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A LISTENER'S STARTER KIT

Nearly 200 recordings feature Maria Callas in full operas, arias or excerpts.

But many of these are pirate recordings, taken off the airwaves or by smuggled microphones in the opera house, which gradually have surfaced on small labels that acquired them in licensing agreements.

EMI Classics owns most of the important Callas recordings made at the opera house or the studio, and for the beginners they remain the best place to start.

EMI is remastering the entire Callas catalog, releasing its 20-opera first wave in time for the 20th anniversary. In some cases, it may be best to wait until January, when additional operas and recital discs emerge.

The advances in digital engineering will yield better, more natural sound (which in many cases is mono) than when the performances were first transferred to compact disc when the technology was new in the '80s.

It's best to first approach Callas in a complete opera. In a full dramatic context, the effect of a Callas performance comes across better than with isolated arias from various sources.

Here's a Callas starter kit.

Operas

"Tosca," Giacomo Puccini; Callas, DiStefano, Gobbi; de Sabata, conductor; EMI Classics. This is Callas' most famous recording, and justly so; a near-perfect performance.

"La Traviata," Giuseppe Verdi; Callas, DiStefano, Bastianini; Giulini, conductor; EMI. The so-called "Lisbon Traviata" -- recorded live in Portugal in 1958 -- inspired Terence McNally's play. But better conducting can be had at midprice in January, when the remastered "Traviata" with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting becomes available.

"Norma," Vincenzo Bellini; Callas, Stignani, Filippeschi; Sera-fin, conductor; EMI. Hear Callas in a bel canto role, but one of the most dramatic and difficult. This is the first studio recording, newly remastered, superior to the later one she made in 1960.

"Madama Butterfly," Puccini; Callas, Gedda; Karajan, conductor; EMI. She sang Butterfly on stage only three times, but this 1955 recording is among her most beloved.

Videos

"Maria Callas at Covent Garden, 1962 and 1964," EMI Classics.

"Callas: Debuts a Paris," EMI Classics.

Callas' first performances in Paris and concert appearances in London; both videos have different performances of Act 2 of "Tosca," which offers Callas singing "Vissi d'arte."

-- Scott Duncan

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