A Diva Destroyed

20 years after Maria Callas’s lonely death, Michael Tanner looks back at the highs and lows of the great soprano’s career, following her from a turbulent childhood, through her loves and losses to her solitary end in a Paris apartment.

At the end of her last tour in 1974 Maria Callas went back to her Paris apartment and spent her time listening to her own records and flicking the switch on her television. She refused to see her old friends, talked of resuming her career while knowing she wouldn’t and sank into apathy. On 16 September 1977 she got up at noon, collapsed from a heart attack, and died two hours later, aged just 53. It was an inglorious end of an era. 25 years earlier Callas was the most celebrated soprano in the world, and soon one of the two or three most famous women. She became an emblem of glamour – between December 1952 and April 1954 she lost 62 pounds – and thus helped to appease what Walter Legge, her producer, called ‘her superhuman inferiority complex’.

Setting new standards in appearance, acting and singing, her every performance became an occasion of possible scandal, especially at La Scala Milan where scandal interests the audience much more than art. Soon, naturally, opportunities for criticising her arose, even though she was the ultimate professional, knowing everyone’s part in all the operas she sang in, not only her own, and a fanatical worker. For eight years she reigned supreme, though her highly individual voice and the peculiar intensity of her performances always made her controversial.

In the later 1950s, one scandal after another, in many of which she was the innocent party, broke over her. Always highly strung, the tensions became unbearable. When Aristotle Onassis, Greek, elderly, inconceivably rich, decided to conquer her she soon found herself haplessly in love and separated from her devoted husband, the middle-aged businessman Giovanni Meneghini. She took time off from the gruelling schedule she had set herself, cultivated the image of an icon of fashion, and found her will and technique were no longer keeping her unruly voice in order. Onassis, unlike Meneghini, wasn’t in the least interested in her art, only her body and her fame. So she lost support and advice. Instead of operatic performances she took to giving concerts in which the amount she had to sing was small – but she was the only star.

Then one of the world’s other most famous women became a widow, following her husband’s assassination in Dallas; and Onassis decided Jackie Kennedy would be a still bigger fish to catch. Ruthlessly he got Callas to have an abortion, she attempted suicide, appeared in a few more operatic performances, the last of all in Covent Garden when she was 41. Her voice in tatters, she retired to the misery of life in Parisian luxury. Pasolini lured her out for a film of Medea, in which she doesn’t sing. She gave masterclasses in New York. She tried to produce an opera, but was too short-sighted to see what was going on. Finally her long-standing partner on the stage, the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, lured her into a world tour with him, since he desperately needed the money and she desperately needed to be reassured that she was loved and unforgotten. Terrified, she took part in this artistic farce or tragedy from October 1973 in Hamburg to November 1974 in Sapporo, Japan. The exhausted pair sang operatic arias and duets accompanied by a pianist – they might have hired an orchestra to cover them, Callas still looked every inch a star, but her voice was hollow, a parody of what it had been.

Youth: unhappy, fat and short-sighted
Callas was born Maria Kalogeropoulos in a Manhattan hospital on 2 December 1923. her parents had arrived in the United States in the August of that year, her father, a chemist, having had a thriving business in Greece. Why they emigrated is a mystery, though it may have to do with Mr Kalogeropoulos’s promiscuity. He did not flourish in New York, and the family had a variety of addresses, moving further and further uptown. Callas was keen on music from an early age and took part in a children’s radio contest when she was 11. by then her mother Evangelia was so infuriated by her husband’s philandering that she decided to take her two daughters back to Greece, having already formed the ambition of making Maria into a great singer.

Callas joined the National Conservatory in Athens and was so enthusiastic a pupil, as well as so ardent a music lover, that she regularly arrived first and stayed all day long, listening to all the other pupils, absorbing the advice they were given, and gaining a wide knowledge of the repertoire.

Callas was no happier as a child or adolescent than she was to be as an adult. She ate compulsively, became and remained for many years grotesquely fat, and was extremely short-sighted. Even so, at the age of 15 she made her debut singing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Shortly after that she auditioned for Elvira De Hidalgo, a coloratura soprano who had sung with Caruso, though she had not been in the front rank of singers. She seems to have been an effective teacher, and Callas’s phenomenal technique was grounded in those years.

A week to learn Elvira and Brunnhilde
During the war, when Greece was occupied by the Germans, Callas continued her studies, and took part in a few operas, including Tosca, which was to be one of her most celebrated roles, even if she claimed to dislike it; and Fidelio, which, alas, she never sang again. Everything was performed in Greek. As soon as the war ended she embarked for New York, and in December 1945 was auditioned by the Met and was turned down; it’s not clear on what grounds. Various famous singers heard her, promised help, didn’t give it. Finally she was auditioned by the famous and then very old tenor Giovanni Zenetello, who ran the opera sessions in the Arena di Verona, still now a crucial place for singers of Italian opera to make their name. He heard her sing the aria ‘Suicidio!’ from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and signed her up. Her debut took place in Verona on 2 August 1947 and was a sensational success.

At least as important as the success was the fact that the opera was conducted by Tullio Serafin, a nurturer of great singing who had been conducting since the last years of the nineteenth century. He took Callas under his wing and advised her on how to pace her career. At the end of the year he conducted her in Wagner’s Tristano e Isotha in La Fenice in Venice, sung in Italian. Turandot followed and Wagner again: Brunnhilde in La Valchiria. But then came the turning point in Callas’s career. Alternating with Wagner were to be performances of Bellini’s I Puritani, a work in which the maddened heroine has to sing reams of coloratura altogether in as different a style from Wagner as possible. The scheduled soprano was ill so Serafin, in charge of both operas, asked Callas to learn the role of Elvira in a week, in between Brunnhilde’s. She was aghast, but characteristically rose to the challenge and scored an incredible triumph, doing something no other soprano would have dreamt of attempting.

The roles she single-handedly revived
Callas also fell in love with bel canto repertoire: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti. It was seen as defunct apart from a tiny handful of works. Callas determined to revive it, and not as a mere instrument of virtuosic vocal display, which was why it had fallen into disrepute. She would show that it was, or could be, just as expressive as Verdi or Leoncavallo and Mascagni. Meanwhile she continued as a Wagnerian and we have a 1950 studio Parsifal recorded in good sound for the time to show what we lost when she abandoned that repertoire.

Her career by this stage had been taken in hand by Meneghini. He had made a fortune in business so became Callas’s manager and her husband. There seems no doubt that it was love as well as expediency which united them for a time. As with many other Greek women of her generation, Callas had been brought up to believe she should marry a father-figure and all her (not numerous) passionate relationships were with much older men. So with emotional and financial security she was set to conquer the opera houses of the world, first by singing what they wanted her to – Aida, Violetta in La Traviata, Tosca – then by singing what she wanted to, which overlapped but revivified such old war-horses as Bellini’s Norma, her favourite role and a revelation; and then there were rarities such as Cherubini’s Medée.

These are roles, on record and video, in which she can still be heard and seen, as the most magnetic operatic artist, together with Chaliapin, whom we can listen to and wonder at. 20 years after her death Callas’s fame has not dwindled, indeed has truly increased with each passing year. She has had a bigger influence on the repertoire and on singing style than any other artist of the century.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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