Maria Callas’s Waistline and the Organology of Voice
Callas’s voice gives rise to unusually polarized reactions, from devotion to disgust. As an artist, Callas was judged as “temperamental,” “out of control,” unreliable due to her walkouts; while Callas-the-voice was considered “mesmerizing,” “terrible,” having “‘lost’ her voice” from “ferocious dieting,” and also out of control. Filled with judgmental language about her body weight and questions of control, voice, and character, the case was seemingly ripe for a feminist critique that addressed Callas’s voice and body head on. However, within the concepts and vocabulary that are currently available, women find themselves the object of the gaze of assessment and criticism. For female singers, this takes place in the visual as well as the sonorous realm.
A recent revival of organology, critical organology, offers a new inroad into considering the body and its materiality outside self-perpetuating dogmatic language. In this article, I first draw out the main points of the public discourse around Callas’s voice and body; second, engaging Susan Bordo’s work, I consider how these narratives about the voice and body rely on ancient and contemporary sentiments about the female body, rather than on current knowledge about the voice; and third, I examine common assertions about Callas’s voice through what I conceive as a critical organological approach to voice research. In doing so, I seek to contribute to a discourse that will separate voice and body from gendered disparities; find a way to deal head-on with voice as a material, vibrational practice; and illuminate where and how vocal vocabulary and concepts are weighed down by millennia of gendered misconceptions.
The Department of Music acknowledges the generous support of the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Fund at Yale University for assistance with this series.