Comparing Maria Callas's Habanera to Others

A Look at Maria Callas's Performance of the Habanera from Bizet's Opera "Carmen"

Soprano Maria Callas, known for her role as Carmen in Bizet's opera, Carmen, arrives in Paris for her first singing appearance in France at the Paris Opera. Monsieur Favre-Lebret is at her side as she addresses a press conference.
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Maria Callas, a captivating soprano who rose to fame in the 1950s, was well known for her portrayal of Carmen from Bizet's opera, Carmen. Learn more about Carmen in this Carmen profile. Callas had a remarkable voice, but it isn't her voice alone that people remember. She had a stage presence unlike any other opera singer; she wasn't just a singer, she was an actress. She meticulously studied her songs, delved into the meanings of the libretto, and meditated on the minds of her characters.

On stage her hard work was evident. Not only did her voice emote, her facial expressions and body language were perfectly in sync and could portray even the smallest nuances of feelings that other performers would simply overlook. Don't believe us?  Take a look at these YouTube videos of a handful of different opera singers and listen/watch for the differences.

  • Maria Callas (watch on YouTube) 
    First, watch this video of Maria Callas, then compare it to the following videos.
  • Agnes Baltsa (watch on YouTube)
    Vocally, Agnes Baltsa's performance is spot on, but her face takes on this squinting/strained expression when she sings - it's as if the stage lights are too bright. We find her performance to be more off-putting than captivating.
  • Elina Garanca (watch on YouTube)
    This 2010 performance of Richard Eyre's production of Carmen by Elina Garanca at the Metropolitan Opera is visually arresting. However, despite its high-definition cinematography, fantastic set, and great costume design, Garanca's performance is missing meaning in her voice. She sings the entire aria on the same level - there's no variation from one phrase to the next, no passion, no build up.
  • Angela Gheorghiu (watch on YouTube)
    Angela Gheorghiu's performance of the Habanera is actually quite impressive. Her voice, though slightly lacking in brilliance, has a beautiful tone. Both her upper and lower ranges are commanding and resonant, and above all, you can tell she understands the meaning of the aria's lyrics through her expressions and vocal inflections.
  • Denyce Graves (watch on YouTube)
    Denyce Graves, though stunning in appearance and sound, gave a visually boring performance. Her facial expression rarely changed, and for the most part, remained angry looking until the Habanera was over. We'd rather watch Gheorghiu's performance - there's a joy in her presence that we feel Graves doesn't have.
  • Jennifer Larmore (watch on YouTube)
    Jennifer Larmore has a silky and sultry voice, but her performance of the Habanera is devoid of art as if it were sung by a robot (which is often the case with studio recordings and music videos). Perhaps if this video were recorded with live singing instead of lip syncing, Larmore's emotional presence could be improved.

We know some of you will not agree that Callas's performance was better than any one of the YouTube videos listed above, and that's perfectly okay. Having watched and re-watched each of them multiple times, we still find ourselves watching Callas's performance the most. When she sings, she becomes Carmen - it's almost instinctual. She accents certain words in her vocal passages while singing others in almost whisper tones. The variation gives Callas's Carmen a heart, body, and soul.