1923 - 1977
Maria Callas was one of the great coloratura sopranos of the
Maria Callas was one of the greatest operatic voices of the 20th
century. She revitalized opera and increased its appeal because
of her dramatic skill. The extensive range of her singing voice
(nearly three octaves) and her ability to emote enabled her to
sing many operas that were rarely performed otherwise. Callas
biographer Ariana Stassinopoulos said of the singer's dramatic
flair, "She brought 'finish' back to the music: each phrase,
each word was meticulously weighed … she never allowed it to
become meaningless embroidery." And Michael Mark of American
Record Guide noted of the American soprano, "Her strange,
haunting, beautiful … voice was complemented by an unerring
Childhood in America
By most accounts Maria Callas was born Maria Kalogeropoulos in
New York City, on December 3, 1923, just four months after her
parents, George and Evangelia (Litza) Kalogeropoulos, arrived in
New York harbour after emigrating from Greece. Callas was
formally baptized Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria. It was around the
time of her birth that her father shortened the family name to
Callas, and Maria Kalogeropoulos was known as Maria Callas by
the time she started school.
Callas and her sister, Jackie, grew up enmeshed in bitter
sibling rivalries. Jackie, the elder by five years, was tall and
slim-everyone's favourite. Maria was not short, but she was not
as tall as Jackie, and so appeared more plump in comparison.
When Callas was only five years old, she suffered a concussion
and was hospitalized for over three weeks, after being dragged
unconscious by an automobile. She quickly learned to appreciate
the attention she received from concerned family and friends
during her recuperation.
At age seven Callas began her musical studies by taking piano
lessons. She loved opera music even as a youngster, and she had
a beautiful voice. She especially loved to sing La Paloma. She
took great comfort in listening to the many opera records in her
family's collection. Young Callas soon discovered that she had a
natural talent and a flair for the dramatic. She won several
amateur talent contests while she was in elementary school, and
was a popular performer on children's radio shows.
Adolescence in Greece
When Callas graduated from the eighth grade in 1937, her mother
decided to return to Greece in order for Callas to receive voice
training in the classical tradition. Once in Greece, Callas
never resumed her academic studies. Instead she studied with
popular voice coaches. First with Maria Trivella at the National
Conservatory in Athens, and then with Elvira de Hidalgo at the
Odeon Athenos. Callas also studied French and drama. She was a
dedicated pupil, driven by a spirit of excellence. At times she
observed even David, her pet canary, and attempted to learn from
his warble. Her other bird, Elmina, was known to faint and fall
off her perch from the intensity and pitch of Callas's high
notes. It was all fun to Callas, who seemed happy only when she
was singing. Callas's teachers, and later her directors and
producers, were continually amazed at her exceptional memory.
She easily learned music and lyrics in a matter of days, where
others would require weeks or months.
As Callas matured, she developed a close relationship with her
music coach, Elvira de Hidalgo, and it was de Hidalgo who
arranged for Callas's first professional performance at the
National Lyric Theatre in Athens in November of 1940. While her
performance would be a success, life in Athens soon changed; the
outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Greece had a
profound effect on everyone in the country, including the young
soprano. Stories are told that during the occupation Callas
sometimes performed for enemy soldiers in return for food and
security for herself, her mother, and her sister. Her career,
meanwhile, was stifled.
Finds Success in Italy
After the occupation, de Hidalgo encouraged Callas to move to
Italy to establish her career. However, against all advice,
Callas returned to the United States in 1945, determined that
she could make a name for herself on her own terms. Although she
remained in America for the next two years, it was at the Arena
in Verona, Italy where she finally got her start.
After rejection and failure in the United States she finally
went to Verona, on a contract. Her Italian debut, held on August
3, 1947, was a performance of La Gioconda at the Verona Arena.
She went on to perform Tristan and Isolde and Turandot in Venice
in 1948. She sang the title role in Bellini's Norma, her most
popular role, for the first time in Florence in 1948.
Initially Callas received minimal acclaim, although audiences in
Italy were receptive to her talent. It was a quirk of fate in
1949 that finally brought her to prominence. When another diva
fell ill during a run of I Puritani, Callas agreed to sing the
part of Elvira on one week's notice. Callas, who was performing
as Brunhilde in Die Walkure at the time, managed to perform both
operas, alternating between the two works from one night to the
next. The public was duly impressed at her versatility. Critics
took note, and her career began to soar.
Marriage and International Acclaim
Almost immediately upon her arrival in Verona in 1947 she met
Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy Veronian industrialist.
He was 30 years her senior, and his family did not approve of
Callas or her profession, yet the two fell in love. They married
on April 21, 1949. The couple lived mostly in Verona. Meneghini
withdrew from his business interests to manage Callas's
promising career and generally devoted his life to fulfilling
her every need.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Callas toured Argentina,
Mexico, and Brazil. She worked with famed Maestro Tullio Serafin,
and noted directors Franco Zefferelli, Francesco Siciliani, and
Highly professional, Callas performed 47 roles during her brief
career. Her greatest role was that of Norma, which she performed
90 times. Callas developed a strong identity with the Druid
priestess of the operatic tale, and once confided to Serafin,
"It, Norma, will never be as good as it is now in my mind
unsung." Whenever Callas performed in Norma, she reportedly
became exhausted and drained from the physical intensity of her
Callas's first performance at La Scala in Milan was in Aida, in
April of 1950, as a stand-in, a replacement for famed soprano
Renata Tibaldi. On December 7, 1951, she made her official debut
at the noted Italian opera house as Elena in I Vespri Siciliani.
She went on to perform there for ten years, a total of nearly
200 performances. She interpreted nearly two dozen roles,
including her most famous, Norma.
Finds Fame in America
Callas's U.S. debut was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1954.
On October 19, 1956 she debuted at the New York Metropolitan
Opera where she performed in Norma. Coinciding with her
Metropolitan Opera debut, Callas was featured on the cover of
Time, on the issue dated October 27, 1956.
During the peak of her career Callas easily fit the stereotype
of a portly and highly emotional diva, but in 1952 she
experienced a dramatic weight loss. By 1954 she was 65 pounds
lighter. She continued to perform, and her career exploded into
greatness. She added new operas to her repertoire, including
Madame Butterfly, which she had previously avoided because she
felt awkward and ungraceful.
New Image Expands Opportunities
After the mid-1950s Callas successfully resurrected the macabre
operas, including Cherubini's Medea, Verdi's Macbeth, and
Donizetti's Anna Bolena, each of which required exceptional
vocal range and acting talent. Will Crutchfield commented of her
unique ability in New Yorker, "Callas presented to the … public
a phenomenon of sheer capacity, … she revived a repertory based
on capacity. High notes and low, power in full cry and delicacy
in pianissimo, fast passagework and sustained legato had not
been completely present in one soprano in generations."
The list of Callas's performances is lengthy: Tosca, La Traviata,
Abduction from the Seraglio, Parsifal, Aida, Nabucco, Il
Trovatore, and many more. In 1951 she performed the world
premiere of Hayden's Orfeo ed Euridice. Surviving tapes and
recordings of Callas include her 1952 La Gioconda, the complete
opera, with Fedora Barbieri. Miscellaneous tapes also remain
from a series of master classes she gave at the Juilliard School
of Music in New York, where Callas taught briefly before her
The Years of Decline
During the late 1950s the vocalist's personal life began to
deteriorate, and this tragically affected her career. She became
increasingly linked socially with the "international jet set,"
those people of wealth and power known as the "idle rich."
Through her new-found friends she became acquainted with
shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and the couple's friendship
soon developed into an extramarital affair. This was not the
first time that Callas's name was associated with illicit
liaisons, and she and her husband separated in 1959, divorcing
finally in 1971. Onassis eventually divorced his wife, Tina, and
married Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the late President John F.
Kennedy, but he also remained involved with Callas.
The intrigues of Callas's personal life soon overshadowed her
professional life. The stresses of jet set living, as well as
the strain she had put on her voice throughout her career began
to take their toll. Callas cancelled a performance at the
Edinburgh Festival in 1957. In 1958 she answered to breach of
contract charges from the American Guild of Musical Artists. A
downward spiral was in motion. Her former manager, Richard
Bagarozy, sued her for back commissions. She cancelled a
performance in Rome after the first act. She was dismissed from
the Metropolitan Opera. Although she returned briefly to perform
at the Met between 1964 and 1965, she never resurfaced as the
great talent of her youth.
