Maria Callas, Commendatore OMRI ( December 2, 1923 – September 16, 1977), was an American-born Greek soprano and one of the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century.
Critics praised her bel canto technique, wide-ranging voice and dramatic interpretations. Her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini and further, to the works of Verdi and Puccini; and, in her early career, to the music dramas of Wagner. Her musical and dramatic talents led to her being hailed as La Divina.
Born in New York City and raised by an overbearing mother, she received her musical education in Greece and established her career in Italy. Forced to deal with the exigencies of wartime poverty and with myopia that left her nearly blind onstage, she endured struggles and scandal over the course of her career.
She turned herself from a heavy woman into a svelte and glamorous one after a mid-career weight loss, which might have contributed to her vocal decline and the premature end of her career. The press exulted in publicizing Callas’s allegedly temperamental behavior, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and her love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Although her dramatic life and personal tragedy have often overshadowed Callas the artist in the popular press, her artistic achievements were such that Leonard Bernstein called her “the Bible of opera” and her influence so enduring that, in 2006, Opera News wrote of her: “Nearly thirty years after her death, she’s still the definition of the diva as artist—and still one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists.”
According to her birth certificate, Maria Callas was born Sophia Cecelia Kalos at Flower Hospital (now the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center), at 1249 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, on December 2, 1923 to Greek parents George Kalogeropoulos (c. 1881-1972) and Evangelia “Litsa” (sometimes “Litza”) Dimitriadou (c. 1894-1982), though she was christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou the genitive of the patronymic Kalogeropoulos.
Callas’s father had shortened the surname Kalogeropoulos first to “Kalos” and subsequently to “Callas” in order to make it more manageable.
George and Evangelia were an ill-matched couple from the beginning; he was easy-going and unambitious, with no interest in the arts, while his wife was vivacious and socially ambitious, and had held dreams of a life in the arts for herself, which her middle-class parents had stifled in her childhood and youth.
Evangelia’s father, Petros Dimitriadis (1852-1916), was in failing health when Evangelia introduced George to her family and Petros, distrustful of George, had warned his daughter, “You will never be happy with him. If you marry this man, I will never be able to help you”.
Evangelia had ignored his warning, but soon realized that her father was right. The situation was aggravated by George’s philandering and was improved neither by the birth of a daughter, named Yakinthi (later called Jackie), in 1917 nor the birth of a son, named Vassilis, in 1920. Vassilis’s death from meningitis in the summer of 1922 dealt another blow to the marriage.
In 1923, after realizing that Evangelia was pregnant again, George made the unilateral decision to move his family to America, a decision which Yakinthi recalled was greeted with Evangelia “shouting hysterically” followed by George “slamming doors”. The family left for New York in July 1923, moving first into an apartment in Astoria, Queens.
Evangelia was convinced that her third child would be a boy; her disappointment at the birth of another daughter was so great that she refused to even look at her new baby for four days.
Maria was christened three years later at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in 1926. When Maria was 4, George Callas opened his own pharmacy, settling the family in Manhattan on 192nd Street in Washington Heights where Callas grew up.
Around the age of three, Maria’s musical talent began to manifest itself, and after Evangelia discovered that her youngest daughter also had a voice, she began pressing “Mary” to sing. Callas later recalled, “I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it.” George was unhappy with his wife favoring their elder daughter, as well as the pressure put upon young Mary to sing and perform. The marriage continued to deteriorate and in 1937 Evangelia decided to return to Athens with her two daughters.
Callas’s relationship with Evangelia continued to erode during the years in Greece, and in the prime of her career, it became a matter of great public interest, especially after a 1956 cover story in Time magazine which focused on this relationship and later, by Evangelia’s book My Daughter – Maria Callas.
In public, Callas blamed the strained relationship with Evangelia on her unhappy childhood spent singing and working at her mother’s insistence, saying,
My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted… I’ll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money. Everything I did for them was mostly good and everything they did to me was mostly bad.
In 1957, she told Norman Ross, “Children should have a wonderful childhood. I have not had it – I wish I had.” On the other hand, biographer Petsalis-Diomidis asserts that it was actually Evangelia’s hateful treatment of George in front of their young children which led to resentment and dislike on Callas’s part.
According to both Callas’s husband and her close friend Giulietta Simionato, Callas related to them that her mother, who did not work, pressed her to “go out with various men”, mainly Italian and German soldiers, to bring home money and food during the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. Simionato was convinced that Callas “managed to remain untouched”, but Callas never forgave Evangelia for what she perceived as a kind of prostitution forced on her by her mother.
In an attempt to patch things up with her mother, Callas took Evangelia along on her first visit to Mexico in 1950, but this only reawakened the old frictions and resentments, and after leaving Mexico, the two never met again. After a series of angry and accusatory letters from Evangelia lambasting Callas’s father and husband, Callas ceased communication with her mother altogether.
