Few performers have ever inspired as passionate a following as did opera diva Maria Callas. Born Cecilia Sophia Anna Kalogeropoulos on December 2, 1923, she was the second daughter of a prosperous family that emigrated to New York City from Greece several months earlier. After her pharmacist father lost his business following the 1929 stock market crash, her mother, Evangelia, became less interested in her marriage and more in the dream of making one of her daughters into a celebrated performer. Leaving her husband behind, Evangelia and her girls moved back to Greece in 1937. Soon, the 13-year-old Callas lied about her age to secure an audition at the National Conservatory at Athens.
Recognizing her precocious singing talents, Maria Trivella and, later, Elvira de Hidalgo took her on as pupil. De Hidalgo proved an especially strong infiuence. Herself a celebrated soprano, she helped shape the awkward teenager into a skilled stage performer. She also taught Callas to sing in the bel canto style, which emphasized tonal purity and precise vocal technique. Callas made an impressive debut in 1940 at Athens’s National Lyric Theater, but had difficulty advancing her career amidst the chaos of World War II. With Europe in shambles, after the war she moved back to the United States, where she hoped to establish her reputation. The Metropolitan Opera in New York was willing to sign her to a contract, but unhappy with the parts she was offered, she declined. She was then hired by the United States Opera Company, a new institution that went bankrupt before she had a chance to perform. On the advice of friends and colleagues, the frustrated Callas decided to try her luck in Italy. In Verona in 1947, she had a successful turn in Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda that would reshape both her professional and personal life. Impressed by the young talent, her conductor Tullio Serafin began promoting her in Italian opera circles. During the engagement, she also met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a businessman who was immediately taken with Callas. Wealthy and solicitous enough to pamper her as she saw fit, Meneghini married Callas in 1949 and abandoned his business enterprises to manage her career. Under Serafin’s guidance, Callas took up an ambitious bel canto repertoire. She startled opera fans with her range in 1949 by performing Wagner’s Die Walküre and Bellini’s I Puritani operas that required very different styles—in the course of two weeks. Critics hailed her as the first soprano in almost 100 years with the capacity to sing the bel canto works of the romantic period, some of which had not been performed in decades. Some audience members complained that her voice lacked purity, but many more marveled at her dramatic onstage power. She earned a reputation as one of the greatest singing actresses in opera history. Film director Luchino Visconti was so thrilled by her work that he put aside his cinematic career temporarily in 1955 to stage a production of La Traviata, her performance in which is often cited as the height of her career.
In 1954 Callas at long last made her singing debut in the United States, starring in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. She then joined the Metropolitan for two seasons (1956 and 1958), an event that landed her face on the cover of Time magazine. Her fame in the United States and abroad was furthered by a series of enormously successful recordings she made for EMI’s Angel Records during this period. Callas’s association with the Metropolitan ended with a violent disagreement with its director. Such fallings-out were common in her dealings with conductors, company managers, and even other singers. Although the highly self-critical Callas was rarely more demanding of others than she was of herself, the press loved to report stories of her arguments and feuds. Opera fans, too, were excited by her largerthan-life personality. Some developed an almost cultish affection for Callas, while others were equally devoted to her rivals. During some performances, her detractors could be heard booing and hissing the star—a distraction that Callas once dismissed as “a part of the scene . . . a hazard of the battlefield. Opera is a battlefield and it must be accepted.”Callas set off a new round of criticism when in 1959 she became involved in an international scandal by falling into an affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The romance ended both of their marriages and threatened her career as she began to ignore her voice while embracing Onassis’s high-society lifestyle. Callas was involved with Onassis for eight years before her hopes for marriage were dashed by his 1968 wedding to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Personally devastated, Callas also found her career in ruins. Slammed by ungracious reviews, she had retired from performing in 1965 following her appearance in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London. One of the few bright spots of her late career was a series of classes she taught at New York’s Julliard School of Music between October 1971 and March 1972. (Her instruction there later became the subject of Terrence McNally’s Tony Award–winning 1996 play Master Class.)
In 1973 and 1974, Callas embarked on an illadvised comeback in several tours through Europe, North America, and the Far East. Even some of her most ardent fans regarded the tours as a regrettable spectacle of a once-great artist refusing to accept that her voice had lost its power. Despite the critical drubbing she received, Callas continued to perform until 1976. In that year, while she was rehearsing in a Paris theater, a journalist sneaked in to listen and snapped some photographs of her. Although much of the resulting article was sympathetic to Callas, one photo that accompanied it showed the star sitting with her head in her hands, a posture the caption incorrectly attributed to sorrow over her failing voice. (In fact, Callas was suffering from a headache.) Humiliated by the piece, Callas sued the paper and won, although she did not live to see the verdict. On September 16, 1977, she died of a heart attack in her Paris home, but the legend of her tumultuous life and passionate art has only continued to grow.
Gage, Nicholas. Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Lowe, David A., ed. Callas: As They Saw Her. New York: Ungar, 1986.
Scott, Michael. Maria Meneghini Callas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Maria Callas at Juilliard: The Masterclasses. Angel Classics, CD, 1995.
Maria Callas, La Divina: A Portrait (1987). Image Entertainment, DVD, 2000.
Maria Callas: The Legend. Angel Classics, CD, 2000.
Maria Callas: Life and Art (1987). EMD/EMI Classics, DVD, 1999.
Maria Callas: The Paris Debut (1958). EMD/EMI Classics, VHS, 1992.