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One of the greatest coloratura opera singers of the 20th century, Maria Callas defined the term "diva" in all of its connotations. An enormously gifted performer from an early age, her versatility allowed her to tackle a wide variety of operas, from the powerful dramas of Richard Wagner to bel canto and the classical opera seria style. But a difficult childhood had left her with a volcanic personality that often resulted in clashes with opera houses, fellow performers and the press, which dubbed her as temperamental. An ill-fated love affair with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis also brought its share of headlines and heartache. By the end of the 1950s, loss of vocal power, caused by either dramatic weight loss or simple wear from the rigors of singing, led to a decline in her career that largely ended in 1965, save for a nostalgic tour in 1973. Her death in 1977 enshrined her as a larger-than-life figure whose emotional highs and lows often obscured the fact that she was one of opera's greatest interpreters, as well as one of its best-selling artists, even decades after her death.
Accounts vary on Callas' actual name, with her birth certificate citing that Sophia Cecelia Kalos was born on Dec. 2, 1923 in New York City, though she was christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou by parents George Kalogeropoulos, a pharmacist who later shortened the family name to Kalos and later Callas, and Evangelia Dimitriadou. Most sources also described her childhood as an unhappy one, marked by constant fighting between her parents, as well as bouts of infidelity on both sides. Callas also endured a contentious relationship with her mother, who did little to disguise her disappointment over the birth of a second daughter after sister Yakthini in 1917. Callas only improved in her mother's eyes after her vocal talents became evident at the age of three, after which Evangelia pressed her daughter to perform and study music at all times. She began taking vocal and piano lessons at the age of seven and soon claimed top prizes in local amateur talent competition. In 1937, Callas accompanied her sister and mother to Greece - a decision prompted by financial issues, according to some sources, or to friction between her parents.
After failing to enroll at the Athens Conservatory, Callas won a spot at the Greek National Conservatoire where she blossomed into a stellar dramatic soprano. A second, more successful audition at the Athens Conservatory brought her to Spanish coloratura soprano Elvira de Hildago, who pronounced Callas as a naturally gifted performer and obsessively dedicated student She made her debut in a student production of "Cavalleria rusticana" in 1939 before moving on to minor roles with the Greek National Opera. Three years later, Callas received glowing reviews for her debut as a lead in a 1942 production of "Tosca," with one newspaper going so far as to describe her talents as "God-given," a label that would follow her in subsequent years. Following the end of World War II, Hildago encouraged Callas to relocate to Italy in order to broaden her career, but she instead returned to America to reunite with her father. There, she auditioned for and reportedly rejected an offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York before accepting a contract with an opera company in Chicago, IL. The company closed before giving its opening performance, but a co-star suggested to Callas that she travel to Italy to join a production of "La Gioconda" for Tullio Serafin at the Arena di Verona in Venice. Callas so impressed the famed conductor that he became her mentor and musical advisor, guiding her career throughout its highs and lows in the 1940s and 1950s.
Callas' true breakthrough came in 1949 when Serafin convinced her to undertake the demanding role of Elvira in "I Puritani" - a role the singer did not know - while also performing as Brünnhilde in a production of Wagner's "Die Walküre." Callas defied not only her own skepticism but that of the critical press, which had dismissed the notion of one singer tackling two of the most challenging roles in opera. The rapturous notices she received for her turns led to her debut at the famed La Scala in Milan, where she starred in lavish productions for the likes of Franco Zeffirelli and filmmaker Luchino Visconti, who stated that he began directing opera so that he could work with Callas. Her fame soon brought her to opera houses around the world, including her United States debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1954 and her long-overdue debut at the Metropolitan in a 1956 production of "Norma." That same year, Callas was featured on the cover of TIME in a revealing story that discussed in detail her tumultuous childhood and relationship with her mother, which had essentially ended after a disastrous trip to Mexico in 1950.
At the height of her fame, Callas found herself embroiled in a series of scandals that led to widespread perception of her as a difficult diva. The TIME story underscored this notion by focusing on an alleged rivalry between her and Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, which was largely exacerbated by media coverage. Canceled performances and walk-outs, including a famed 1958 performance before the president of Italy, added to her reputation, as did an affair with Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis, which led to her separation from her husband, industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who had given up his career to manage and support her. Adding to her mounting problems was a dramatic weight loss of some 80 pounds, which transformed the formerly Rubenesque singer into a svelte figure that gave her greater endurance on stage, but according to some sources, undermined her physical strength and breath control, leading to a gradual decline in her vocal abilities. Still others cited that the rigors of performing and travel were directly responsible for her loss of vocal power.
Whatever the reason, Callas began reducing her performances to single appearances in the late 1950s. She traveled regularly between London, Paris and New York before giving her final stage performance in a production of "Tosca" produced especially for her by Zeffierelli in 1965. Four years later, she gave her only non-operatic acting turn as the title role in director Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Medea" (1969). In 1971, she began giving master classes at the Julliard School in New York, which would later serve as the inspiration for Terence McNally's Tony-winning play "Master Class" (1995). The production would underscore many of the major themes from Callas' life, from her sad childhood through her travails with both the press and Onassis, who had continued to maintain a tumultuous relationship with her after marrying Jacqueline Kennedy in 1971. Although both were madly in love with one another, Callas was forced to serve as a kind of mistress - a constant humiliation to someone of her stature. Callas returned briefly to performing with a series of joint recitals with the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano in Europe, the United States and South Korean between 1973 and 1974. Though both performers' voices had lost their original luster, the marquee value of two famed singers on the same stage made the tours financial successes.
Callas sang publically for the last time at a 1974 concert in Japan. Three year later, she succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 53 while living in isolation in Paris. Her ashes, which were interred at a Parisian cemetery, were stolen and subsequently retrieved before being scattered into the Aegean Sea. Zeffierelli would pay tribute to his former collaborator with the 2002 film "Callas Forever," in which actress Fanny Ardant played the singer at the end of her career, which she was enlisted to lip-sync to a 1964 recording from "Carmen" for a film version of the opera. Callas received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, the same year she was depicted on a highly valued commemorative coin from her native country.
By Paul Gaita
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