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Uncovering the Life of Maria Callas: Insights from Biographer Sophia Lambton

by Erato Magazine Team


London-based author, Sophia Lambton, became a professional classical music critic at the age of seventeen when she began writing for Musical Opinion, Britain's oldest music magazine. Since then she has contributed to The Guardian, Bachtrack, musicOMH, BroadwayWorld, BBC Music Magazine and OperaWire, and conducted operatic research around the world for The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography. This richly detailed account of Maria Callas’ life will be published to coincide with her one hundredth birthday in December 2023.


The Crooked Little Pieces is her first literary saga. Currently she's working on her second.


Hi Sophia! Congrats on your upcoming Maria Callas biography, The Callas Imprint. This is your first biography - tell us a little bit about it!

Photo: Sophia Lambton
Photo: Sophia Lambton

The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography is the first work that lets the reader go through life through Callas’s perspective. Using never-before-published letters, rarely cited books and articles released some fifty, sixty years ago, Callas’s interviews and those of others in addition to the interviews that I conducted, it is an elaborate compendium of what it was like living as the world’s greatest soprano of all time.


I began work on the biography in 2011 at the age of eighteen but I only started writing in 2015, eventually scribing the bulk of the book in 2018. I’m grateful for that, as my writing was lousy twelve years ago.

For those of us who don't know Maria Callas, tell us a little bit about her.

Maria Callas is the world’s greatest soprano of all time. What sounds like hyperbole is actually true: her voice and mind were made of magic. They were gifts permitting her to readily absorb which vocal choices – accents, trills, scales and arpeggios and dynamics– were vulgar, which refined; what she could make anew from roles that hundreds of performers had already sung. People tend to say creative artists have a great advantage over their interpreters: you can’t compare Mozart to Pavarotti, or Rodgers and Hammerstein to Julie Andrews. I would agree with this 99% of the time, but Callas was an exception.


Opera is a young art. On one hand, it’s been around since the late 16th century. On the other, most people can’t name a single 16th-century opera. By the time Callas was born the genre was enjoying several million connoisseurs. This meant they knew what to expect onstage and in recording.


If you compare Picasso to Van Gogh you’ll see the former crafted his own world. If you compare Van Gogh to Rembrandt you’ll observe the same. Maria Callas crafted incarnations just as different to her stagemates’ as these masters did their predecessors’. It wasn’t dumb luck on her part: she studied characters and markings with extreme obsession; endured twenty-hour rehearsals; goaded her colleagues to give nothing less than their best. I truly don’t believe there’s ever been another textual or musical interpreter like her.


Why did you decide to write a biography about Callas?

From a modern perspective most narratives around Callas have been guided by sexist ideas formed by people who, consciously or not, seek to paint this strong, unstoppable and dominating creature as a victim. These notions are archaic and irrelevant where Callas is concerned.


Nothing let me see real Callas more than… Callas. Her letters, interviews, and letters and interviews about her. 3395 sources from 21 countries spanning 80 years. At the same time what makes my book extremely different is I recognise her contradictions. It’s all too easy for a biographer to latch on to a few quotes and say, “This is true because she said it.” My approach to humanity is different. What one person thinks is true one day they may disagree with the next. Living is about both evolution and, unfortunately, devolution. Our memory plays tricks on us. We tend to respond negatively when we’re sad. We get defensive. When most writers analyse Callas they select quotes that fit their story. I’ve selected quotes that let you see a myriad of Marias: at her peak and exuberant; cynical and despairing, embittered and talking nonsense. I have done my best to find a single and consistent entity; I fully think she was for the most part a lucid and clear-headed lady.


The reader can agree or disagree with my perception of the truth; the value I assign my various sources. Either way they are accorded their own intimacy with Maria Callas, and it’s up to them to form a judgment.


You've previously written a literary saga, The Crooked Little Pieces, and you're currently working on another one. Obviously, writing a biography is vastly different to writing novels, so could you tell us a little about your writing process for The Callas Imprint?

The writing process for a huge biography is very different to my go-to methods for my novels, yet they’ve grown more similar over the years. First of all, I had a giant series of documents called “Chronological Files”. These separated Callas’s life into distinct blocks and encompassed small outlines of notes. They then grew into a new folder, “Neat Transcription”, which grew those outlines into giant quotes from books and articles, as well as whole transcriptions of all letters Callas ever wrote I had discovered in addition to all letters written about her. Together with these were her interview quotes – which came from a giant document I have in which I transcribed all the interviews with her I found.


The “Neat Transcriptions” folder must have amassed 1.2 million words or so, and had to be condensed into “Final Transcription”: all the quotes that I was choosing to include in my biography.


“Neat Transcriptions” was accompanied by documents labelled “A”, “B”, “C” etc. on the Callas facets difficult to chronologise: her relationships with religion and shopping and superstition; attitudes toward symphonic music, cabaret and pop and penchant for antiques. I was always planning to have twenty-three chapters and a prologue – partly on account of her own birth year, 1923. I remember spending a lot time deciding which characteristics to include in which chapter: where I would mention Callas was a good swimmer; that she preferred her steak rare, that she loved studying scores in her bath and in bed… all timeless details.


On some level The Crooked Little Pieces and my current fiction follow similar trajectories: I know before I start where I’m going to mention which idiosyncratic traits; I have to measure out ingredients like these to avoid repetition or digression. I guess you could say the intense planning involved in the biography made me a better fictional planner.

And, of course, having written so many books, you probably have a great way of dealing with writers' blocks?

When I was younger I wasn’t so interested in beginning a novel. This was because I idiotically believed I had to start at the beginning.


As somebody who’s radically changed her way of working over the past thirteen years, I would say it takes a while to find one personal to you. When I was a teenager I loved to improvise; nowadays I need to know which gestures my main characters will execute in any given chapter before writing.


I think the way out of writers’ block is to block out the voices of others: those that insist there’s just one way of doing things. You don’t have to start by introducing your character. Why don’t you suppose the reader already knows who she is? You’ll fill in the details eventually. Who’s to say you have to start by describing the scene? Maybe it’s dark or unknown. Maybe the scene doesn’t matter. Planning ahead brings reassurance but that’s not always the case. You have to write what you feel like writing to get yourself into that headspace. Once you’re there, the rest will come naturally.

 

The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography is out on the 2nd of December 2023.

Preorder it now: Amazon, Barnes & Noble or on Google Books


For more info about Sophia Lambton, The Callas Imprint, or The Crooked Little Pieces, visit www.thecrepuscularpress.com




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