Callas received her musical education in Athens. Initially, her mother tried to enroll her at the prestigious Athens Conservatoire, without success. At the audition, her voice, still untrained, failed to impress, while the conservatoire’s director Filoktitis Oikonomidis refused to accept her without her satisfying the theoretic prerequisites (solfege).
In the summer of 1937, her mother visited Maria Trivella at the younger Greek National Conservatoire, asking her to take Mary, as she was then called, as a student for a modest fee. In 1957, Trivella recalled her impression of “Mary, a very plump young girl, wearing big glasses for her myopia”:
The tone of the voice was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations like a carillon. It was by any standards an amazing phenomenon, or rather it was a great talent that needed control, technical training and strict discipline in order to shine with all its brilliance.
Trivella agreed to tutor Callas completely, waiving her tuition fees, but no sooner had Callas started her formal lessons and vocal exercises than Trivella began to feel that Callas was not a contralto, as she had been told, but a dramatic soprano. Subsequently, they began working on raising the tessitura of her voice and to lighten its timbre. Trivella recalled Callas as:
A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. …Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality.
On April 11, 1938, in her public debut, Callas ended the recital of Trivella’s class at the Parnassos music hall with a duet from Tosca. Callas recalled that Trivella:
had a French method, which was placing the voice in the nose, rather nasal… and I had the problem of not having low chest tones, which is essential in bel canto… And that’s where I learned my chest tones.
However, when interviewed by Pierre Desgraupes (fr) on the French program L’invitée du dimanche, Callas attributed the development of her chest voice not to Trivella, but to her next teacher, the Spanish coloratura soprano Elvira de Hidalgo.
Callas studied with Trivella for two years before her mother secured another audition at the Athens Conservatoire with de Hidalgo. Callas auditioned with “Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster” from Weber’s Oberon. De Hidalgo recalled hearing “tempestuous, extravagant cascades of sounds, as yet uncontrolled but full of drama and emotion”.
She agreed to take her as a pupil immediately, but Callas’s mother asked de Hidalgo to wait for a year, as Callas would be graduating from the National Conservatoire and could begin working. On April 2, 1939, Callas undertook the part of Santuzza in a student production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana at the Olympia Theatre, and in the fall of the same year she enrolled at the Athens Conservatoire in Elvira de Hidalgo’s class.
In 1968, Callas told Lord Harewood,
De Hildalgo had the real great training, maybe even the last real training of the real bel canto. As a young girl—thirteen years old—I was immediately thrown into her arms, meaning that I learned the secrets, the ways of this bel canto, which of course as you well know, is not just beautiful singing. It is a very hard training; it is a sort of a strait-jacket that you’re supposed to put on, whether you like it or not.
You have to learn to read, to write, to form your sentences, how far you can go, fall, hurt yourself, put yourself back on your feet continuously. De Hidalgo had one method, which was the real bel canto way, where no matter how heavy a voice, it should always be kept light, it should always be worked on in a flexible way, never to weigh it down.
It is a method of keeping the voice light and flexible and pushing the instrument into a certain zone where it might not be too large in sound, but penetrating. And teaching the scales, trills, all the bel canto embellishments, which is a whole vast language of its own.
De Hidalgo later recalled Callas as “a phenomenon… She would listen to all my students, sopranos, mezzos, tenors… She could do it all.” Callas herself said that she would go to “the conservatoire at 10 in the morning and leave with the last pupil … devouring music” for 10 hours a day. When asked by her teacher why she did this, her answer was that even “with the least talented pupil, he can teach you something that you, the most talented, might not be able to do.”
In the early years of her career, Callas was a heavy and full-figured woman; in her own words, “Heavy—one can say—yes I was; but I’m also a tall woman, 5′ 8½” [174 centimeters], and I used to weigh no more than 200 pounds [91 kilograms].”
Tito Gobbi relates that during a lunch break while recording Lucia in Florence, Serafin commented to Callas that she was eating too much and allowing her weight to become a problem. When she protested that she wasn’t so heavy, Gobbi suggested she should “put the matter to test” by stepping on the weighing machine outside the restaurant. The result was “somewhat dismaying, and she became rather silent.”
In 1968, Callas told Edward Downes that during her initial performances in Cherubini’s Medea in May 1953, she realized that she needed a leaner face and figure to do dramatic justice to this as well as the other roles she was undertaking. She adds,
I was getting so heavy that even my vocalizing was getting heavy. I was tiring myself, I was perspiring too much, and I was really working too hard. And I wasn’t really well, as in health; I couldn’t move freely. And then I was tired of playing a game, for instance playing this beautiful young woman, and I was heavy and uncomfortable to move around.
In any case, it was uncomfortable and I didn’t like it. So I felt now if I’m going to do things right—I’ve studied all my life to put things right musically, so why don’t I diet and put myself into a certain condition where I’m presentable.
During 1953 and early 1954, she lost almost 80 pounds (36 kg), turning herself into what Rescigno called “possibly the most beautiful lady on the stage”.
Sir Rudolf Bing, who remembered Callas as being “monstrously fat” in 1951, stated that after the weight loss, Callas was an “astonishing, svelte, striking woman” who “showed none of the signs one usually finds in a fat woman who has lost weight: she looked as though she had been born to that slender and graceful figure, and had always moved with that elegance.”
Various rumors spread regarding her weight loss method; one had her swallowing a tapeworm, while Rome’s Panatella Mills pasta company claimed she lost weight by eating their “physiologic pasta”, prompting Callas to file a lawsuit. Callas stated that she lost the weight by eating a sensible low-calorie diet of mainly salads and chicken.
Some believe that the loss of body mass made it more difficult for her to support her voice, triggering the vocal strain that became apparent later in the decade (see vocal decline), while others believed the weight loss effected a newfound softness and femininity in her voice, as well as a greater confidence as a person and performer. Tito Gobbi said, “Now she was not only supremely gifted both musically and dramatically—she was a beauty too. And her awareness of this invested with fresh magic every role she undertook.
What it eventually did to her vocal and nervous stamina I am not prepared to say. I only assert that she blossomed into an artist unique in her generation and outstanding in the whole range of vocal history.”
The latter half of Callas’s career was marked by a number of scandals. Following a performance of Madama Butterfly in Chicago, Callas was confronted by a process server who handed her papers about a lawsuit brought by Eddy Bagarozy, who claimed he was her agent.
Callas was photographed with her mouth turned in a furious snarl. The photo was sent around the world and gave rise to the myth of Callas as a temperamental prima donna and a “Tigress”. In 1956, just before her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Time ran a damaging cover story about Callas, with special attention paid to her difficult relationship with her mother and some unpleasant exchanges between the two.
In 1957, Callas was starring as Amina in La sonnambula at the Edinburgh International Festival with the forces of La Scala. Her contract was for four performances, but due to the great success of the series, La Scala decided to put on a fifth performance.
Callas told the La Scala officials that she was physically exhausted and that she had already committed to a previous engagement, a party thrown for her by her friend Elsa Maxwell in Venice. Despite this, La Scala announced a fifth performance, with Callas billed as Amina.
Callas refused to stay and went on to Venice. Despite the fact that she had fulfilled her contract, she was accused of walking out on La Scala and the festival. La Scala officials did not defend Callas or inform the press that the additional performance was not approved by Callas. Renata Scotto took over the part, which was the start of her international career.
In January 1958, Callas was to open the Rome Opera House season with Norma, with Italy’s president, Giovanni Gronchi, in attendance. The day before the opening night, Callas alerted the management that she was not well and that they should have a standby ready. She was told “No one can double Callas”. After being treated by doctors, she felt better on the day of performance and decided to go ahead with the opera. A surviving bootleg recording of the first act reveals Callas sounding ill.
Feeling that her voice was slipping away, she felt that she could not complete the performance, and consequently, she cancelled after the first act. She was accused of walking out on the president of Italy in a fit of temperament, and pandemonium broke out. Doctors confirmed that Maria had bronchitis and tracheitis, and the President’s wife called to tell her they knew she was sick. However, they made no statements to the media, and the endless stream of press coverage aggravated the situation.
A newsreel included file footage of Callas from 1955 sounding well, intimating the footage was of rehearsals for the Rome Norma, with the voiceover narration, “Here she is in rehearsal, sounding perfectly healthy”, followed by “If you want to hear Callas, don’t get all dressed up. Just go to a rehearsal; she usually stays to the end of those.”
The scandal became notorious as the “Rome Walkout”. Callas brought a lawsuit against the Rome Opera House, but by the time the case was settled thirteen years later and the Rome Opera was found to be at fault for having refused to provide an understudy, Callas’s career was already over.
Callas’s relationship with La Scala had also started to become strained after the Edinburgh incident, and this effectively severed her major ties with her artistic home. Later in 1958, Callas and Rudolf Bing were in discussion about her season at the Met.
She was scheduled to perform in Verdi’s La traviata and in Macbeth, two very different operas which almost require totally different singers. Callas and the Met could not reach an agreement, and before the opening of Medea in Dallas, Bing sent a telegram to Callas terminating her contract. Headlines of “Bing Fires Callas” appeared in newspapers around the world.
Nicola Rescigno later recalled, “That night, she came to the theater, looking like an empress: she wore an ermine thing that draped to the floor, and she had every piece of jewellery she ever owned. And she said, ‘You all know what’s happened. Tonight, for me, is a very difficult night, and I will need the help of every one of you.’ Well, she proceeded to give a performance [of Medea] that was historical.”
