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 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.