In his outrageously intemperate essay in Callas: Images of a Legend (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 261 pages, $108 cloth), Attila Csampai idealizes Callas to the point where discretion, discrimination, and taste vanish in a blaze of superlatives and absolutes. "She gave the world all that an individual can possibly give and more: she surrendered her soul, indeed, her inner universe, thereby exhausting her supreme creative power." Callas is called "the messenger of the gods, the most radiant archangel humankind has yet experienced," "the only singer of this century," and "the last true artist in an age devoid of myths, artists, and heroes." In gust after gust of baroque extravagance, Callas is variously and contradictorily called "an ocean", "the chaste and immaculate high priestess of art," and a "femme scandaleuse-the embodiment of provocation for the tottering patriarchal society of the fifties." Her critics (among whom we should include Toscanini, who described her voice as "vinegar") are labelled a "miserable, arrogant, semi-literate, tasteless, and above all unmusical mob." More amazingly, Csampai, reputedly a musicologist, makes no case for Callas's la prima parola method (learned from Serafin) or for her extraordinary dramatic technique in roles such as Norma, Tosca, Lucia, Medea, Violetta, and Lady Macbeth.
The saving grace of this coffee-table book is the generous collection of photographs (a few in full colour) by Beaton, Horst, Parks, Dominic, McBean, and others, that tells Callas's story more forcefully than Csampai's livid text. We are shown the young, plump, unprepossessing Maria and then the La Scala tigress, her dark eyes flashing fire in her greatest roles. We see her in the company of Meneghini, Onassis, Bernstein, Bing, Churchill, Maxwell, and hordes of adoring fans. But the most telling shots are unposed, unrehearsed ones of Callas in professional and private distress, where her vulnerability has a spontaneous lambency.