Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: La Divina in Chicago

We mark the American operatic debut on November 1, 1954 – 67 years ago today – of “La Divina” – “the divine one” – meaning Maria Callas at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Callas performed her signature role of Norma in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera of the same name under the baton of Nicola Rescigno.

Maria Callas in Chicago, 1955
More fun in Chicago: Maria Callas after having been served papers following a performance of Madam Butterfly in Chicago, 1955. Those papers addressed a lawsuit brought by Eddy Bagarozy, who claimed to be her agent. Chasing the process server from her dressing room, she tossed the papers to the floor and proclaimed “I will not be sued! I have the voice of an angel!

I have never envied great athletes or dancers, except perhaps for the income potential of the former. My (general) lack of envy stems from the all-too-brief shelf life of such careers. With rare exception – Phil Niekro, George Blanda, George Foreman, and Tom Brady come to mind – most top athletes and dancers hit their prime in their twenties. By their thirties, wear and tear and the aging process have damaged their bodies and eroded their skills and will soon enough bring their careers to an end. (Magnificent though they still are, Steph Curry [33 years old, born 1988] and LeBron James [presently still 36 years old, born 1984] are considered to be among the “old men” of their sport, that being professional basketball. An old man at 33? Please.)

What professional athletes, dancers, and musicians all have in common is that they will have begun doing what they do at a young age. The sorts of motor skills, neural connections, and musculature high-end athletes, dancers, and musicians require must be wired in and built up while the body develops. What this means is that from almost the beginning of their lives, their emotional well-being is inextricably linked to their self-identity as athletes, dancers, and musicians. And this is why I’ve never envied athletes or dancers. You see, barring a major injury or a chronic inflammatory disease like arthritis or tendonitis, musicians can continue playing their instruments at a professional level into their eighth, ninth, and even their tenth decades. But the bodies of athletes and dancers break down, and at a fairly young age they are forced by physical reality to abandon that one thing that has dominated and defined their lives to that time. For many athletes and dancers, “retirement” can mark a harrowing emotional crash and burn.

Some athletes and dancers quit while they’re on top, while others drag out their careers for as long as they can, their deteriorating skills revealed for all to see, shadows of their former selves. …

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