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“The Greek” – Maria Callas

Cecilia Sofia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulou (1923 – 1977) was born in New York City of Greek immigrant parents. Shortly after she was born, her father shortened and Americanized the family name to Callas. As Maria Callas, she would become the most famous opera singer of her time and one of the most influential of all time.

I described Caruso as a revolutionary in that he changed the way future tenors sang. After him, the public expected a different kind of singing. For tenors, there was B.C. and A.C. – before Caruso and After Caruso. For modern sopranos, there is B.C. and A.C. – before Callas and After Callas. For over a hundred years, there had been Bel Canto coloraturas with flexible, voices of great beauty. “Songbirds” if you will, such as Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons, or later Joan Sutherland. There were also sopranos with larger, more powerful voices such as Ponselle or Leontyne Price, who sang dramatic roles with expression and emotion, especially after Verdi.Callas revolutionized modern opera by bringing the emotional intensity of a dramatic soprano to the Bel Canto repertoire without sacrificing any of the spectacular flights of vocal pyrotechnics that were expected. She sang the great dramatic roles and brought to them new insights. Callas at one time or another sang in almost every vocal style.

Whether this damaged her voice or whether her later vocal problems existed from the beginning is an open question. She was well trained and knew how to sing and to protect her voice, she simply chose to go her own way regardless of consequence.

They called her “La Divina” – the Divine. She was a vocal actress with a huge voice which was not conventionally beautiful, although she could produce lovely tones when she chose. She was a supremely gifted musician with an electrifying stage presence. She could also be a supremely self-destructive person. She had strong opinions about how opera should be performed and sung and she didn’t hesitate to express those opinions. She was also driven by ambition and filled with deep insecurities that made her strike out at anyone or any thing when she felt threatened. When someone mentioned that Renata Tebaldi had a beautiful voice, Callas replied, “Yes. And who cares?” When a young Monserrat Caballe (who then weighed well over 200 pounds) came backstage and asked for advice, Callas curtly said, “Lose weight.” Yet she befriended and encouraged Caballe, even inviting her to her home and tutoring her before Caballe sang her first “Norma.”

Callas was fully aware that she did not have a conventionally beautiful voice and resented comparisons to those who did, but by that comment about Tebaldi she also meant that what mattered was how a singer expressed what the aria meant, not how beautiful the voice was. Tebaldi or Joan Sutherland certainly would have never attempted Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Verdi, by the way, specified that his Lady Macbeth should have an “ugly” voice, a “suffocated voice” and ”without music” in parts.

Like Rosa Ponselle, the young Maria Callas was tall (5′ 7″)and she was fat. She also had a beautiful older sister. Unlike Ponselle, Callas disliked her sister and always resented her mother for forcing her (she claimed) to sing to support the family. When her parents separated, Maria moved to Greece with her mother and sister. They arrived just in time for the start of World War II and the occupation of Greece by the Nazis.

The 17 year old Callas was accepted by the Greek National Conservatory. She also began studies with Elvira De Hidalgo, a soprano who had been good enough to sing at the Met opposite Chaliapin, Caruso, and Gigli. In a rare burst of appreciation, Callas said of her, “it is to this illustrious artist … that I owe all my preparation and my artistic formation as an actress and musician.”

After the war, Callas returned to the United States. It was tough going in the beginning. She auditioned for the Metropolitan and was not accepted (although she later claimed she had turned down a beginners contract.) She signed to sing “Turandot” in Chicago, but the opera company went bankrupt just before the first performance. Then her luck turned. She was hired to sing in Italy where she met the great conductor Tullio Serafin. Serafin, who had worked with both Caruso and Ponselle, was impressed both by Callas’ singing and by her work ethic and he tutored her and also helped her get more offers to sing. In Italy she also met Giovanni Meneghini, a wealthy industrialist who she soon married.

Callas went on a crash diet (including the use of tapeworms) and lost over eighty pounds. She discovered High Fashion and, with Meneghini’s money, emerged as a glamorous Diva ready for stardom. During this period, she was billed as Maria Meneghini Callas. With de Hidalgo’s help, and with her own innate sense of the architecture of the music and the meaning of words, Callas revolutionized Bel Canto singing.

Like Ponselle, Callas added a dimension of melancholy to her Violetta in “La Traviata.” She was mesmerizing, both passionate, despairing, and tormented and she brought audiences to tears. Verdi wanted a singing actress instead of a great singer for the role. In Ponselle he got both, but Callas more than made up for what she lacked in vocal splendor by allowing audiences to see and hear Violetta’s pain. Her Mad Scene in “Lucia de Lammermoor” was not merely the usual tour-de-force vocal display of vocal pyrotechnics. With Callas it became a heartbreaking examination of a destroyed woman’s mind.

