes the most astonishing singer anyones ever heard of, and yet no one had ever heard of her.

(Soundbite of aria, Vien diletto from I Puritani)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: Callas ability to sing such a wide range of roles was one of the things that led to her meteoric rise. But critic Conrad Osbourne believes it also contained the seeds of her vocal decline. Callas voice was already starting to fail her by the time she was in her 40s quite young for an opera singer. A number of factors, including a rapid loss of weight, may explain why. But Osbourne, who also teaches voice, believes Callas lacked the proper technique to sustain her ambitious repertoire.

Mr. CONRAD OSBOURNE (Opera Critic): Its very unusual to combine those two ways of singing and to extend the range over that wide of a compass. And if your technique, your structural technique Im talking about the way the voice is balanced and structured so that when you throw a lot of energy into it, the way an athlete does or a dancer, the coordinations that respond are balanced and efficient - if that isnt true all the way up and down that very wide range, then youre inviting some trouble.

NEARY: For Callas fans like James Jorden, the singer more than made up for her vocal flaws with her talent for bringing the music to life. Her imperfections set her apart, and her ability to find the emotional meaning in a role was unsurpassed.

Mr. JORDEN: One thing about her voice that made it so striking was that it was unlike anyone elses. That sometimes, it had sort of a hollow sound, sometimes a very dark sound, sometimes a little shrill on top. So, it was an extremely distinctive voice. More important than that, I think, was what she did with the voice, how she used the voice as an expressive instrument.

(Soundbite of aria, Suicido from La Gioconda)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: Callas, says USC professor Tim Page, brought daring back to opera: she challenged her audience and never bored them.

Professor TIM PAGE (Journalism and Communication, University of Southern California): The thing about Callas was there was always a keen dramatic intelligence and a real sense of real harrowing intensity to her singing, which I think made her extremely special. I mean, when you listen to Callas, even after her voice had started to go, it still tends to be an unforgettable musical experience.

(Soundbite of aria, Habanera from Carmen)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: Page points to Callas performance in Carmen, late in her career, as an example of the kind of emotional depth she brought to a role.

Prof. PAGE: She really is the raw, untamed gypsy girl. There is just a ferocity and an intensity here, which youre not really used to from a lot of the recordings of it beforehand, which would concentrate only on nice melodies, prettily sung. Callas Carmen was not necessarily very pretty, but it was thrilling.

(Soundbite of aria, Habanera from Carmen)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: What makes Callas voice so distinctive, says James Jorden, is its complexity. Like any great work of art, Jorden says, one wants to keep coming back to her performances over and over again.

Mr. JORDEN: With Callas singing, even hearing three or four notes strung together, you hear: Oh, I didnt hear how she did that before. Thats so beautiful, to take just these few simple notes, and to go from this note to that note in such an elegant and graceful way, shows so much and means so much. And so, every time you listen, you hear something a little different. You hear something a little more sophisticated.

NEARY: When Jorden was a teenager, Callas made her last tour. It was not well-received. But looking back on it now, Jorden says he regrets not having made the effort to see her. Because, after all, there will never be another Callas.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear and see Callas sing full arias on our Web site, nprmusic.org and you can hear a clip and guess which great voice is coming up next in the series.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

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