Patience Kayira ’20
For most people, childhood is filled with trips to the toy store, afternoons watching cartoons and playing outside. Yet, not all children have this experience. For Patrick Donnelly, poet laureate of Northampton, childhood was a time for opera. Exposed to opera at an early age by his mother, Donnelly developed a sophisticated love for the lyrical drama and the once-famous diva Maria Callas. In Josten’s live production of “At the Grave of Maria Callas,” Donnelly expanded upon his love for Callas through footage of Callas and a sequence of poems.
Beginning his speech, Donnelly disclosed that the overarching question, “How does an aria turn into poem?” would not be fully answered, but rather one would have to continue asking questions about this topic. Donnelly’s presentation was divided into three phases. The first phase delved into his love for opera, followed by the rise and fall of Callas’ career and a poetry reading. Throughout the presentation, the ideas of “belonging” and “otherness” were recurrent themes, as Callas’ glamorous infamy was a source of intrigue to the poet.
As an early patron of opera, Donnelly found a sense of belonging in the art form. After seeing his first opera performance, La Traviata, Donnelly was smitten – so much so that he even asked for a recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto for his tenth birthday. Yet the sense of belonging Donnelly found within opera was paired with his father’s fear of him “becoming” gay. Despite this, Donnelly’s interest in opera never waned; he was on the path to become an opera singer.
For Donnelly, this journey ended early as he realized that opera singers required a wealth of skills. With quiet sarcasm Donnelly said, “Having the skill set of an opera singer is a little more difficult than receiving a cold fusion in a laboratory.”
Accompanied with black and white photos and videos of a beautiful woman dressed in ball gowns, the second phase of the presentation stressed the magnitude of Maria Callas in the operatic world. Maria Callas was a famous opera singer in the mid twentieth century. Donnelly explained, “Her claim to fame was supported by her expansive range, ability to sing anything, and impressive acting.” Audience members were treated to footage and recordings of Callas at different times in her career. The first was an aria from “Samson and Dalila.” Showcasing her expansive range, Josten’s mezzanine was filled with a sweetly powerful soprano. Despite the aria being in French, Callas’ voice communicated a narrative of sadness and longing.
The recording that stood out the most was a video of Callas as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Donnelly prefaced the footage by warning us of a vocal mishap. Sitting in anticipation as the black and white YouTube video played, the audience was prepared to witness the faux pas. Yet when Callas cracked on the high C, it was hardly noticeable. Her flowy tulle gown and impeccable confidence made the mistake insignificant. Donnelly later explained that he was awed by her ability to recuperate from this public failure, thus sparking his inspiration for the sequence of poems.
As a gay man, Donnelly’s adoration of Maria Callas grew from her ill success with men. Donnelly argued that Callas was queer in the sense that her behavior deviated from societal norms. Callas was rumored to have been in love with multiple gay men. He ultimately found “a voice in her sadness that helped [him] listen to [his] sadness.” Thus, Donnelly found Callas’ suffering relatable as it communicated the pain associated with loving a man.
Maria Callas, despite having a prolific career as an opera singer, was an oddity. Often difficult to work with, Callas epitomized the controversial image of a diva. Yet Donnelly found that she was a “companion to his otherness.” Ultimately Donnelly’s emotive readings were intriguing for both opera-lovers and classical music fans. Thus, “At the Grave of Maria Callas” was an intellectually soothing event that addressed recovering from failure in a musical way.