Maria Callas By Anne Edwards
When Giuseppe di Stefano died in March of this year CBC radio played some of his recordings, and I was struck by what a wonderful voice I was hearing. Guiseppe di Stefano was quite a famous singer in the 1950’s and had performed with Maria Callas in several operas, the most well know as Cavaradossi with Ms Callas as Tosca. Their voices together are some of the most wonderful in the history of opera. I am not terribly knowledgeable about opera and I wanted to hear more of di Stefano and Ms Callas. Fortunately Naxos has recently re-released many of the operas featuring di Stefano and Ms Callas and they are truly wonderful. I also wanted to know more about Ms Callas.
After reading several books the one I thought was most thorough and sympathetic was Maria Callas; An Intimate Portrait by Anne Edwards. Ann Edwards has written many celebrity biographies, and Ms Callas was certainly a celebrity in her day – the 1950s and 1960s.
Ms Callas was born in the United States, but retuned to Greece as a teenager with her mother and sister. Ms Callas' mother was determined that her daughter have a career as a singer and was relentless in her efforts to acquire voice teachers for her.
Ms Callas did not oppose her mother; she was a very bright child, she learned languages and lyrics quickly, and her teachers recognized that she had a great talent. Ms Callas' mother was a very manipulative woman, she arranged for her elder daughter, Jackie, to become the mistress of a successful businessman in Greece during the war in order to keep the family fed and Ms Callas in school. It was arranged that Ms Callas perform for the German occupation forces, again resulting in many advantages for the family.
As Ms Callas became more successful, singing in Italy after the end of the war, she came under the influence of Battista Meneghini, who took over from her mother as her manager, and became her husband. It seems that they were sincerely happy with each other, despite the fact that he was much older than Ms Callas. He provided a home and financial security, and they were both focused only on Maria and her career.
At this time Ms Callas was a very plump young woman – she ate for comfort and for escape, gaining weight at a rapid rate. For Ms Callas her career and her voice were far more important than anything else and she realized, that there were roles she was not being considered for because of her size.
After seeing photographs of Audrey Hepburn, Ms Callas realized that if she lost that weight she could make herself as elegant as the famous movie star. These days hefty opera divas have surgery but Ms Callas virtually starved herself thin.
Her obsession was life long and she was often terribly thin. There are not many films of Ms Callas in performance, I have seen one of concerts in Germany filmed in the late 1950’s and she is very thin indeed.
It was just after her extreme weight loss, as her fame was increasing, that she was introduced to Aristotle Onassis.
They were both powerful, egocentric people and they seemed to suit each other perfectly - as a celebrity couple and as passionate lovers. Onassis provided the best of everything that money could buy, and the “society” life that Ms Callas desired. Ms Callas provided an entrance into the world of "culture" that Onassis lacked. They were both people who “used” people and were perfectly suited.
I am not quite old enough to remember the media frenzy over the Callas – Onassis affair, so it was fascinating to read about the celebrity world of that time – the late 1950’s, the world of Prince Rainier of Monaco and actress Grace Kelly, and Sir Winston Churchill who an intimate friend of Onassis and often a visitor on the Onassis yacht - although never when Ms Callas was there. This was a yacht with a staff of 60, which was in effect, the home of Onassis and Ms Callas when they were not in a suite of rooms at a luxury hotel.
The career of Ms Callas reached superstar status during this time. In opera it is not enough to be able to sing the role, and Ms Callas was able to become the role that she sang in each performance. She had an incredible voice but she was also an actress – she was Tosca or Carmen.
She was invited to sing at a gala birthday party for John F. Kennedy (as did Marilyn Monroe). Of course, we know that it was, later, Jackie Kennedy who married Onassis not Ms Callas.
Onassis invited Jackie to recuperate on his yacht after the death of her newborn son, only months before the assassination of president Kennedy in October 1963. That I do remember, and then the affair and marriage of Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy.
During all of this Ms Callas continued with her career, not always easily. She did a tremendous number of performances, flying from one country or continent to another, and her voice suffered.
She was a perfectionist and was very distressed if she was not able to give a flawless performance. As her personal life fell apart so did her career, and she became a very reclusive woman in the last years of her life, dying in Paris in 1976. It is easy to say that Ms Callas had a tragic life and to feel that she never knew happiness, but the more I think about it the more I think she made the life she lived – we do all make choices.
Ms Callas made the choice to have an affair with a married man, who was known to be unfaithful to every woman he had ever been involved with. She chose to pursue her career over all else, she didn’t seek friendship, she sought fame.
Opera designer and producer Franco Zeffirelli worked frequently with Ms Callas and is quoted as saying, “After all artists of her stature cannot have complete fulfillment in their private lives/ Otherwise they would never attain the kid of desperate extra dimension that sets them apart.”