Callas, Maria (1923–1977)

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Callas, Maria (1923–1977)

American opera singer whose powers of vocal interpretation sparked a revival of classical coloratura roles and gave rise to unforgettable recordings considered among the most significant contributions to opera performance in the 20th century. Name variations: Mary, Marianna. Pronunciation: Callas rhymes with palace. Born Maria Cecilia Sophia Anna Kalogeropoulos on December 2, 1923 (according to her birth certificate), in New York; died in Paris, France, on September 16, 1977; daughter of Georges (a chemist) and Evangelia "Litza" (Dimitriadu) Kalogeropoulos (Kalogeropoulos became "Kalous" and eventually "Callas" according to spellings adopted by Georges in New York); traveled to Greece with her mother for voice lessons, first under Maria Trivella at the National Conservatory and then under Elvira de Hidalgo; married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, in 1949; no children.

Family moved from Greece to New York (1923); spent childhood in New York; started musical training (1930); departed for Greece with mother and sister (1937) and studied under Trivella and de Hidalgo; made operatic debut during German occupation of Greece and sang at La Scala, Milan (1951); met Giovanni Battista Meneghini (1947); sang Norma for her American debut with the Chicago Lyric Opera (1954); made debut at the Metropolitan Opera (1956); with voice problems plaguing her performances, reduced number of engagements (late 1950s); quit opera altogether (1965) and collaborated, unsuccessfully, with Pier Paolo Pasolini, in Medea; taught master classes at the Juilliard school (1971–72); sang in public for the last time (1973) with Giuseppe di Stefano.

Selected discography (most performances were reissued by the EMI label): Bellini, Norma (1955), La Sonnambula (1957); Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor (1953, 1955); Cherubini, Medea (1957); Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana (1953); Ponchielli, La Gioconda; Puccini, Tosca (1953), Turandot (1957); Verdi, Macbeth (1952), Rigoletto (1955), La Traviata (1955, La Scala), Aïda (1955).

More than any other singer in the 20th century, Maria Callas represents the quintessential opera diva. Her meteoric rise from immigrant working-class origins to international fame is the material that operas are made of, and she blurred the distinctions between art and life, between what was performance and what was not. Callas remains one of the most important figures in the American culture of the second half of the 20th century.

In a remote part of Greece before the First World War, Evangelia "Litza" Dimitriadu, daughter of an army officer known as the Singing Commander, married Georges Kalogeropoulos, a chemist and owner of a pharmacy in Meligala. Within six months, Evangelia knew she had made a horrendous mistake, but she was determined to be the good wife. In June 1917, at age 18, she gave birth to her first daughter Yacinthy (soon to be known as Jackie); three years later, she had a son Vasily. In 1923, after Vasily died of typhoid fever, Georges sold his business and, only the day before they were set to sail, informed his pregnant wife that they were emigrating to America. Evangelia swallowed her resentment, and, in August 1923, the Kalogeropoulos family, including six-year-old Jackie, arrived in America, where the name Kalogeropoulos—meaning "the good brother"—became Kalous, then Callas, because these were easier to pronounce.

Transported to this new land, Evangelia Callas was set on saving her crumbling marriage and compensating for the lost Vasily by having another son. The birth of Maria Cecilia Sophia Anna the following December was therefore disappointing, and the couple's relationship continued to deteriorate. They moved a number of times, unable to meet their apartment rent, and had settled in Washington Heights when Georges found enough money to open a drugstore, the Splendid Pharmacy. Evangelia, who considered her family to be superior to her husband's, would provoke him by playing opera on the piano to reflect her musical taste. According to Steven Linakis, a cousin of Callas, Evangelia "had a devilish temper, calling her husband a zo and a vlahos—an animal and a peasant, in that order—reminding him of her … grandfather who was a commander in the Balkan War, and of her father, a colonel, who didn't want her to marry Georges." According to various accounts, one cause of the couple's constant bickering was Georges' pursuit of other women.

After the stock market crash of 1929 left Georges bankrupt, he was forced to sell the pharmacy and become a traveling salesman of pharmaceuticals. By this time, however, Evangelia had become convinced that her daughter Maria was going to develop a voice as fine as Evangelia's father, the colonel, and furious battles ensued when she insisted that Georges pay for piano lessons four times a week for his daughters.

