Marni Nixon on Maria Callas

Marni Nixon was the voice of Natalie Wood’s Maria in the film version of “West Side Story,” just as she sang Audrey Hepburn’s parts in “My Fair Lady” and those of Deborah Kerr in “The King and I.” Nixon also has sung with the Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera and is appearing with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in New York next month.

(Callas’) recordings are quite an example of the most dramatic kind of singing. She was all about meaning in song, meaning in music; she was a complete performer and a great influence on me.

When I was singing a lot of opera, she was the one person in that bel canto repertoire, which means really old-style opera, not necessarily like “La Boheme,” but previous periods, Mozart and Bellini, from the era when there was so much coloratura.

Phrasing “La Traviata,” she put a little tremble in it. She made (the lyrics) personal — it’s not a scale, it’s not to show off pyro-technics, but it was to showcase the emotion coming out. She made music out of all of the decorative and romantic phrases. When she sang, it was always related to her guts.

Her operatic repertoire is the bel canto era, which is not what we have now. We have romantic, or true, opera (verismo). It isn’t stylized, it’s more natural. Bel canto is stylized, probably the way the composer meant it, but no one really did it as well as she did.

Callas was a dramatic coloratura, she could do big voice, but lighten up and do all these fast, fantastic runs that a real heavy voice couldn’t do — like a Wagnerian couldn’t do. She also did the thing that was impressive to me, that was more important than keeping the beauty of the voice; she would get so dramatic that it wasn’t this gorgeous, round, buttermilk sound. Sometimes it got more raucous. Now, a lot of singers won’t do that, because it can take away from the beauty of the voice. Opera is a part of music theater. It has to be about theater and music; sometimes we forget about that aspect.

The last time I saw her was in Seattle on her farewell tour. She was not singing in an opera but doing a lot of operatic scenes and duets. She had changed her vocal category, she was originally soprano, and in later years she started singing mezzo. It’s like being a flute and then trying to be an alto flute. Tenor sax to bass sax. She did it very effectively because of her emotional skills and imagination — that’s where she was really effective.

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