When I was a young man getting interested in opera, I spent a few days one summer staying with my fellow opera-lover David Abramovitz and his family in Queens. The Met's June Festival was in full flourish and we went to the opera each night. Daytimes were spent listening to David's vast collection of reel-to-reel tapes, mostly pirated.
"What do you want to hear next?" David asked one afternoon.
"How is this?" I asked, pulling a tape labeled "AIDA Mexico City 1951 - Callas" off the shelf.
"You've never heard this?"
"But you know about it, right?"
"Know about it...know what about it?"
"About the E-flat."
"Callas takes a high E-flat in the Triumphal Scene."
Yes, she does...or rather, she did. He threaded the tape, fast-forwarded a bit and voila, there is was...one of the most famous notes in the history of recorded opera.
Of course, I was probably the only person in the universe who considered himself a serious opera fan who had not heard this note, nor heard anything about it. But at that time the "Mexico 1951 AIDA" was a major trade item on the tape lists of opera queens all over the world (as I later found out). It was, in fact, a legend.
But lately I have learned that a lot of today's younger opera buffs don't know anything about this famous interpolation, nor about the story of how it came to be. Nor that it was the second season in a row at Mexico City where Callas tackled the unwritten high note.
In 1949, Callas had put herself on the operatic map at Venice's Teatro La Fenice by alternating performances of Brunnhilde in Wagner's WALKURE (in Italian) with Elvira in Bellini's I PURITANI, replacing another soprano at short notice in the latter. This led to an increasing number of performance offers for the young soprano. One contract took her to Mexico City in 1950.
The director of the Palacio Bellas Artes in Mexico City knew of Callas's success in the Bellini and knew that she had a high E-flat in her armory. During the rehearsals of AIDA, he told Callas that the 19th century Mexican soprano Angela Peralta (above) had been famous for interpolating a high E-flat into the opera's Triumphal Scene. Callas reportedly joked with him that if he wanted to hear her E-flat he should hire her for LUCIA or PURITANI.
In a letter to her husband, Battista Meneghini, who had remained in Italy while his wife was singing in the Americas, Callas complained of the antics of tenor Kurt Baum during rehearsals. At the first night of AIDA Baum, who was singing Radames, angered all his colleagues by holding his top-notes in show-boating fashion and ignoring signals from the conductor to straighten up.
During the first intermission, mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato who was singing Amneris reportedly went to Callas's dressing room and said to the soprano: "Cara, per me...da il re-bemol!" ("Dearest, for me...take the E-flat!") and Callas, pissed at Baum, agreed. Simionato told the other singers and the conductor of Callas's intentions but left the tenor in the dark. When the moment came and Callas latched onto the unwritten note, Baum went ballistic and swore never to sing with her again (but of course, he did).
The Mexicans adored Callas and when she was invited back the following year for more Aidas the public expected her to interpolate the E-flat again. And she didn't disappoint. The 1950 E-flat is remarkable though not as well-captured on tape as the 1951 when she hurled the note into the house like a javelin.
Here, in very primitive sound, is the finale of the Triumphal Scene from the 1951 Mexico City AIDA; Callas is Aida, Oralia Dominguez sings Amneris,
Above, Callas and Simionato after a performance of ANNA BOLENA at La Scala 1957. Just six years after her Mexico triumph, the Callas voice was getting unpredictable and not long after the BOLENA performances her career began to sputter out, though not her fame. There are many theories as to why the Callas career was so short; the weight loss surely was the main factor but pulling high E-flats out of the air and sustaining them over massed chorus and orchestra surely doesn't add years to one's vocal life. Still, the sheer excitement in undeniable...some sixty years after the fact.