WARNING: This clip is from her 1955 “Lucia” in Berlin which she considered the best performance she ever gave. But fair warmning – it runs 9 minutes.

Unlike most sopranos, Callas sang with a quick vocal attack. Her tones were incisive and reached peak volume very quickly. This is common enough in men, tenors especially, but few women attempt it because singing this way can exhaust the middle voice. Callas had a deep and powerful chest register – almost a mezzo – and sang Bel Canto roles with all the expected agility, but also with a deep full-throated sound. Like Jussi Bjorling, she sang on the beat, not behind it. She had what a colleague described as “a sense of the rhythm within the rhythm, making of the trills not an ornament but a form of intensification.” She never sang notes, she sang words and she gave meaning to those words.

Besides her obvious talent, what Callas also had was a charismatic personality, the ability to project dramatic intensity bordering on fury at times, and a problematic voice that could make watching her an adventure as well as a sublime experience. Like the early Frank Sinatra, or more accurately like the later Judy Garland, she attracted fans who defended her with emotional ferocity. She was fully conscious of her image and was careful to maintain it, demanding always the respect she felt was her due. She was also a meticulous musician who had little patience with the unprepared but who demanded perfection of herself as well. More books have been written about Callas than any other operatic figure, including at least two novels where she is fictionalized and one award-winning play.

Again like Ponselle, Callas made “Norma” the defining role of her career and even though she had what was basically a coloratura voice while Ponselle’s was a true dramatic soprano, their interpretations are remarkably similar. “Norma” is widely considered to be the most difficult soprano role in all of opera, requiring great vocal range, strength, and flexibility as well as a tremendous emotional range. Callas used music to evoke an emotional truth.

Then there was the Callas that most people think they know. The fiery dragon lady who cancelled performances, was photographed snarling at a process server, who walked out on the President of Italy, and was fired by the Metropolitan Opera. God knows those things happened and Callas’ take no prisoners, it’s them against me and I’ll get those so-and-so’s personality, certainly aggravated situations that could have been resolved much more amicably, but she was often the victim of circumstances. Like Caruso, she had once signed with a manager who sued her (she eventually won the case) and she was served papers backstage in full view of press photographers just as she finished an emotionally exhausting performance of “Medea.” She exploded and the “Tiger lady” photo made headlines.

Management at La Scala scheduled a performance of “Norma” even after she had notified them of a throat infection. Because the President of Italy was to attend, Callas agreed to try to sing but she could not finish and had to leave the stage. For some reason La Scala had not arranged for an understudy so the performance was cancelled and Callas was attacked in the Italian press for “walking out.” Typical of Callas, however, she magnified the situation by then going to a party. Sometimes she was simply her own worst enemy.

By 1959, Callas’ had divorced Meneghini, become enmeshed in lawsuits over cancelled performances, and essentially thrown away her career to live with billionaire Aristotle Onassis, who disliked opera, hated hearing Callas sing, and had once lived with another world famous soprano, Claudia Muzio. Callas continued to deepen her interpretations of the characters she portrayed but her voice began to develop problems.

By 1965 her her voice was in tatters, but after a period of intensive work and training she made a series of appearances in “Tosca” at the Paris Opera and at Covent Garden with her old partner Titi Gobbi. And somehow she gave one last magnificent demonstration of what Maria Callas had once been.

Callas gave up her American citizenship to become a Greek citizen in the hope of marrying Onassis, but in 1968 he instead married the only woman in the world more famous than Callas, Jacqueline Kennedy, the American President’s widow. Callas was emotionally devastated and vocally in ruins. Her confidence in herself was destroyed and she never sang on an opera stage again.

Callas’ career outlasted her voice. She sang professionally for nearly twenty five years, and reigned as Prima Donna Assoluta until she died, but she was really only Callas for ten of those years (1949 to 1959.) She spent the last years of her life in seclusion, giving only a series of Master Classes at Juilliard, an ill-advised concert tour with Guiseppe di Stefano, and occasional interviews. She died in 1977 at the age of 54.

One of the best summaries of what made Callas so special was given by soprano Raina Kabaivanska who was coached by Callas one evening. “It was an amazing experience,” she said. “That evening Callas sang the opera in it’s entirety, giving me valuable musical advice. I suddenly understood what the real Callas was all about. She was instinct, musical instinct. She had that incredible quality that allowed you to see the characters faces while you listened to her … she painted the characters through her voice … those are things one doesn’t learn. There is only one truth and Callas understood it: read the music. She knew how to read the composer’s intentions.”

The lady could tear your heart out.

Your comments or questions are welcome.