Maria Callas

"To sing is an expression of your being, a being which is becoming." -Maria Callas




Maria Callas was born Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos on December 2, 1923, in New York, New York. She was the daughter of a Greek couple, Evangelina Dimitriadis and George Kalogeropoulos, who had arrived in America in August of 1923. When her mother moved back to Greece in early 1937, Maria went along with her and shortly after began training with Elvira de Hidalgo at the National Conservatory in Athens.

After three years of training, Maria made her professional stage debut in November of 1940 at the National Lyric Theatre in Athens in Suppé's operetta, Boccaccio. Her first success came in 1942 when she was asked to perform in Tosca at the Athens Opera. Soon after, she performed Fidelio, Tiefland, and Cavalleria Rusticana in Athens and returned to her birthplace, New York, in the hopes of starting a successful career in opera.

Her auditions had not been going well until she was asked to audition for Edward Johnson, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Johnson heard her and immediately offered her the leading roles in two productions of the 1946/7 season: Beethoven's Fidelio and Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Maria, to Johnson's surprise, turned the roles down. She didn't want to sing Fidelio in English and she felt that she was too heavy to portray the young, fragile Butterfly. This story may just be a myth, though, since the Met maintains Callas' audition was not a success and that she was never offered a contract.

Maria was, however, able to find work. After an engagement in La Gioconda in Verona, she traveled to Venice to sing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre for the 1948/9 season with Tullio Serafin conducting. I Puritani would be performed in Venice shortly after starring the Italian soprano Margherita Carosio as Elvira. One night, Maria got tired of Brünnhilde's Ho-jo-to-hos and began sight-reading Elvira's music. When Serafin's wife heard Maria, she immediately called her husband and requested that Maria sing for him also. She did just that but Maria did not know that Carosio had fallen ill and that a replacement would be needed. The following morning, Maria sang for the Musical Director of the Opera House who decided that Maria would be the best choice as Elvira. She was given one week to learn the entire opera, a week which contained three performances of Die Walküre. After the first I Puritani on January 19, 1949, Maria became the talk of Italy. It was a huge success, even though she had made some small mistakes, one of them being that instead of singing "son vergin vezzosa" (I am a charming virgin), she sang "son vergin viziosa" (I am a vicious virgin). Three months after her success, she married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a man almost 30 years older than Maria, on 21 April 1949, in the Chiesa dei Filippini in Verona, Italy.

After her Elviras in Venice, Maria had become a major opera celebrity in Italy but had still not been offered a role at La Scala in Milan. Finally, Maria was offered the lead role in Verdi's Aïda after Renata Tebaldi (who had been cast in the role) became unavailable. Maria and Meneghini expected a huge triumph, but when Aïda opened on April 12, 1950, she received a polite reception and lukewarm reviews. It wasn't until 7 December 1950 that La Scala surrendered to Maria Callas. She had opened the 1950/1 season with I Vespri Siciliani and was greeted with thunderous applause and enthusiastic reviews.

In July of 1952, