Maria Callas, more than most opera singers, had about her an aura that defied explanation—even a decade after her death; she possessed a quality that grabbed audiences quickly and holds them still. And her allure reached outside the traditional audience of opera lovers. She peaked early, though, and began to lose her voice only six years after commencing her performing career, which effectively ended after only a decade. Still, audiences loved her long after her voice was gone, and she will always be mentioned when divas are discussed.
Callas was born in 1923, the year after her parents moved from Greece to New York City. Her mother noticed her musical talent while she was just a child and encouraged her. In 1937 she took her back to Greece, where Maria entered the National Academy in Athens. She thrived at the conservatory and worked extremely hard—she was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. She retained her habit of hard work all of her life; even when she was the most famous singer in the cast, she would also be the hardest working. In 1939, Callas started studying with the famous soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, and in 1940, she began singing professionally in Athens as she continued to study.
Callas’s first professional engagement involved vocal accompaniment to a performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice at the Royal Theater. Throughout the war years she continued to study and sing in concerts and small opera productions. In 1941 she sang Beatrice in von Suppé’s Boccacio at the Palas Cinema and in 1942, she sang Tosca at the summer theater in Klafthmonos Square. After World War II ended, however, she had trouble finding new roles, so she decided to return to New York.
Between 1945 and 1947, Callas studied and auditioned in New York but had few professional opportunities. Finally, she sang for Giovanni Zenatello, artistic director of Verona, Italy’s Arena and was contracted to sing La Giocanda there. While this performance was not her operatic debut, it was her Italian debut and brought her to the attention of a wide audience. During rehearsals she met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy businessman. Greatly taken by the singer, he became her backer, providing financial security for her between jobs. He also became her agent—in actuality if not in formality—and actively pursued roles for her. In 1949 Callas and Meneghini were married.
In the two years preceding her marriage, Callas sang in small houses around Italy in a variety of operas, including Turandot, La Forza del destino, Tristan und Isolde, Aida, and Norma. With hard work and Meneghini’s
Born Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos, December 2, 1923, in New York, NY; died September 16, 1977, in Paris; daughter of George and Evangelia Kalogeropoulos; married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, 1949. Education: Studied with Elvira de Hidalgo at the Athens Conservatory, beginning in 1939.
Operatic debut, 1941, in Tosca; Italian Debut, 1947, Verona; Joined La Scala, Milan, 1951; U.S. debut with Chicago Lyric Opera, 1954, in Norma; Metropolitan Opera debut, 1956, in Norma; also appeared in Aida, La Traviata, Don Carlos, Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor, II Barbiere di Siviglia, Tosca, Turandot, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Walkürie.
help, her schedule became filled with performances, and her reputation grew. As one of the most versatile singers of her day, she created a sensation by singing Bellini’s I Puritani and Wagner’s Walkürie —two very different operas with very different vocal requirements—within a week of each other during the 1948-49 season. In 1949 Callas made one of her most important appearances, on one of the world’s greatest stages, singing Turandot, Norma, and Aida at the Colón opera house in Buenas Aires, Argentina.
By 1950 Callas’s career had begun to skyrocket. During the next few years she sang with most of the major opera houses and received rave review. Audiences loved her. The Mexican paper El Universal reported, as quoted in Callas as They Saw Her, “From her first aria, ‘Ritorna vincitor,’ the audience was moved. It followed her through the whole aria until the final limpid, brilliant point.... The first applause exploded, enthusiastic and prolonged. The audience came to understand that it had found a rara avos among singers, one of exceptional qualities that merit calling her... a ‘soprano assoluta’—such were the ovations.”
