I would not kill my enemies, but I will make them get down on their knees. I will, I can, and I must…..Maria Callas
Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos was born on on December 2, 1923, in New York, New York. Her father set up a pharmacy and changed the family name from Kalogeropoulos to Callas. As a child Maria studied the piano. When her parents separated (she was 14 at the time), her mother returned to Athens with Maria and her sister.
The budding singer was quickly accepted into the National Conservatoire where she was taught singing lessons by Maria Trivella. She performed her first recital within the year and in 1939 won a prize for her stage debut in the Conservatoire’s production of “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
In 1941, the coloratura soprano (a type of operatic soprano voice who specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills.), made her professional debut in “Boccaccio” with the Lyric Theatre Company. While there she made a semi-name for herself with performances of “Tosca” and “Fidelio.”
You are born an artist or you are not. And you stay an artist, dear, even if your voice is less of a firework. The artist is always there.
When my enemies stop hissing, I shall know I’m slipping….Maria Callas
Impending war led her back to the United States in 1944 where she reclaimed the name of Maria Callas.
She was offered a contract from the Met which she turned down because among the three roles she was offered to sing there was Butterfly and she believed that she was too obese to sing the fragile 14 year-old Butterfly, her friends considered her to be crazy turning down the Met while she was so unknown.
.Maria performed elsewhere (Chicago, etc.) before returning to Europe in the post-war years where she met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy industrialist (30 years older than she) and avid opera fan. They married in 1949 and he immediately took control of her career.
Maria sang for the Musical Director of the Opera House who decided that Maria would be the best choice as Elvira. She was given one week to learn the entire opera, a week which contained three performances of Die Walküre. After the first I Puritani on January 19, 1949, Maria became the talk of Italy. It was a huge success, even though she had made some small mistakes, one of them being that instead of singing “son vergin vezzosa” (I am a charming virgin), she sang “son vergin viziosa” (I am a vicious virgin)..
She reached her zenith at La Scala (1951-1958), also recording during that time.
https://youtu.be/krvfJjZ8wyc Maria Callas in Concert, Hamburg 1959
Maria finally made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 28 October 1956 as Norma in Bellini’s Norma. Unfortunately for Maria, Time Magazine had done an interview with Maria’s mother, the woman Maria blamed for robbing her of her childhood. Maria had last seen her mother in Mexico in 1950 and had vowed that she would never meet or speak with her again (a promise she took with her to her death). The Time article portrayed Maria as an ungrateful daughter and the New York public reacted coldly when Maria’s Met debut came. In fact, the legendary soprano Zinka Milanov received more applause when she took her seat than Maria did when she made her entrance. By the end of the final act, though, the New York public surrendered and Maria received 16 curtain calls.
The next time Maria made headlines was when she was scheduled to sing in a gala performance of Norma at the Rome Opera House on 2 January 1958. The performance was to be attended by Italy’s president and his wife. Unfortunately, Maria had seen in the New Year by drinking champagne and staying up very late at the fashionable Rome nightclub. When Maria awoke, less than thirty-six hours before curtain-up, her voice had gone. She couldn’t even whisper, let alone sing. The Opera House was informed that a replacement would be needed. There was no understudy and a cancellation would have been disastrous. What happened instead was worse than a disaster. Maria, against the orders of her doctors, went on stage but it was clear from her first note that her voice was in ruins. At the end of the first act, half the audience jeered while the other half sat in shocked silence. Maria escaped through a back exit and an announcement had to be made that the performance simply could not go on. The public was furious but Maria was relieved to receive a phone call from the president’s wife
Some say I have a beautiful voice, some say I have not. It is a matter of opinion. All I can say, those who don’t like it shouldn’t come to hear me…..Maria Callas
Within a couple of years her temperamental outbursts and excessive demands began to rise full force, resulting in a number of dismissals and walkouts.
Don’t talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddamn rules….Maria Callas
I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not the devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged… Maria Callas
After meeting Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis through her husband, a torrid affair erupted and her marriage ended. Maria gave up the stage in the early 1960s for the jet-set life with Onassis, but continued with occasional concerts. Despite experiencing vocal problems, she made one unforgettable comeback on stage in 1964-1965 when she toured with her personal favorites (“Norma” in Paris and “Tosca” at the Met).
Love is so much better when you are not married….Maria Callas
Weak and tired, her final curtain on stage rang down in July of 1965 in Covent Garden. With her career over, she renounced her American citizenship and expected to marry Onassis. But their relationship was a stormy one and it eventually tapered off with Onassis instead marrying Jacqueline Kenned in 1968. Maria was completely devastated and those around her say she never recovered.
First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis. Maria Callas
In the meantime, Maria was performing Medea at La Scala on 11 December 1961. She was not in good voice and during her first act duet with Jason (performed by Jon Vickers), the audience began hissing. Maria ignored the crowd until she reached the point in the text where she denounces Jason with a word “Crudel!” (Cruel man!). After the first “Crudel!” she stopped singing. She looked out into the crowd and directed her second “Crudel!” directly to the public. She paused and started again with the words “Ho dato tutto a te” (I gave everything to you) and shook her fist at the gallery. The audience stopped hissing and Maria received a huge ovation at the end.
The following year she filmed an unsuccessful production of Medea (1969) and eventually set up master classes at Juilliard.
By 1970, Maria’s singing career had come to a quick halt. On May 25, she was rushed to the hospital and it was announced that she had tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates. It seems unlikely that she actually attempted suicide, though by this time she was known to take more sleeping-tablets to find sleep and more barbiturates to find peace.
In 1973, she began a comeback tour. For the first time in eight years, Maria Callas was singing in public. It was clear from the first concert in Hamburg on 25 October that the tour would be an artistic disaster. Callas had as an accompanist, Ivor Newton, who was well into his eighties. During the tour, Newton began having dizzy spells in the street and fantasizing about his death. He once said to his assistant who was turning the pages for Newton, “If I have a heart attack while Maria is singing a high note, you are to push me off my stool and take over as though nothing had happened.” Maria refused to fire Newton, fearing that doing so would probably kill him. The assistant eventually took over as accompanist when the tour travelled to the U.S. The final concert took place on November 11, 1974, in the city of Sapporo in northern Japan. That was the last place on earth that would hear Maria sing.
On 16 September 1977, Maria woke up late in her home in Paris. She had breakfast in bed, then got up and started towards the bathroom. There was a piercing pain in her left side and she collapsed. She was put back into bed and drank some strong coffee. After failing to get a hold of any medical help, they called Maria’s butler’s doctor who started out immediately for Maria’s residence. She was dead before he arrived. Her funeral was held on September 20th. She was cremated and her remains kept at the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris. In the spring of 1979, the ashes were taken to Greece and were scattered in the Aegean. She was 53.
Despite a career that flourished less than two decades, Callas must be respected as one of the more important and recognizable opera legends. She was certainly one of the most emotive and visually dramatic. What also carries her today is, of course, her grandly turbulent and tragic image.