Upon reading this I thought I would post a paper I wrote last year on Maria Callas.
Behind the Diva in Maria Callas
Maria Callas lived the life of an operatic character. Controversy followed her everywhere. There was her temper, there was her relationship with her mother, there was her marriage, affair, and divorce, and there was her voice. To the press and her audience she upheld her confidence, but behind the diva stood a lonely and wounded woman. She was sensitive but ambitious. The lack of love in her life made her bitter. She became notorious for being difficult to work with. She wanted revenge on those who hurt her, but at the same time wanted them back in her life. Her emotions clashed and she incorporated them in her music. “Her genius was that, although she was interpreting, she made her audience feel that she was creating” (Stassinopoulos xiii). The slightest move of her head conveyed an emotion. “She exploded the concept of what beautiful singing means: Is it pretty sounds and pure tones? Or should beauty evolve from text, musical shape, dramatic intent and, especially, emotional truth?” (Tommasini).
Maria’s unique acting made her stand out. Like a magnet, she drew everyone to herself. She could sing badly and everyone would still love her. For a time she could sing almost any part written for the female voice. She took lessons from well-known voice teachers. She had it all, even a jewelry collection that was hand made for her performances. It was all these artificial loves that filled the days of Maria Callas. She worked hard to get to the top. Due to her myopia, she had to memorize the stages. This also forced her to focus on her music and drama more because she could not rely on a conductor. Being a perfectionist, she obsessed over her parts. She would spend several hours practicing just one gesture of the hand. At one performance she tripped and fell, but stood back up and continued the rest of the opera without anyone in the audience noticing she had sprained her ankle.
Much of Callas’ determination came from her mother. Her grandfather was a well-known tenor in Greece. His singing gave her mother, Evangelia (also called Litza), her dream to become an actress. Litza failed to achieve her dreams, but she passed her desires and ambitions to her two daughters, Jackie and Maria. Jackie played the piano and Maria sang.
Maria found acceptance in music. Five years younger and less attractive than her sister, she knew rejection at an early age. Her birth on December 2, 1923, in New York City, was not received joyfully. When they had lived in Greece, Litza and George Kalogeropoulos had a son, Vasily, who died at an early age. Litza expected another boy and mourned the birth of her new daughter. Four days passed before she agreed to nurse Maria. Eventually, the babe was christened Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Callas. Litza reluctantly took Maria in, but continued to reject her emotionally until the discovery of her voice.
When Litza saw Maria’s gift, everything began to revolve around developing her daughters’ talents. Despite money problems during the Great Depression, she forced George to pay for piano lessons. Receiving little love and much discipline from her mother, Maria pushed herself just as hard as her mother did, hoping to earn more affection.
Family division made life harder for Maria. Litza told the girls their father was betraying the family by cheating on her. Maria, stressed, began to overeat at an early age. Her weight problems would follow her for most of her life.
Maria was a lonely child, left by herself for many hours a day while her sister attended school and her mother suffered her bouts of melancholy…. At school she felt awkward, her eyesight – even with glasses – troubling. She was significantly heavy and shy. She made few friends and never knew in what emotional state she would find her mother upon returning from school. Her greatest joy was to sit quietly and listen to the few records they had on the gramophone (Edwards 12).
During junior high school, Maria played roles in school shows, gaining short periods of popularity. This “crystallized in Maria’s mind the vague notion that singing was the only way out of her despised obscurity” (Stassinopoulos 12). For what her mother had withheld, she had found a lesser substitute.
In 1934, neighbor John Eriksen, a chorus member at the Metropolitan Opera, offered to give Maria free singing lessons. He wanted to help Maria relax her voice and warned Litza that pushing Maria too hard could damage her voice. Litza continued to push her daughter. Maria’s vocal range and power expanded, but, as Eriksen predicted, the extra effort would take its toll on her voice later in life. The rest of her teachers would teach her the right singing techniques, but Maria would still push herself too hard. Her dreams of getting to the top fast would ruin her.
Certain that Maria was a child prodigy worthy of Shirley Temple treatment, Litza dragged Maria to competitions, but no offers came. Litza felt America had nothing in store. Convinced that glory days awaited them in Greece, she packed her bags. Maria, age 13, had just graduated from junior high.
Once in Greece, Litza pushed Maria harder, making her sing for anyone who would listen. Maria hated singing on demand, but all the work paid off when Maria auditioned with Madame Maria Trivella, a teacher at the National Conservatory in Athens. Maria sang the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, an opera about a gypsy who plays with the emotions of a soldier. “Madame Trivella was stunned… by the young woman’s dramatic delivery of the aria; her seeming ability to understand Carmen’s passion.… The amazing thing was the way she used her eyes, her hands, the stress on certain words and phrases that brought the aria suddenly to life. This was something innate, truly felt, which the majority of hopefuls never achieved but that a great diva must possess” (Edwards 21).
Trivella would teach Maria how to avoid singing from the throat. At the National Conservatory, she studied languages and operatic history. She took the extra work as an opportunity to avoid home, never eating with the family and studying whenever possible. In 1939, at just 15, Maria sang the role of Santuzza, a woman whose lover leaves her, in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
With World War II on its way, Maria had to change teachers. Trivella came from Italy, and the Greeks mistrusted all Italians. Maria auditioned at the Athens Conservatory for Elvira de Hidalgo. De Hidalgo did not expect much from her, but her mind quickly changed. “Before starting, Maria turned her face away. Then, as the accompanist played the opening chords, she pivoted, head high, facing front, eyes wide, hands slowly rising from her sides. There was an electric moment in the room when Maria began to sing” (Edwards 30).
De Hidalgo enabled Maria to expand her range and helped her develop the tools of her voice, both dramatic and musical. Their relationship enforced Maria’s habit of categorizing others as good or bad. Litza turned into more of an “evil stepmother” and de Hidalgo turned into a “fairy godmother.” Maria developed most of her habits with de Hidalgo. De Hidalgo “lent her the full scores that she could not afford to buy, and Maria, in order to give them back as soon as possible, would memorize them” (Stassinopoulos 23,24).
In 1941, the Germans took Greece. Years of hardship followed in which Maria’s singing kept her family alive. Soldiers who liked her voice provided food. When the Germans searched her home for fugitives, she started to sing and the soldiers forgot what they were doing in order to listen. During the civil war that followed, Maria would hide with Litza, with little to eat, while rebels besieged Athens. These war years were not all hard times, however. In 1942, she took the place of the leading soprano in Tosca, making her the youngest Tosca in history.
Along with an end to the war years came a renewed resentment towards Litza. Callas hated her mother because she hated living in Greece. One thing was not renewed, however: The Athens Opera, with which Maria had sung during the occupation, would not renew her contract. Maria returned to New York and reunited with her father. She auditioned for many companies, but found no offers. No one had heard of her fame in Greece. In 1946, she found refuge in Eddie Bagarozy and Louise Caselotti. Caselotti gave her singing lessons and became Maria’s agent along with Bagarozy, who wanted to revive the Chicago Opera. They would open with Turandot, a forgotten Puccini opera with an oriental twist on The Taming of the Shrew. Maria played the title role. “At the age of twenty-three she had managed to capture both the imperious coldness and cruelty of the Oriental Princess and the fire and sensuality that are burning underneath” (Stassinopoulos 47). Unfortunately, bankruptcy ended the endeavor.
Maria found her next job with Giovanni Zenatello, who needed a soprano for the title role in La Gioconda at the Verona Festival in Italy. In Verona, Maria met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, her future husband. He had “a manner that conveyed interest, a certain sophistication and an aura of success” (Edwards 69). Maria threw away Bagarozy and Caselotti for Meneghini and soon won the role of Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at La Fenice, in Venice. She had a month to learn the part. Maria suddenly found herself booked at opera houses all over Italy. Part of that success came from conductor Tullio Serafin, who conducted Gioconda and many more of her successful operas. Maria later commented that he “taught me, in short, the depth of music” (qtd. in Edwards 72).
