Maria Callas (1923-1977) was one of the great coloratura sopranos of the twentieth century.
Maria Callas was one of the greatest operatic voices of the 20th century. She revitalized opera and increased its appeal because of her dramatic skill. The extensive range of her singing voice (nearly three octaves) and her ability to emote enabled her to sing many operas that were rarely performed otherwise. Callas biographer Ariana Stassinopoulos said of the singer's dramatic flair, "She brought 'finish' back to the music: each phrase, each word was meticulously weighed … she never allowed it to become meaningless embroidery." And Michael Mark of American Record Guide noted of the American soprano, "Her strange, haunting, beautiful … voice was complemented by an unerring dramatic sense."
Childhood in America
By most accounts Maria Callas was born Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City, on December 3, 1923, just four months after her parents, George and Evangelia (Litza) Kalogeropoulos, arrived in New York harbor after emigrating from Greece. Callas was formally baptized Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria. It was around the time of her birth that her father shortened the family name to Callas, and Maria Kalogeropoulos was known as Maria Callas by the time she started school.
Callas and her sister, Jackie, grew up enmeshed in bitter sibling rivalries. Jackie, the elder by five years, was tall and slim-everyone's favorite. Maria was not short, but she was not as tall as Jackie, and so appeared more plump in comparison. When Callas was only five years old, she suffered a concussion and was hospitalized for over three weeks, after being dragged unconscious by an automobile. She quickly learned to appreciate the attention she received from concerned family and friends during her recuperation.
At age seven Callas began her musical studies by taking piano lessons. She loved opera music even as a youngster, and she had a beautiful voice. She especially loved to sing La Paloma. She took great comfort in listening to the many opera records in her family's collection. Young Callas soon discovered that she had a natural talent and a flair for the dramatic. She won several amateur talent contests while she was in elementary school, and was a popular performer on children's radio shows.
Adolescence in Greece
When Callas graduated from the eighth grade in 1937, her mother decided to return to Greece in order for Callas to receive voice training in the classical tradition. Once in Greece, Callas never resumed her academic studies. Instead she studied with popular voice coaches. First with Maria Trivella at the National Conservatory in Athens, and then with Elvira de Hidalgo at the Odeon Athenos. Callas also studied French and drama. She was a dedicated pupil, driven by a spirit of excellence. At times she observed even David, her pet canary, and attempted to learn from his warble. Her other bird, Elmina, was known to faint and fall off her perch from the intensity and pitch of Callas's high notes. It was all fun to Callas, who seemed happy only when she was singing. Callas's teachers, and later her directors and producers, were continually amazed at her exceptional memory. She easily learned music and lyrics in a matter of days, where others would require weeks or months.
As Callas matured, she developed a close relationship with her music coach, Elvira de Hidalgo, and it was de Hidalgo who arranged for Callas's first professional performance at the National Lyric Theater in Athens in November of 1940. While her performance would be a success, life in Athens soon changed; the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Greece had a profound effect on everyone in the country, including the young soprano. Stories are told that during the occupation Callas sometimes performed for enemy soldiers in return for food and security for herself, her mother, and her sister. Her career, meanwhile, was stifled.
Finds Success in Italy
After the occupation, de Hidalgo encouraged Callas to move to Italy to establish her career. However, against all advice, Callas returned to the United States in 1945, determined that she could make a name for herself on her own terms. Although she remained in America for the next two years, it was at the Arena in Verona, Italy where she finally got her start.
After rejection and failure in the United States she finally went to Verona, on a contract. Her Italian debut, held on August 3, 1947, was a performance of La Gioconda at the Verona Arena. She went on to perform Tristan and Isolde and Turandot in Venice in 1948. She sang the title role in Bellini's Norma, her most popular role, for the first time in Florence in 1948.
Initially Callas received minimal acclaim, although audiences in Italy were receptive to her talent. It was a quirk of fate in 1949 that finally brought her to prominence. When another diva fell ill during a run of I Puritani, Callas agreed to sing the part of Elvira on one week's notice. Callas, who was performing as Brunhilde in Die Walkure at the time, managed to perform both operas, alternating between the two works from one night to the next. The public was duly impressed at her versatility. Critics took note, and her career began to soar.
Marriage and International Acclaim
Almost immediately upon her arrival in Verona in 1947 she met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy Veronian industrialist. He was 30 years her senior, and his family did not approve of Callas or her profession, yet the two fell in love. They married on April 21, 1949. The couple lived mostly in Verona. Meneghini withdrew from his business interests to manage Callas's promising career and generally devoted his life to fulfilling her every need.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Callas toured Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil. She worked with famed Maestro Tullio Serafin, and noted directors Franco Zefferelli, Francesco Siciliani, and Luchino Visconti.
