BECAUSE HER FAME reached so far beyond the confines of opera, the name of Maria Callas, who died last Friday at only 53, became inextricably tied in the public mind with a life of glamor and glitter and high-stepping among the mighty. If this image was not entirely inaccurate, it was, nonetheless, a very minor aspect of what she stood for and will be remembered for. Indeed, her life as well as her career was dominated by a consuming daring and perfectionism in the art of singing that decisively altered the course of opera in her time, and may well do so for long into the future.
People have wasted much energy since Miss Callas made her electrifying appearance on the scene in the late 1940's debating whether she, or singer B, or singer C, was "the world's greatest." Certainly no other opera singer had such legions of idolators. But this addiction to superlatives seems to us as much beside the point in opera as it is in politics or athletics. It would seem sufficient to say of Miss Callas, the performer, that she was simply one of the finest of singers - an utterly bewitching presence, both dramatically and musically.
And even if a few would qualify this with quibbles about her sometimes variable tonal and pitch control, few of those critics would quarrel with the widespread feeling that she was almost certainly the most important opera singer of her time. Of her many achievements, the most formidable was to reform almost singlehandedly the operatic repertory by starting a postwar revival of the long dormant Italian bel canto operas. With a few exceptions, this treausre trove of music from the early 19th century - by composers like Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Cherubini - had lain on shelves for over a century, disabled by a reputation for being too difficult for modern voices and too trivial for modern tastes. With a characteristic combination of nerve, discipline, determination, imagination, intellect, musicianship and matchless charisma, Miss Callas flew in the face of these myths and by her example promptly put a lie to them both. The revival took fire, and by now so many other singers have followed her bold lead in exploring bel canto that it seems a certainty that the musical revolution she started will not die with her.
It was our misfortune in the United States that, even though Miss Callas was born in Manhattan, her career was mostly on European stages. She sang only 21 performances at the Metropolitan Opera. It is, though, our great good fortune that she was a prodigious recording artist; in fact, no soprano's career has yet been so completely documented for posterity. And, for many reasons, we doubt that there has been another singer whose art was more worthy of such preservation.