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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Death becomes them

By Norman Lebrecht / August 29, 2002

Maria Callas, who died 25 years ago next month, still sells more records each year than any living opera singer. Elvis Presley, who predeceased her by exactly one month, has been back in the charts this year and (according to Forbes magazine) continues to earn more money than any other dead person. He is also, according to the Performing Right Society, the most imitated and impersonated performer of recent times. Taken together, these three statistics amount to a towering indictment of the present state of popular music.

It seems almost inexplicable that the human race, with its ravenous appetite for entertainment, should have failed over quarter of a century to produce another Callas and Elvis. Neither Pavarotti nor Madonna come close, nor ever will. The desperate efforts of a universal music industry have yielded nothing more enduring than Cecilia Bartoli, the mini-voiced mezzo who tops the opera charts, and the high-kicking, faintly archaic Kylie Minogue, who belongs more to the smiley era of the Andrews Sisters than to the grim virtual reality of Bill Gates. When we commemorate the Presley and Callas anniversaries we confirm a catastrophic failure of cultural renewal.

Before we examine the causes of failure, let me remind you of the sorry state of the Presley and Callas reputations at the time of their deaths in 1977, on 16 August and 16 September respectively. Both were regarded as pathetic washouts. Callas had ended her stage career in 1965 at the age of 41, a point when most sopranos approach their peak. She had hoped to spend more time with her lover Aristotle Onassis, who promptly junked her for Jackie Kennedy. She died, aged 53, in her Paris apartment of a cardiac infarction, also known as a broken heart.

Presley had lost his edge, first to the Beatles then to a rising tide of psychedelic sounds. His attempt at a social conscience - In The Ghetto - provoked muffled sniggers. His ninth and last album, Aloha from Hawaii, was waving from nowhere. He died, aged 42, at his grotesquely adorned Graceland mansion in Memphis, of barbiturate and cheeseburger abuse.

And that's where their work should have ended - in the back catalogue of a record corporation with sales plodding along nicely, nothing spectacular. That's how it was with Enrico Caruso, the most celebrated opera singer before Callas. But Callas and Presley came storming back from the grave. The arrival of compact disc a decade after their deaths introduced their music, embalmed but still warm, to a generation suckled on the robotic promise of digital technology and the soulless repetition of roles in big-bank sponsored opera houses. Compared with Kiri Te Kanawa and Phil Collins, the late lamented sounded thrillingly alive.

Say what you like about Elvis and Maria, when they got on stage or in front of a microphone in their heyday-they gave their last drop of vital fluids. I never heard either of them live, except on radio - but that was enough. With Elvis, you feared he would burst a diamond button or break one of those indiarubber legs. Maria you fully expected to ram that dagger right into the heart of a blameless Tito Gobbi. In her last Tosca, at Covent Garden, she ripped her dress on a nail as she rushed onto the stage and sublimely never noticed.

Both had been heavily groomed for public presentation - Presley by his preposterous manager "Colonel" Tom Parker and Callas by her ridiculous little husband, Menenghini. But once they were up on stage, all advice was forgotten. Both offended the purists. Presley hybridised black music for white suburbanites. Callas had an ugly edge to her voice. In extremis, she shrieked.

Her dramatic intensity was selfsacrificial, accelerating premature vocal decline. Her final Tosca, partly captured on video, is far from beautiful. Her valedictory concert tour was a monstrous lapse of taste - rather like the long, rosetinted fade-out of Judy Garland whose massive gay following Callas knowingly cultivated.

Days before Presley's death, three friends published a lament titled Elvis - What Happened? Pictures of his bloated corpse, flashed around the world, could not repress the reckless generosity of an indestructible art. What would we not give, in these calorie-conscious times, for a full-fat performance by a singer who gives double helpings? Elvis has become educational. He appears in the UK GCSE syllabus for modern American history - not, admittedly, as a role model, but kids could do much worse. Listen here, boys and girls: watch what you eat and stay clean of drugs, but when it comes to giving a performance - hey, give it all you've got.

The faultless soprano Angela Gheorghiu, now dominant in the Callas repertoire, has failed to replace her in the public consciousness. Angela

does not give herself to us the way Maria did. Nor can Will Young and Kylie Minogue, so expertly manufactured by bottom-liners and focus groups, ever fill the emotional crater that Presley left in our collective soul.

The failure to create a legend for later times rests mainly with the music business, which changed since 1977 from a nurturing cottage industry to a corporate controltower. Its suited moguls are not in the market for uninsurable risks. So long as they control the means of distribution, Presley and Callas will never be replaced.

But it may also be that the public does not want another self-exploding star. Today's public has forgotten what it is like to be terrified out of its wits by war or theatre. It views horror films for entertainment and croons along with Kylie, the girl next door. When its cultural narcolepsy is disturbed by the unimaginable - 11 September - it has no contemporary means of catharsis and turns back to a wilder age in search of musical consolation. A public that has put up for 25 years with synthetic substitutes has only itself to blame for the absence of authentic emotion.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001