Bing later said that Callas was the most difficult artist he ever worked with, “because she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it.” Despite this, Bing’s admiration for Callas never wavered, and in September 1959, he sneaked into La Scala in order to listen to Callas record La Gioconda for EMI. Callas and Bing reconciled in the mid 1960s, and Callas returned to the Met for two performances of Tosca with her friend Tito Gobbi.
In her final years as a singer, she sang in Medea, Norma, and Tosca, most notably her Paris, New York, and London Toscas of January–February 1964, and her last performance on stage, on July 5, 1965, at Covent Garden. A live television transmission of Act 2 of the Covent Garden Tosca of 1964 was broadcast in Britain on February 9, 1964, giving a rare view of Callas in performance and, specifically, of her on-stage collaboration with Tito Gobbi. This has now been preserved on DVD.
In 1969, the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini cast Callas in her only non-operatic acting role, as the Greek mythological character of Medea, in his film by that name. The production was grueling, and according to the account in Ardoin’s Callas, the Art and the Life, Callas is said to have fainted after a day of strenuous running back and forth on a mudflat in the sun. The film was not a commercial success, but as Callas’s only film appearance, it documents her stage presence.
From October 1971 to March 1972, Callas gave a series of master classes at the Juilliard School in New York. These classes later formed the basis of Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Master Class. Callas staged a series of joint recitals in Europe in 1973 and in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan in 1974 with the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano. Critically, this was a musical disaster owing to both performers’ worn-out voices.
However, the tour was an enormous popular success. Audiences thronged to hear the two performers, who had so often appeared together in their prime. Her final public performance was on November 11, 1974, in Sapporo, Japan.
In 1957, while still married to husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Callas was introduced to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis at a party given in her honor by Elsa Maxwell after a performance in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.
The affair that followed received much publicity in the popular press, and in November 1959, Callas left her husband. Michael Scott asserts that Onassis was not why Callas largely abandoned her career, but that he offered her a way out of a career that was made increasingly difficult by scandals and by vocal resources that were diminishing at an alarming rate.
Franco Zeffirelli, on the other hand, recalls asking Callas in 1963 why she had not practiced her singing, and Callas responding that “I have been trying to fulfill my life as a woman.” According to one of her biographers, Nicholas Gage, Callas and Onassis had a child, a boy, who died hours after he was born on March 30, 1960. In his book about his wife, Meneghini states categorically that Maria Callas was unable to bear children.
As well, various sources dismiss Gage’s claim, as they note that the birth certificates Gage used to prove this “secret child” were issued in 1998, twenty-one years after Callas’s death. Still other sources claim that Callas had at least one abortion while involved with Onassis. In 1966, Callas renounced her U.S. citizenship at the American Embassy in Paris, to facilitate the end of her marriage to Meneghini.
This was because after her renunciation, she was only a Greek citizen, and under Greek law a Greek could only legally marry in a Greek Orthodox church. As she had married in a Roman Catholic church, this divorced her in every country except Italy.
The renunciation also helped her finances, as she no longer had to pay US taxes on her income. The relationship ended two years later in 1968, when Onassis left Callas in favor of Jacqueline Kennedy. However, the Onassis family’s private secretary, Kiki, writes in her memoir that even while Aristotle was with Jackie, he frequently met up with Maria in Paris, where they resumed what had now become a clandestine affair.
Callas spent her last years living largely in isolation in Paris and died at age 53 on September 16, 1977, of a heart attack. A funerary liturgy was held at Agios Stephanos (St. Stephen’s) Greek Orthodox Cathedral on rue Georges-Bizet, Paris, on September 20, 1977.
She later was cremated at the Père Lachaise Cemetery and her ashes were placed in the columbarium there. After being stolen and later recovered, in the spring of 1979 they were scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, according to her wish.
During a 1978 interview, upon being asked “Was it worth it to Maria Callas? She was a lonely, unhappy, often difficult woman,” music critic and Callas’s friend John Ardoin replied,
That is such a difficult question. There are times when certain people are blessed—and cursed—with an extraordinary gift, in which the gift is almost greater than the human being.
Callas was one of these people. It was as if her own wishes, her life, her own happiness were all subservient to this incredible, incredible gift that she was given, this gift that reached out and taught us things about music that we knew very well, but showed us new things, things we never thought about, new possibilities. I think that is why singers admire her so.
I think that’s why conductors admire her so. I know it’s why I admire her so. And she paid a tremendously difficult and expensive price for this career. I don’t think she always understood what she did or why she did it. She usually had a tremendous effect on audiences and on people. But it was not something she could always live with gracefully or happily. I once said to her “It must be a very enviable thing to be Maria Callas.”
And she said, “No, it’s a very terrible thing to be Maria Callas, because it’s a question of trying to understand something you can never really understand.” She couldn’t really explain what she did. It was all done by instinct. It was something embedded deep within her.