Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Diva Rivalry in the 20th Century

This month Clef Notes is looking at how jealousy has played a significant part in the classical music world. So far we have focused our attention on composers and their work. Today, let's look at a different angle: diva rivalry in the twentieth century.

Two superstars in the opera world during the past century include Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. While early on in their careers the two women attended each other's performances when possible and supported each other, relations intensified over time as the competition grew fierce.

It seems the rivalry began naturally as the two divas vied for leading roles on the best of the world's stages. Once, when Tebaldi fell ill prior to a performance of Aida with La Scala, Callas was offered the position in her stead. Rather than feeling excitement toward such an opportunity, Callas was hurt that they did not consider her first. Following this, she demanded that if they ever decided to ask her back, she wanted to be their first choice for the lead. They ended up obliging, offering her three leading roles and thirty appearances during her first season at $500 per performance, quite a sum for that era!

According to Robert Levine in his book Maria Callas: A Musical Biography, the real relational problems began in 1950 when the two women were alternating performances of La Traviata in Rio de Janeiro. During a benefit concert, they both sang several arias but agreed ahead of time not to include any encores. Despite this, Tebaldi sang two. Not long after this, management favored Tebaldi over Callas who was alternately dismissed. Understandably, Callas did not take matters well and was noted as commenting "If the time comes when my dear friend Renata Tebaldi sings Norma or Lucia one night, then Violetta, La Gioconda, or Medea the next--then and only then will we be rivals. Otherwise it is like comparing champagne with cognac. No--with Coca Cola."

While Callas and Tebaldi had friction in their relation, the press only seemed to add fuel to the flames of diva rivalry. This then led to the public taking sides, some favoring Callas and others clinging to the Tebaldi camp.

Join me next time as we listen to the same aria sung by both talented divas and look at the subtle artistic differences.

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