I was born in Bulgaria. I’m a daughter of communism. I lived with communism behind the iron curtain. We had no idea of the voices in the West because it was forbidden to listen to radio from those countries. We were able to listen to radio from Russia and the Bolshoi Theatre.
When I finished at the conservatory I won a scholarship to study at the Bolshoi. In the meantime, however, my friend who was an engineering student had made a primitive valve radio and he told me that with his radio he could reach channels from the West. In great secrecy, we rushed to his house and this radio functioned as he’d promised. We started tuning through various channels until I heard singing, a woman’s voice, and I said stop where you are, I want to listen to this.
Well, this miraculous voice was singing a Bellini aria, followed by Wagner, then Verdi, and I was blown away. For me, this was a I world I didn’t know existed. At the end of the programme I heard the words ‘Martini & Rossi’; it was one of the Martini & Rossi concerts, but I didn’t know the name of the singer.
At that moment, I decided that I had to go and study not at the Bolshoi, but in where that woman was singing in that way. In 1958, I found myself in the country where Maria Callas sang. The voice that I had heard was her voice. I went immediately to La Scala, up in the gallery, and I heard Medea with Maria Callas, and that was when Maria Callas became real for me, not just a voice in the ether.
Even if someone even possessed that organ that Callas had, you should never think about imitating her, it’s a huge error, she had a throat like no other: they were her vocal cords and it was her voice. I had a very modest voice in comparison, yet I was able to achieve what I did because I had an innate talent as an interpreter, but these are two worlds apart: she’s up there and we are down here, on the ground.
This is translated from Raina Kabaivanska’s video contribution to the La Scala di Maria Callas – Ricordi e Testimonianze, an evening at Teatro alla Scala on 14 September. The whole event can be seen via the theatre’s YouTube channel: