Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Life of Maria Callas - A Tragedy in Three Acts

Everything about Maria Callas was larger than life - her personality, her love affairs, her feuds and of course, that magnificent voice. The story of her journey from modest beginnings to reigning prima donna of the operatic world has all the elements of a classic rags-to-riches tale – drama, comedy and tragedy. It is possibly this last element of her life story that accounts for our enduring fascination with this formidable yet vulnerable woman. The public, true to macabre form, has allowed the spectre of Callas’s doomed love affairs and early death to loom large, overshadowing her great musical achievements. Like Marilyn Monroe before her, the legacy of Maria Callas has fallen victim to her legend.

Act 1 – Inauspicious Beginnings

Cecilia Sophia Anna "Maria" Kalogeropoulos was born on December 3rd 1923 in Queens, New York, barely four months after her parents arrived in America from Greece. Her father, George Kalogeropoulos, was a pharmacist and her mother Evangelia (Litza) was an ambitious social climber with big aspirations for her family. Around the time of her birth, Maria’s father changed the family’s surname to the more manageable Callas.

Maria was the youngest of three children - her elder sister Jackie was born in 1917, and her brother Vassilis born in 1920. Maria never knew her brother, but was destined to live in his shadow for much of her childhood. Vassilis died in 1922 from meningitis, and Maria was what could be described as a “replacement” baby. Her parents, desperate for another son, even went so far as to consult astrologers for advice on when would be the most opportune time to conceive a boy. This astrological intervention failed, however, to produce the much longed-for son. When Maria was born, her mother was so distraught and disappointed she refused to look at the little girl for four days.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this less-than-promising start, Maria’s relationship with her mother was factious and fraught with difficulties. Litza’s obvious preference for her elder daughter Jackie sowed the seeds of resentment in Maria that were to define the relationship with her mother for the rest of her life. Litza was not averse to taking advantage of Maria’s musical talents, which were apparent from an early age (“I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it”). Litza became the ultimate domineering “stage mother”. Maria herself summed up the situation best when she said:
“My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted... I'll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money.”
This unhappy childhood was compounded by her parents deteriorating marriage. Incompatible from the start, the arguments between her parents became more and more frequent. George was said to be unhappy with Litza’s unfair treatment of their youngest daughter, and Litza, for her part, was frustrated by his apparent unambitious attitude and lack of interest in social advancement. They eventually divorced in 1937, when Maria was thirteen years old.

After the divorce, on Litza’s insistence, her two daughters moved back with her to Athens, where they spent the war years. Animosity between mother and daughter continued to increase during this time, as Litza reportedly encouraged her daughters to fraternize with Italian and German soldiers during the occupation, in order to bring home food and money. Maria viewed this (perhaps rightfully) as a form of prostitution. Interestingly, her mother did not have a job of her own during this time.

There is, however, one thing for which we must be grateful to Maria’s mother – her insistence, despite the scarcity of money, that Maria should receive a musical education (whether this was for Maria’s benefit, or for the advancement of Litza’s own future, is debatable - her motives were, as ever, dubious to say the least). Litza’s driving ambition was about to set her daughter on a course for international stardom.

Act 2 – Triumph over Adversity ... The Rise of the Diva

After an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry to the Athens Conservatoire, Maria’s mother managed to convince Maria Trivella (of the lesser Greek National Conservatoire) to listen to her daughter sing. Trivella was so impressed with Maria’s (as yet untrained) voice that she agreed to teach her free of charge.

Callas proved to be a precocious student. Trivella soon ascertained that Maria’s voice was a dramatic soprano, not a contralto as was previously believed. Callas responded well to Trivella’s training, throwing herself into her studies. Trivella later said of her:
“A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. ...Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality”.
Callas would remain a student of Trivella for two years, after which she re-auditioned for the Athens Conservatoire. This time she was successful, greatly impressing Elvira de Hidalgo, the famous Spanish coloratura soprano, who was to become her next teacher, and who would play an “essential role” in Callas’s artistic development.

While still a student, Callas secured a number of small roles, mainly thanks to de Hidalgo’s connections. It would not be until 1942 that she would make her début professionnel in the minor role of Beatrice in Suppé’s Boccaccio. From then on, she was never short of engagements, working steadily in Greek operatic productions until she made the brave decision, at the end of the war, to return to the United States of America to live with her father. And so it was, at the tender age of 22, Maria Callas embarked on the next stage of her career.

After numerous auditions and a few false starts (she wisely turned down a beginners contract, and the opportunity to play Madame Butterfly, at the New York Met), Maria Callas came to the attention of the renowned Italian conductor, Tullio Serafin. The great maestro was instrumental in securing for her the lead role in La Gioconda, in a production to be staged in Verona, Italy. After La Gioconda, Serafin, again showing his faith in the newcomer, cast her as Isolde in Tristan and Isolde. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship between the soprano and the man who would become her mentor.

From this point on, Callas’s career went from strength to strength. She was in high demand all over Italy, appearing in all the major Italian opera houses. The only theatre left to welcome her was the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, arguably the most renowned of the Italian opera houses. The reason for this seemed to hinge on the dislike La Scala’s general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli, harboured for Callas. Eventually, however, even he could not deny or ignore the trajectory of her rising stardom, and she made her La Scala debut in December 1951. La Scala was to play a significant role in Callas’ career throughout the 1950’s.

Italy, however, was not the centre of Maria’s world. She headlined productions all over the globe, including the New York Met, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Royal Opera House in London. After the success of her London début in 1952, Callas went on to appear at the ROH in 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1964 -1965. During these years, Callas’s artistic output was immense. She performed lead roles in all the major operas, specialising in the tragic heroines of the Italian repetoire - Florida Tosca, in Puccini’s opera of the same name, and Violetta in La Traviata and Bellini's Norma.

Her legacy was immeasurably enriched when she agreed, at the pinnacle of her career, to record Tosca for EMI in 1953. Thanks to the relentless perfectionism of Callas and her equally pedantic conductor Victor de Sabata, the now infamous Tosca sessions were a grueling process, exasperated by soaring August temperatures in Milan (the sessions were recorded at La Scala). The results, however, were magnificent, described by an EMI executive as having “made immortal contributions … to the artistic history of our time.”

During these years, Callas’s reputation as a singer was almost overshadowed by her growing reputation for being “difficult”. Maria was renowned in operatic circles for her sheer force of will and her indefatigable ambition. Indeed, it is fair to say, her meteoric rise to fame would not have been possible without these personality traits. She had an innate intelligence, and was supremely confident in her vision for her career. Rudolf Bing of the New York Met said:

“… she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it”
However, despite this, she often suffered privately from personal anxieties which were at odds with the ultimate self-assurance she displayed on stage. As a result, she relied heavily on the emotional support she received from her husband, Giovanni Meneghini. She met her much-older husband early in her career and they married in 1949. Giovanni was a wealthy man, and marriage to him freed Callas from financial worries, which meant she was at liberty to develop her art without constraint. Giovanni managed her career until the marriage disintegrated in 1959.

Act 3 – A Fall from Grace

Callas’s growing reputation for diva-esque behaviour, coupled with the disintegration of her relationship with the mother (which was played out in public thanks to the publication of Litza’a book My Daughter – Maria Callas) combined to ensure that she became a permanent fixture of the gossip pages. Hoards of reporters followed her every move. Callas’ life became tabloid fodder, and perhaps unfairly, she became the victim of press vilification. In what could be described as a manifestation of “tall-poppy syndrome”, the press seemed to take unbridled and perverse delight in pulling this prima donna from her gilded pedestal. In her characteristically elegant way, Callas responded to this brutal public flogging by saying:
“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.”
If all of this negative attention was not bad enough, a fateful meeting with the powerful Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1957 would send the printing presses into overdrive. Despite the fact that Ari and Maria were both married, he pursued her relentlessly, and in doing so, ensured their budding romance would continue to feed the media’s insatiable desire for Callas-related stories.

The couple had much in common - both rose from dubious beginnings in Greece, overcoming many obstacles to reach the pinnacle of their chosen professions. Maria eventually succumbed to Ari’s advances, and she left her husband of ten years in 1959.

Her relationship with Onassis coincided with a period of immense professional difficulty. By the late 1950’s, it had become evident that Callas’s voice was in decline. Severe weight-loss had weakened her diaphragm, and years of overwork had damaged her remarkable voice - Callas’s vocal capabilities were failing at a worrying rate. This, coupled with her poor treatment by the press, convinced Callas to enter a period of semi-retirement. Content in her relationship with Onassis, she appeared happy to give up her career to focus on their relationship.

There is no doubt that Onassis was la grande passionne of Maria’s life - she loved him deeply. There has been much speculation regarding Maria’s desire to have a child with Ari. Some have said that Onassis forbade it (forcing her to have at least one abortion), while others (including her ex-husband) maintain that Callas could not have children, while yet more friends hint at the possibility that Maria bore a secret child by Ari who died in infancy. We will never know the truth behind these conflicting rumours – yet they go a long way to cementing her image as a tragic victim of circumstances.

Maria and Aristotle never married. Again, there is no consensus as to why this was the case – some believe that Onassis never wanted it, while others are convinced their volatile relationship and explosive arguments always prevented them from walking down the aisle at the last moment. Whatever the case, the pair remained a couple, and apparently devoted to each other, for nine years.

In 1968, Callas was left utterly devastated when Onassis abruptly cast her aside to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. It was a blow from which she never recovered. Maria retreated to her apartment in Paris, apparently losing interest in life. Nobody could have described this dark period better than Maria herself when she said
“First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis”.
In 1974, she eventually emerged from her private and professional hibernation to embark on a world tour with the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. While commercially successful, the performances were slated by the critics. The great La Callas had fallen on her sword. She would never sing in public again.

On September 16, 1977, Maria Callas died of a heart attack. She was just 53 years of age. And so it transpired, the story of Maria Callas’s last years ensured she would be cast in her final role – the ultimate tragic heroine of our times. When one considers her triumphs as Violetta, Tosca and Norma, perhaps this should be seen as a fitting tribute. Her life, in the end, imitated her great art … and it was, indeed, a life less ordinary.

5 comments:

  1. I did not enjoy opera until I heard Maria Callas whose voice continues to touch her admirers' hearts profoundly. I have watched her many interviews in French and English. I want to believe her that many reporters did not treat her fairly. She struck me as a warm, caring, truthful, unpretentious, vulnerable, traditional woman who set herself very high standards. The way her audience responded at her Farewell Concert in London in 1973 and the numerous recent heart-felt comments posted online on Youtube about her matchless performances demonstrate that her fans continue to love her and miss her dearly.

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  2. Her birthday is December second not December third.

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  3. Maria Callas was an incredible person! She had an amazing voice, and she is magnetic. Maria Callas epitomizes immense talent, and she is a monument of the operatic world.

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  4. Amazing voice. So sad how her mother and Ari treated her.

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  5. She was a really beautiful woman. Heartbreaking how tragic her last years. Her voice will live forever.

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