The Callas Persona
As an actress, Callas was known for her timing and spontaneity,
as well as for her incredible vocal range. She attributed her
extraordinary stage presence to myopia: She was rarely nervous,
she claimed, because she could not see the audience. In fact,
Callas insisted she could barely see the conductor, and was free
therefore to lose herself in the composer's work to the
exclusion of all else.
Callas's timing and spontaneity even extended to curtain calls.
After one memorable performance, she was showered with flowers.
She took one and handed it to famed conductor Arturo Toscanini
who had attended the performance. The audience was ecstatic.
Even during the years of her decline, when some of the audience
threw vegetables instead of flowers, to express their annoyance,
Callas retained her composure. She kept the flowers for herself
and tossed the vegetables down to the orchestra.
Callas died unexpectedly in Paris on September 16, 1977, shortly
before her 55th birthday. Just as no record exists of Callas's
birth, her death also remains shrouded in mystery, the cause of
her death never fully explained. (Her body was cremated without
an autopsy.) Such facts serve to intensify the mystique of the
soprano's life. Duncan Scott of Knight-Ridder/Tribune News
Service said of Callas: "As in the case of … other icons,
Callas's real accomplishments were swallowed up by the power of
her own myth."
The fame and legacy of Maria Callas are nearly unsurpassed in
the modern history of opera. Her fame has transcended the usual
boundaries of classical music, and she has been the inspiration
for several movies, an opera, and a successful Broadway musical.
Her extensive catalogue of recordings remains among the most
coveted and controversial for both her fans and detractors.
Though American by birth, Callas (born Maria Anne Sofia Cecilia
Kalogeropoulos) was born of Greek parents, and at age 13 her
mother took her back to Greece because of financial difficulties
caused by the Great Depression. She studied voice at the Royal
Academy of Music in Athens with Spanish coloratura soprano
Elvira de Hildago and made rapid progress; she soon sang
Santuzza in a student production of Cavalleria rusticana. Her
professional debut came at age 16 in a minor role in Suppe's
While still in Athens during World War II, Callas sang her first
Tosca in 1942. In 1945, she returned to the United States and
sang several auditions, but nothing came of her visit. Her first
appearance in 1947 at Verona as La Gioconda brought her to the
attention of Tullio Serafin; Serafin became her musical advisor
for many years, acting as her coach and conductor of many of her
The entire world of opera was stunned when, in 1949 -- while
singing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at Venice -- she agreed to
sing Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani, alternating performances
during the same week. That same year she travelled to Buenos
Aires to sing Turandot and Norma. In 1950, she sang Aida at the
Teatro alla Scala, but she did not become a regular member there
until 1952. The summer of 1950 took her Mexico City where, in
one month, she sang Norma, Aida, Tosca and Il trovatore. During
these early years, Callas would sing nearly any role offered
including Isolde, Leonore in La forza del destino, Constanza in
Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Elena in I vespri
As she matured, Callas began to concentrate on a smaller core
repertory, including Cherubini's Medea, Bellini's Norma,
Puccini's Tosca, Bellini's La Sonnambula, and Donizetti's Anna
Bolena. Most of her other roles were heard only in one series of
performances. After 1959, she rarely appeared on the opera
stage, but she did sing concerts in America and Europe. Her last
opera performances were in June 1965, at Paris as Norma. She
came out of retirement in 1973 to tour the world with Giuseppe
di Stefano in a series of recitals. Although financially
rewarding, the tour did nothing to enhance her reputation. In
1971, she gave a series of masterclasses at the Juilliard School
of Music in New York which were quite successful. In 1977, she
died of a sudden heart attack in her Paris apartment.
Maria Callas was one of the most controversial singers of the
twentieth century. She had a wide range from high E to the F
below the staff, and an innate feel for the style of bel canto
roles, but she was most notable for bringing a commitment and
intensity to her dramatic portrayals that was nearly
unprecedented at the time. By 1957, her voice developed a wobble
which grew worse in the following years. Always a perfectionist,
she was very difficult to deal with from a management point of
view: she was fired from the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 and she
was estranged from Teatro alla Scala for several years. Her
vocal decline coincided with the dissolution of her first
marriage to Giovanni Meneghini and her affair with Aristotle
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This web page was last updated on:
20 December, 2008