Highly professional, Callas performed 47 roles during her brief career. Her greatest role was that of Norma, which she performed 90 times. Callas developed a strong identity with the Druid priestess of the operatic tale, and once confided to Serafin, "It, Norma, will never be as good as it is now in my mind unsung." Whenever Callas performed in Norma, she reportedly became exhausted and drained from the physical intensity of her emotion.
Callas's first performance at La Scala in Milan was in Aida, in April of 1950, as a stand-in, a replacement for famed soprano Renata Tibaldi. On December 7, 1951, she made her official debut at the noted Italian opera house as Elena in I Vespri Siciliani. She went on to perform there for ten years, a total of nearly 200 performances. She interpreted nearly two dozen roles, including her most famous, Norma.
Finds Fame in America
Callas's U.S. debut was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1954. On October 19, 1956 she debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera where she performed in Norma. Coinciding with her Metropolitan Opera debut, Callas was featured on the cover of Time, on the issue dated October 27, 1956.
During the peak of her career Callas easily fit the stereotype of a portly and highly emotional diva, but in 1952 she experienced a dramatic weight loss. By 1954 she was 65 pounds lighter. She continued to perform, and her career exploded into greatness. She added new operas to her repertoire, including Madame Butterfly, which she had previously avoided because she felt awkward and ungraceful.
New Image Expands Opportunities
After the mid-1950s Callas successfully resurrected the macabre operas, including Cherubini's Medea, Verdi's Macbeth, and Donizetti's Anna Bolena, each of which required exceptional vocal range and acting talent. Will Crutchfield commented of her unique ability in New Yorker, "Callas presented to the … public a phenomenon of sheer capacity, … she revived a repertory based on capacity. High notes and low, power in full cry and delicacy in pianissimo, fast passagework and sustained legato had not been completely present in one soprano in generations."
The list of Callas's performances is lengthy: Tosca, La Traviata, Abduction from the Seraglio, Parsifal, Aida, Nabucco, Il Trovatore, and many more. In 1951 she performed the world premiere of Hayden's Orfeo ed Euridice. Surviving tapes and recordings of Callas include her 1952 La Gioconda, the complete opera, with Fedora Barbieri. Miscellaneous tapes also remain from a series of master classes she gave at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where Callas taught briefly before her death.
The Years of Decline
During the late 1950s the vocalist's personal life began to deteriorate, and this tragically affected her career. She became increasingly linked socially with the "international jet set," those people of wealth and power known as the "idle rich." Through her new-found friends she became acquainted with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and the couple's friendship soon developed into an extramarital affair. This was not the first time that Callas's name was associated with illicit liaisons, and she and her husband separated in 1959, divorcing finally in 1971. Onassis eventually divorced his wife, Tina, and married Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the late President John F. Kennedy, but he also remained involved with Callas.
The intrigues of Callas's personal life soon overshadowed her professional life. The stresses of jet set living, as well as the strain she had put on her voice throughout her career began to take their toll. Callas cancelled a performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957. In 1958 she answered to breach of contract charges from the American Guild of Musical Artists. A downward spiral was in motion. Her former manager, Richard Bagarozy, sued her for back commissions. She cancelled a performance in Rome after the first act. She was dismissed from the Metropolitan Opera. Although she returned briefly to perform at the Met between 1964 and 1965, she never resurfaced as the great talent of her youth.
The Callas Persona
As an actress, Callas was known for her timing and spontaneity, as well as for her incredible vocal range. She attributed her extraordinary stage presence to myopia: She was rarely nervous, she claimed, because she could not see the audience. In fact, Callas insisted she could barely see the conductor, and was free therefore to lose herself in the composer's work to the exclusion of all else.
Callas's timing and spontaneity even extended to curtain calls. After one memorable performance, she was showered with flowers. She took one and handed it to famed conductor Arturo Toscanini who had attended the performance. The audience was ecstatic. Even during the years of her decline, when some of the audience threw vegetables instead of flowers, to express their annoyance, Callas retained her composure. She kept the flowers for herself and tossed the vegetables down to the orchestra.
Callas died unexpectedly in Paris on September 16, 1977, shortly before her 55th birthday. Just as no record exists of Callas's birth, her death also remains shrouded in mystery, the cause of her death never fully explained. (Her body was cremated without an autopsy.) Such facts serve to intensify the mystique of the soprano's life. Duncan Scott of Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service said of Callas: "As in the case of … other icons, Callas's real accomplishments were swallowed up by the power of her own myth."
Further Reading on Maria Callas
Meneghini, Giovanni Battista, My Wife Maria Callas, translated by Henry Wisneski, Farrar Straus, 1982.
Stassinopoulos, Arianna, Maria Callas, The Woman behind the Legend, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981.
American Record Guide, November-December 1993, p. 272.
Atlantic Monthly, October 1997, p. 102.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 15, 1997, p. 915K0226.
New Yorker, November 13, 1995, pp. 94-102.
Opera News, April 16, 1994, p. 12.
Time, October 27, 1956.