The ultimate turning point in her career came when she performed the title role in Norma, in Florence. The role required a wide vocal range and demanded much from the leading soprano. In this kind of a role, Maria was invincible. “Maria was the first coloratura [lyric soprano of high range]… to sing the high notes dramatically, not merely as ornamentation, nor to display her ability to sound like a trilling bird, but to stress the meaning of the words that landed on those notes and so integrate them into the dramatic line of the story” (Edwards 85).
While playing Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walkure, Maria was asked to replace the soprano who played Elvira in Verdi’s I Puritani. She alternated between the two operas, practicing Puritani during the day and performing Walkure in the evening, switching from one character to another in just moments.
As her career improved, Maria became depressed. She wanted Meneghini to propose. He always accompanied her, but nothing more. Her wish came true and they married on April 21, 1949. Maria would later say in an interview with Hy Gardner, “It was as though God sent him to me, because I was very alone and he really was always with me since then and was everything to me.” Although Meneghini dined and wined Maria, he used her money to do so and gave some of her money to his own family, as well. They were happy, however, and Maria contented herself with the role of housewife. Meneghini at least appeared to love her and was the first to show affection for her as a person.
Meneghini booked Callas internationally, from Naples to Buenos Aires, and worked hard to schedule her in the famous Italian opera houses. She found national approval in Mexico City and had her first solo bow, but Meneghini seldom accompanied her and she missed him. When he playfully suggested that she give up her career, it reminded her of her goals and ambitions and drove her onward. She lost over eighty pounds between 1953 and 1954.
In May of 1953, she performed in Cherubini's Medea, one of her greater roles. In Medea, the title character is a headstrong woman abandoned by her husband. Maria Teresa Filippi Abriani, who sang in the chorus, was amazed by Callas’ singing. When the chorus left the stage, she stood watching, forgetting to leave with the chorus. “I remember when she arrived as Medea,” she said in the documentary Passion Callas. “She’d come down those stairs to that chariot. She’d sing: ‘Io Medea!’ That was something! She looked like a giant.”
Eventually, the New York Metropolitan Opera hired Maria to sing Norma. Things did not go well. TIME magazine published an article beforehand that portrayed her as an ungrateful daughter with a temper. Maria pushed these accusations aside, claiming that she respected her parents and that these things should have been kept private. In fact, on a few occasions, Maria had begged Litza to come to her side for support, but her times with her mother did not last long before she grew tired of Litza again. In Mexico City, she swore never to see her mother again.
New York did not hold much for Maria and exaggerated publicity continued to follow her. “A disagreement… over proposed repertory for 1958-59 ended with the diva's well-publicized ‘firing.’ Callas did not return to the Met until 1965, when she sang two Toscas, her final opera performances in the U.S.” (“Lucia di Lammermoor"). In 1958, Callas performed Norma at the Rome Opera House but took sick at the premiere and had to quit after the first act. Meneghini wrote a note of apology for her to read aloud on stage, but she did not read it. The press shouted stories of her diva attitude over a minor cold. Callas commented in her interview with Hy Gardner that she did the first act because she knew she would be criticized if she did not go on, but left when her illness worsened. She said, “I had to make a Callas performance…. Of course, I fight if I have my weapon, my only weapon is my voice – now, if I haven't got my voice, now, it's ridiculous that I fight.”
Maria would not let the critics or the hecklers in the audience ruin her. Jon Vickers recalled one of the performances at La Scala that he sang with her:
[I]t went badly for her. Many in the audience booed. Her next lines were, "Didn't I sacrifice my own mother for you, didn't I sacrifice my own father for you?" And then she turned away from me on the stage, looked straight out into the auditorium, spread open her arms and [sang], "I sacrificed it all, and instead gave everything to you!" You could have heard a pin drop -- the tension was incredible! (qtd. in Whitson)
More conflict was on its way. Once, she refused to do extra performances an opera company added on because she promised a friend she would go to a party. At this party, she met Aristotle Onassis. He wooed her and she gave up everything for him. Maria felt more like a normal person with him and divorced her husband in 1971. Onassis eventually divorced his wife, but not for Maria. He married Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the late President John F. Kennedy, for political reasons.