Callas was fast becoming one of the most loved singers of her day and as such, was making a tremendous impact on the world of opera. Her vocal agility and strength proved perfect for an older repertoire that had not been performed in many years. With Callas in mind, producers were beginning to revive the works of the bel canto composers, including Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Callas’s most famous role was as Bellini’s Norma. She was also capturing the fancy of listeners outside the customary opera audience. In Chicago in 1955, when an extra performance of Madama Butterfly starring Callas was scheduled, tickets sold out in fewer than two hours. She had effectively revived the cult of The Diva, which had lacked a goddess since the days of Adelina Patti and Maria Malibrun, whose names Callas would all but eclipse.
In 1953, having gained considerable heft, Callas began a strict diet regimen and over the following two years became quite slim. While critics approved of the results, there were dangers inherent in this program; Callas’s best kept getting better, but her voice and her health became increasingly unpredictable. Her acting became more dramatic. But she began to lose both her power and control over her vibrato; her high notes became softer and less consistent. With increasing frequency, she missed performances from ill health, and she began to accept fewer jobs.
By the 1958-59 season, Callas’s vocal problems had become so pronounced that she took a long hiatus and after 1959, she performed less and less frequently. During her apex she had sang as many as 50 performances in a year, but after 1959 she sang fewer than 10 a year. Reviews of the performances she did give indicate that while her acting and musicianship remained expressive and accurate, she had little voice left. Harold Schonberg wrote in the New York Times in 1964, “When the act was well under way, several things were apparent. This was going to be one of the best-acted Toscas in Metropolitan Opera history.... Her conception of the role was electrical. Everything at her command was put into striking use.... This was supreme acting, unforgettable acting. But now we come to matters vocal, and the story is less pleasant. Miss Callas is operating these days with only the remnants of a voice.”
After her few 1965 performances, Callas quit singing altogether. She tried film acting and in 1969 performed in an adaptation of Medea, but it was not a success. Callas taught at the Juilliard School during the 1971-72 school year. And in 1973 she began to sing in public again with the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. They toured in 1973-74, primarily to offset the medical expenses of Stefano’s daughter, who was dying of cancer. Despite the deterioration of Callas’s voice, her artistry brought audiences in and satisfied them. Schonberg reported, “To the audience, nothing could go wrong. It was understandable that the concert was a representation to them of the singer that was, not the singer who is. And Miss Callas was able, even with her limited resources to give an idea of the kind of temperament and musical understanding that never has deserted her. She looked not a day older than in her last appearance here almost ten years ago, and everybody washed her with oceans of love. She... deserved the tribute.” The strain of the tour proved immense, however, and Callas did not sing again publicly. She died in 1977.
Today, Callas remains an enigma. Though her voice was never perfect, it could be exquisitely beautiful. Her talent displayed a rare combination of a large voice and great agility. Her acting and musicianship were so expressive that audiences continued to adore her even when her voice had disappeared. She brought to each performance a singular diligence and dynamic intelligence. As David Lowe wrote in Callas as They Saw Her: “The interplay between intelligence and instinct, training and talent, often led to phrasing that may haunt the memory forever.... The uniqueness of her art, though, lies in how she applied [her] resources to the interpretation of words and music. Indeed, with Callas, it is impossible to divorce the words she sang from the way she sang them.”
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, EMI, 1953.
Bellini, I Puritani, EMI, 1953.
Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, EMI, 1953.
Puccini, Tosca, EMI, 1953.
Verdi, La Traviata, Cetra, 1953.
Bellini, Norma, EMI, 1954.
Leoncavallo, Pagliacci, EMI, 1954.
Verdi, La Forza del Destino, EMI, 1954, reissued, 1987.
Rossini, II Turco in Italia, EMI, 1954.
Puccini, Madama Butterfly, EMI, 1955.
Verdi, Aida, EMI, 1955.
Verdi, II Trovatore, EMI, 1956.
Puccini, La Bohème, EMI, 1956.
Rossini, II Barbiere de Siviglia, EMI, 1957.
Bellini, La Sonnambula, EMI, 1957.
Puccini, Turandot, EMI, 1957.
Puccini, Manon Lescaut, EMI, 1957.