Maria, known at school during these years as Mary Callas, was pressured by her mother to work hard at singing. From an early age, however, she was highly motivated and made great demands on herself. "Maria would sing at the drop of a hat," writes Linakis. "She sang for public school events at every opportunity and even once sang down to the street, where a crowd gathered." At age 11, she entered a radio contest, singing "La Paloma" on "Major Bowes' Amateur Hour," and won. The prize was a Bulova watch, which Callas still wore years later. Evangelia entered her in other contests and booked her on an endless run of children's shows. "Only when I was singing did I feel loved," said Callas. A guilt-ridden Evangelia showed her love the only way she knew how, with food: home-made bread, macaronada, fried potatoes, saganaki, and cream cake. Callas would eat herself to sleep.

Maria Callas">

It is what I do that interests me, not what I say.

—Maria Callas

Evangelia eventually saw the need for Maria to receive better voice training than she could arrange in New York. More estranged from her husband than ever, in 1937, she won his acceptance to take their daughters back to Greece. There, a trembling 13-year-old Maria auditioned for Maria Trivella , who taught at the Conservatory of Ethnikon. "This is talent," said Trivella, who then arranged a scholarship for the American-born girl to become her voice student.

In My Daughter Maria Callas, Evangelia Callas recalls that her daughter "practiced day and night and sometimes forgot to eat, which for Maria was miraculous." Caring more about her study of music than her appearance, the young girl was a sloppy dresser and gained considerable weight. But the voice was there and developing. In April 1939, at age 15, Maria Callas appeared in her first operatic role, as Santuzza in a student production of Cavalleria Rusticana. According to her mother, she "won first prize in opera at the conservatory for her performance … but … it was no thundering triumph." Throughout that year, as World War II engulfed Europe, Maria continued to perform in student recitals.

While still studying with Trivella, Maria had a chance to audition for Elvira de Hidalgo , a Spanish soprano then teaching at the Odeon Athenon, who had sung at Milan's famed La Scala as well as the Metropolitan Opera in New York. While Callas' presence at the time gave off little suggestion of an aspiring singer, de Hidalgo was impressed by the ardor of her voice, and its idiosyncratic qualities, and took on the young Maria as a private student. "It is to this illustrious artist," Callas has written, "with a moved, devoted, and grateful heart, that I owe all my preparation and my artistic formation as an actress and musician."

In 1941, just months before the German Nazis occupied Greece, Maria made her professional operatic debut as Beatrice in the Boccaccio. Following the occupation, a curfew was imposed that at first threatened to make it difficult for the young singer to continue her voice lessons. Once the curfew proved perfunctory, she returned to her classes where she practiced from early in the morning until late at night, continuing to bring the same focus she'd shown with Trivella to lessons with de Hidalgo. Both had become surrogate mothers. In performance, Maria was also making impressive progress, particularly after a well-received appearance as a 17-year-old Tosca, where she substituted at the last minute for one of her rivals at the conservatory. When the singer who had fallen ill tried to use her husband to block Maria's entrance on stage, the unfortunate man went home that night with bloody scratches on his face, while the audience heard a performance that received much praise.

The following year, in August 1942, Callas appeared as Tosca at the Royal Theater in Athens, this time not as an understudy. In his review for Vradnyni, Alexandra Lalaouni wrote that Callas "not only sustains the role without failings and sings it correctly, but she is capable at the same time of performing it with a conviction that in many places overwhelms the audience." Other engagements soon followed, while Maria's personality and self-esteem continued to

be nurtured under de Hidalgo. Approaching 20, the young singer was increasingly self-absorbed, competitive, and deeply ambitious.

With war raging throughout Europe, her voice was a salvation to her and her family in a time of terrible scarcity. There were Italian soldiers in the occupying army that she befriended, who would bring her food in exchange for hearing her sing. Her appearance as Martha in Tiefland, at the Olympia Theater, won her a respectful review from Friedrich W. Herzog inDeutsche Nachrichten in Griechenland, who noted that "what other singers must learn, she possesses by nature: the dramatic instinct, the intensity of her acting, and the freedom of interpretation." It was this expressiveness she brought to her acting as well as the voice that was to influence the way operatic roles are performed. After Callas, singing was no longer enough; opera buffs began to demand incisive acting along with estimable singing.

By October 1944, Germany was on its way to military defeat, and a jubilant Greece was freed from occupation. Shortly, however, a coup d'état brought the Communist Party to power, and for a month, until the government and the rebels reached agreement, there was so little food available to Maria and Evangelia that she was unable to sing. Then, on grounds that she had collaborated with the enemy by taking food and singing for the occupying forces, Callas was refused a new contract for the upcoming season at the Athens Opera. Informed by the company's director that she would not be hired, Callas' parting words, by her own account, were, "Let's hope that you won't have to regret this one day." Though Callas had not been especially heroic during the occupation, neither was she a collaborator.

