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  • Maria Callas's Waistline and the Organology of Voice
  • Nina Sun Eidsheim (bio)

During my first few weeks at music conservatory, my voice teacher asked who my favorite opera singer was. "Maria Callas," I replied. My teacher was surprised, but commented only that Callas had an "unusual voice." At that time, Callas existed for me simply as a wonderful artist, a singer whose recordings I played on endless repeat. But as I began to learn about the Callas legend, I came to understand what my teacher had meant. Callas's voice gives rise to highly 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," ruined through "ferocious dieting," and also "out of control."1 During my decade and a half of work on voice, body, and materiality, I have been continually reminded of Callas's case and its resonance with how we listen to female operatic voices today.

The case, filled with judgmental language about Callas's body weight and questions of control, voice, and character, was seemingly ripe for a feminist critique that addressed her voice and body head-on.2 Over the years I've made a number of attempts, but an effective way to address these issues had escaped me. The imagery and language available are saturated with the very body- and gender-related power structures I sought to address. Limited by such discursive structures, I wondered how I might marshal the necessary critical-analytical resources.3 For example, how could I refer to women's bodies and voices occupying the public sphere, and making artistic demands, without also re-inscribing belief systems that had been in place for thousands of years? Within the concepts and vocabulary that are currently available, women find themselves the object of the gaze of assessment and criticism. They are also continuously assessed for vocal and non-vocal bodily sounds. While singers are allegedly judged on the basis of their vocal performance, for female singers this judgment is intensely applied in the visual as well as the sonorous realm.4

However, a renewed interest in organology over the last few years, in the form of what some have called "critical organology," offers a new inroad into considering [End Page 249] the body and its materiality outside self-perpetuating dogmatic language.5 This might seem like an unusual approach given that the voice has not traditionally been an object of organological study: the voice is often referred to as an "instrument" but has not been given the same consideration as (other) musical instruments. Considering the voice from a material point, we may think of it as a feature that is tangential to breathing (lungs), keeping lungs clear of foreign objects (vocal folds), and chewing and swallowing (teeth, tongue, and palates). The organs involved in these activities as well as singing include the lips, teeth, hard and soft palate, tongue, uvula, glottis, and lungs. The shift to thinking about voice as only one of many functions of the organs involved may offer a framework within which to develop a vocabulary, concepts, and perspectives that can help us to move laterally, engaging materiality in a different linguistic and conceptual register. Applied to voice and beyond, critical organology can indeed be considered a mode of thought.

Specifically, applying the methodology and mode of thinking afforded by critical organology to voice helps us examine the explicit connections drawn between body shape, size, and vocal sound. Without such a framework, it can be challenging to realize how often we instrumentalize the voice. Rather than offering a historical treatment of Callas, 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 on gender and the body, 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 live, performing voice; and third, I examine common assertions about Callas's voice through what I conceive as a critical organological approach to voice research.6 In doing so...


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pp. 249-268
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