After Onassis left, Maria stopped performing on stage and sang just a few concerts. In 1971, she gave a series of successful master classes at the Juilliard School of Music. Lloyd Schwartz attended one of the classes. He later recalled a lesson he found “most riveting.”
Callas was with a young baritone on Rigoletto's aria "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" ("Courtiers, you cowardly and damned race"). Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua's court jester, sings it when he discovers that his daughter has been abducted by the very noblemen he's been ridiculing mercilessly. He can barely contain his anger even as he abjectly begs them to take pity on him. Callas tells the student to sing the notes, but to forget about his voice. "Be like an animal when you sing this aria. This would be my version. I think that this should be a real animal that's trying to dominate himself. He's hating being obliged to beg them. Because it's his own daughter, so he's fiercely savage. . . . You're crying, but you hate the idea, eh?" Then she tears into the aria… with an uncanny mixture of ferocity and almost unbearable pathos…. "Who'd have thought the world's greatest Rigoletto would be a woman?" someone remarked.
Maria still had her fans, but her voice had been declining in quality for years, and she held high standards for herself. If she could not keep those standards, she would not perform. Her mother’s pushing, her own ambitions, and her choice in roles all had taken part in damaging her voice. Many of the superhuman things she did with her voice exceeded the ability of the vocal cords to heal. She ruined her voice by forcing it beyond its natural limits. She might have continued singing at a lesser level (less challenging music and a less challenging schedule), but the disappointments of life and the unwillingness to accept her declining ability destroyed her will. Without will and confidence, she lost the energy to meet the physical demands of the job as well as the energy to go on living life. There was nothing left to live for. Onassis was not there for her, she had left her husband, and her voice was gone. She wanted revenge on Onassis, but at the same time wanted him to come to her side again. Maria thought everyone had forgotten her and spent most of her time listening to old recordings of her voice. On September 16, 1977, at age 53, she died in seclusion, longing for the old times when her career was at its highest.
At the end of her life, Maria thought no one remembered her, but after her death, everyone remembered her. Although her talents established her fame, her story and her passions added fuel to the fire. Over one hundred biographies detail her life, along with several documentaries. The way she performed, the effort she put into everything she did, and the story she left behind made her the nonpareil, setting standards and examples for future singers. Maria’s life not only inspired her to sing, it inspired her singing itself as she used her circumstances to her advantage, drawing muse from her own feelings. Music consumed her life as she labored to conquer the opera world. Her loveless life gave her ambitions, and she accomplished them; but as she lost her dreams of love and emotional security, she lost her self. Her life had operatic twists and turns and a tragic ending, but it lives on as a legend.
Edwards, Anne. Maria Callas: an Intimate Biography. New York: St Martin's P, 2001.
Stassinopoulos, Adrianna. Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.
Tommasini, Anthony. "Maria Callas: a Voice and a Legend That Still Fascinate." Serendipity. 15 Sept. 1997. New York Times.
Maria Callas: Passion Callas. Dir. GéRald Caillat. DVD. EMI Classic, 1997.
“Lucia di Lammermoor." Opera News 71.7 (2007): 52-52. Academic Search Premier. 19 February 2007.
Whitson, James C. "The Callas Legacy. (Cover story)." Opera News 70.4 (2005): 18-24. Academic Search Premier. 19 February 2007.
Schwartz, Lloyd. "Class Act: EMI Releases Rare Set of Maria Callas At Juilliard." The Phoenix. 1995. The Phoenix Media/Communications Group.
Callas, Maria. Interview with Hy Gardner. EMI Classics. 26 Feb. 1958.