In one of the most amusing sketches performed by the always hilarious drag troupe La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York back in the 1980s, a centenarian diva clambered up from the auditorium to the stage, obviously hungry for an invitation to sing. The unflappable hostess, one Sylvia Bills, engaged the old gorgon in conversation. “And where are you living now, Madame?”
“In the past.”
What makes the gag so piquant is that, just like the divas they adore, opera fans tend not to spend much time in the present, or indeed in the world of the living. (A template for practically every online discussion of opera might be: “Signorina X [who sang last night at the Met] can’t hold a candle to Signora Y [who died in 1977].”) As such, holiday shopping for an opera fanatic can be a bit of a minefield. Whatever you offer, either they’ve already got it (on mp3, CD, vinyl and maybe even 78s) or else they don’t want it.
But, assuming you’re bold enough to enter the lion’s den, here are some suggestions for opera-related gifting that might please even the finickiest of aficionados.
If there is such a thing as a patron goddess of opera, her name is Maria Callas, the midcentury superstar whose onstage and offstage activities essentially defined for a generation what “diva” meant. Paradoxically, she is remembered today as a visual icon as much as a musical artist. Her great flashing dark eyes, her exaggerated 1950s high-fashion makeup and, above all, her dramatic mid-career weight loss generated dozens of unforgettable images in studio and candid photographs.
These photos, along with a number of fascinating lesser-known ones of the diva, are anthologized in a lavish coffee table book entitled The Definitive Maria Callas: Life of a Diva: The Unseen Pictures. In contrast to the familiar sights of, for instance, the diva baring her teeth at a process server backstage at a performance of Madama Butterfly, the “unseen” images (from the Marzotto Archive Collection) mostly depict a tall, slightly awkward woman, relaxing on the beach or timidly engaging in a bit of sightseeing. Other photos show Callas taking on the role of billionaire’s mistress, chic in couture gowns and leaning on the arm of tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
The book also includes copies of some of Callas’s homespun recipes, mostly the fat-laden upscale comfort food that passed for haute cuisine in the 1950s. She adored cooking this fancy stuff, but, poignantly, she confined her own diet to lean grilled meat and raw vegetables in order to maintain her signature rail-slim figure.
In contrast, the leading opera diva of today, Anna Netrebko, has enjoyed her greatest successes since gaining a few extra pounds. The additional weight, she has suggested in interviews, gives her “stamina” to take on dramatic roles like Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, a part in which won an enormous personal triumph earlier this season at the Met.
Before then, she recorded the opera at a series of live concerts at the Salzburg Festival, with her husband, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov, appearing opposite her as Manon’s lover Des Grieux.
An audio-only recording like the recently released two CD set on Deutsche Grammophon may seem like an odd way to experience a Netrebko performance. But, with her magnetism and no-holds-barred acting style rendered invisible, the soprano’s vocal artistry takes center stage. This is voluptuous singing, rich in legato, but with plentiful detail. In the heroine’s happier moments, Netrebko sings in glimmering pianissimo, then, as the tale turns tragic, her tone thickens and darkens. As in some of the selections on her superb Verismo disc from earlier this year, the sense of tragedy is movingly enhanced by the soprano’s portrayal of Manon’s self-knowledge. She knows she is doomed, but she can do nothing to avert her fate.
Eyvazov is a more problematic artist: the top of the voice is spectacular but the middle register can turn metallic. He is a robust performer, though, and so a perfect match for Netrebko’s high-energy style.
What’s perhaps the most attractive element of this set is the sound. Large, complex voices like Netrebko’s are notoriously difficult to capture faithfully on disc, but somehow DG’s engineers have worked a miracle. For perhaps the first time in the soprano’s recording career, this Manon Lescaut captures not only the beauty of her voice, but its sheer visceral impact as well. Crank up the volume on, for instance, the second act love duet, and you’ll feel your whole body throbbing in sync with her sinful vibrato.
And now to marry sight with sound, one of the greatest music theater experiences of the modern (or should I say post-modern) world has finally come to home video. The legendary Einstein on the Beach, all four hours and change of it, was recorded during live perfomances at the Théâtre du Châtelet during a 2012-2013 world tour, and now the quirky, hypnotic masterpiece by Robert Wilson, Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs can be enjoyed (if that is not too mild a word) in your own living room.
It may be, in fact, that this set, available in DVD or Blu-ray formatting, offers an even more engrossing experience than witnessing Einstein in the theater. For one thing, at home you don’t have to let the experience end after five hours. You can, as I did, just hit the “repeat” button and bliss out all over again.