Elvira de Hidalgo recommended that Maria go to Italy, but Callas instead returned to the United States, where she lived with her father while preparing for auditions in New York. After a number of rejections, she auditioned at the Met, where she was offered a contract for leading roles in two productions in the 1946–47 season. But "the administration," wrote Callas, "offered parts that I believed unsuited to my possibilities at that time": the lead in Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which she saw as inappropriate for her physical build, and a part in Beethoven's Fidelio, which she did not wish to sing in English. Thus, to the amazement of the Met staff, she turned down the most important offer she had yet received.

Astute as her judgment was, she was thrust back into the frustration of auditioning. Another promising chance seemed to present itself but failed at the last minute: Eddie Bagarozy and Ottavio Scotto were trying to launch the U. S. Opera Company in Chicago with a production of Puccini's Turandot; when the arrangement collapsed, so did Maria's lead role. But the disappointment in this case was brief. An audition for Giovanni Zenatello led to an offer to sing at the Verona Festival. In June 1947, Callas left for Verona to sing in La Gioconda. Her last public appearance had been two years earlier, in Tiefland, at the Athens Opera in 1945.

In Verona, the 23-year-old Callas met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a businessman, aged 51, who took her on a shopping spree. From Verona, she went to Venice, where she was engaged by Tullio Serafim to sing in Tristan und Isolde, which became her first success outside her homeland. According to Beppe Broselli, reviewing the performance for the Corriere del Papolo, "her magnificent figure brought to the part an added appeal and irresistible grandeur. But the greatest fascination, the most moving quality was that projected by her voice, a majestic, splendid instrument, vibrant and warm, smooth and equalized in every register."

Deluged, now, with offers to sing, Callas spent most of 1948 touring Italy, managed by Serafin. It was during this time that she developed the role, with Serafin, for which she would come to be known: Norma. One of the most vocally challenging roles in the entire operatic repertoire, Bellini's Norma required Callas to bring together that particular combination of dramatic force and superb singing that were to make her an international star.

Meanwhile, her commitment to the preparation did not detract from her other performances. She had the devoted support by this time of Meneghini, who had become her friend and unofficial personal manager. Soon after they met, Meneghini had proposed marriage, but Callas delayed making up her mind, due in part to opposition from both their families—Meneghini's because he had become so absorbed with her career that he was neglecting his, and Callas' because of the difference in their ages. Callas, herself, was not sure what her expectations were for this man in her life. As Steven Linakis relates in Diva: The Life and Death of Maria Callas, it was his advice that she found most helpful in making up her mind. Wrote Linakis: "Maria said I was the only one who agreed with her about him. All I did was to tell her to take him for all he was worth." On April 21, 1949, after Maria's baptism certificate reached her from New York, accompanied by a warning from Evangelia that Meneghini might not live long enough to help in the raising of their children, the couple married.

A few months earlier, in January 1949, Callas was working under the guidance of Serafin when she did what was then considered unthinkable. Barely a week after appearing in the demanding role of Brünnhilde in Wagner's DieWalküre, she sang the part of Elvira in I Puritani on short notice. The two roles make such different demands on the range of the soprano voice that the ability to sing both is considered almost impossible. Demonstrating that she could sing both impressively, Callas drew enormous attention, in what proved to be a turning point in her career. "A few days ago," according to a review by Mario Nordio, "we were startled to read that our magnificent Brünnhilde, Isolde, and Turandot would interpret Elvira…. Even the most skeptical … had to acknowledge the miracle that Maria Callas accomplished."

Leaving behind a mesmerized Italy as well as her new husband, Callas next appeared at the Teatro Colón in Argentina, singing Turandot, Norma, and Aïda. While the role of Norma gained critical praise locally, the others were considered less impressive. Callas returned to Italy to start her married life and found herself under the constant gaze of Italy's famed paparrazzi, who were hungry for stories about the great singer on her way to becoming a public personality. During this period, she made her debut at La Scala, replacing Renata Tebaldi in the title role of Verdi's Aïda and received mixed reviews.

When Callas appeared as Aïda in Mexico's Palacio de Bellas Artes, her performance was praised for its vigor. Other successes followed, in Italy, in Spain, and in São Paulo, Brazil. At the beginning of 1952, she returned to La Scala to sing Norma. Although, as Newt Jenkins wrote in Musical America that "there was occasionally a slight tendency to shrillness and hardness on the high notes … her pitch was faultless," and the performance was deemed a success.