Cherubini, Medea, Mercury, 1957.
Verdi, La Traviata, EMI, 1958.
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, EMI, 1959.
Ponchielli, La Gioconda, EMI, 1958.
Puccini, Tosca, EMI, 1964.
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Seraphim, 1968.
Verdi, La Traviata, Melodram, 1986.
Puccini, Tosca, Melodram, 1986.
Various composers, Maria Callas and Beniamino Gigle: A Samremo, Suite, 1992.
Rarities, EMI Classics, 1992.
Bellini, Norma Highlights, Melodram/Koch, 1993.
Ardoin, John, The Callas Legacy, Scribner’s, 1982.
Calla, Evangelia, My Daughter Maria Callas, Fleet, 1960.
Jellinek, George, Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna, Arno Press, 1978.
Lowe, David A, Callas as They Saw Her, Ungar, 1991.
Meneghini, Giovanni Battista, My Wife Maria Callas, Farrar, Strauss, 1982.
Scott, Michael, Maria Meneghini Callas, Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Wisneski, Henry, Maria Callas: The Art Behind the Legend, Doubleday, 1975.
High Fidelity, February 1983; February 1989.
Musical America, July 1991.
Opera, December 1977.
Opera News, January 1984; September 1987; August 1988.
Opera Quarterly, Summer 1989.
Pulse!, July 1992.
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."
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.
Maria Callas was one of the great coloratura sopranos (female vocalists who specialize in an elaborate form of opera singing) of the twentieth century. She revitalized opera and increased its appeal because of her dramatic skill.
Childhood in America
By most accounts Maria Callas was born Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City, New York, on December 3, 1923, just four months after her parents, George and Evangelia (Litza) Kalogeropoulos, arrived in New York harbor after moving 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. By the time she started school, Maria Kalogeropoulos was known as Maria Callas.
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 she was a popular performer on children's radio shows.
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. She was a dedicated student, driven by a spirit of excellence. 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.
Finds success in Italy
After World War II (1939–45; when Germany, Italy, and Japan clashed with European and American forces), her music coach, Elvira de Hidalgo, encouraged Callas to move to Italy to establish her career. 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, Italy, in 1948. She sang the title role in Bellini's Norma, her most popular role, for the first time in Florence, Italy, in 1948. Critics took note, and her career began to soar.
Almost immediately upon her arrival in Verona, Italy, in 1947 she married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy Veronian industrialist. 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, as well as noted directors Franco Zeffirelli (1923–), Francesco Siciliani, and Luchino Visconti.
Finds fame in America
Callas's United States debut was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Illinois) in 1954. On October 19, 1956, she debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera (the Met), where she performed in Norma. Coinciding with her Metropolitan Opera debut, Callas was featured on the October 27, 1956, cover of Time.
During the peak of Callas's career she easily fit the stereotype (an oversimplified version) of a portly and highly emotional opera singer, but in 1952 she experienced a dramatic weight loss. By 1954 she was sixty-five pounds lighter. She continued to perform, and her career exploded into greatness. She added new operas, including Madame Butterfly, which she had previously avoided because she felt awkward and ungraceful.
The years of decline
During the late 1950s the vocalist's personal life began to deteriorate, and this tragically affected her career. She had an affair with powerful businessman Aristotle Onassis (c. 1900–1975), and she and her husband separated in 1959, divorcing finally in 1971. Onassis eventually divorced his wife, Tina, but married Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), widow of the late president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), though 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. A series of high-profile cancellations continued her downward spiral. Although she returned briefly to perform at the Met between 1964 and 1965, she never resurfaced as the great talent of her youth.
Callas died unexpectedly in Paris, France, on September 16, 1977, shortly before her fifty-fifth 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.
For More Information
Bret, David. Maria Callas: The Tigress and the Lamb. New York: Robson Books/Parkwest, 1998.
Stassinopoulos, Arianna. Maria Callas, The Woman Behind the Legend. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.