Callas carved one indelible image after another in the imagination of her adoring public, appearing in a variety of roles considered virtually impossible for a soprano in the 1950s. Encouraged by her capacity to handle them, producers and directors began to unearth the great but almost-forgotten bel canto roles of the great Italian tradition. Maria, at her artistic prime, also determined to create a new physical image of herself, and within a matter of months had slimmed down to a "new" Maria—the regal Callas still remembered today.

The early 1950s were also the years Callas became notorious for her temperament. Her famous rivalry with Tebaldi, another great soprano, dates from this time, and there were other singers who grew resentful of the public attention she drew. She had become an international figure of growing mythical proportions, with the public's attention so centered on her that no one sharing the stage with her was able to shine in performance.

Recordings she made with EMI at this early period of her international career are proof, nevertheless, that the attention Callas received from her audiences was deserved. She brought a keen musical mind to every role. Over a period of a few years, and while sharing the performance season at the Opera La Scala with Tebaldi—where they appeared in different productions, developing a rivalry that split the public into fanatical factions—she worked hard at perfecting the title roles of Medea and Lucia di Lammermoor. Effective collaborations with Herbert von Karajan, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and Leonard Bernstein met the high standards of the demanding La Scala in the first half of the decade. Finally, after a successful 1954–55 season, she sang in London and then made her way to the United States, where her first operatic appearance was in Chicago. Meneghini, who was now her manager, continued to reject offers from the Metropolitan Opera, so that Maria did not debut there until 1956.

In Chicago, meanwhile, the diva was a huge success. According to Ronald Eyer, writing about her in Norma for Musical America, "She molds a line as deftly as she tosses off cruelly difficult ornamentations in the highest register. And she brings to everything a passion, a profile of character and a youthful beauty that are rare in our lyric theater." In a review of Lucia di Lammermoor, Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune found the composer's "mad scene" to be a description of the operagoers' ecstatic response. "Near pandemonium broke out," she wrote; "there was an avalanche of applause, a roar of cheers growing steadily hoarser, a standing ovation, and the aisles were full of men pushing as close to the stage as possible."

While the cult of Callas continued to grow for years, the singer began to demonstrate vocal difficulties; toward the end of the decade, these became impossible to ignore. After the 1958–59 season, she reduced the number of performances from more than 55 a year to fewer than 10. As her voice declined, the public turned more attention to her difficult personality and strained relationships with other singers and administrators of the opera houses where she sang. Her emotional life was made similarly turbulent by a prolonged affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. When Callas ceased to perform, Onassis was held responsible for her abandonment of the stage, but it is doubtful that he determined the course of her career. As a great singer who had always set the highest standards for herself, Callas was faced with the tragic irony of a voice that had lost its glow at a relatively young age.

After appearances in New York, Paris, and London during the 1964–65 season, Maria Callas ceased to perform. Almost a decade passed before she was approached, in 1972, with an invitation to give master classes at the Juilliard School of Music. A few years earlier, she had tried film acting, appearing in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medea, released in 1969.

During the master classes at Juilliard, which were open to the public, Callas met up again with an old friend, the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. The two gave some recitals together, made a recording of duets, and gave a master class in Osaka, but this reemergence lasted only until 1973; the singer's last public appearance was November 11, 1974. Three years later, on September 16, 1977, she died in Paris, three months short of her 54th birthday. Her reputation as an extraordinary if troubled musical genius remains undiminished.


Callas, Evangelia. My Daughter Maria Callas. NY: Arno Press, 1977.

Eckert, Thor, Jr. "Maria Callas," in High Fidelity. February 1989.

Linakis, Stephen. Diva: The Life and Death of Maria Callas. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Lowe, David A., ed. Callas: As They Saw Her. NY: Ungar, 1986.

Rémy, Pierre-Jean. Maria Callas: A Tribute. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1978.

Scott, Michael. Maria Meneghini Callas. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Stassinopoulos, Arianna. Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Stearns, David P. "Diva at Twilight," in Opera News. April 16, 1994.

suggested reading:

Ardoin, John. The Callas Legacy: A Biography of a Career. NY: Scribner, 1982.

Bret, David. Maria Callas: The Tigress and the Lamb. Robson-Parkwest, 1998.

Kesting, Jurgen. Maria Callas. Northeastern University Press, 1993.

Landrum, Gene N. Profiles of Female Genius: Thirteen Creative Women Who Changed the World. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994.

Wineski, Henry. Maria Callas: The Art Behind the Legend. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

related media:

Master Class, a play by Terrence McNally based on master classes that Callas gave at Juilliard School in New York in 1971–72, starring Zoe Caldwell , opened on Broadway in November 1995.

Carlos Decena , freelance writer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Callas, Maria (1923–1977)

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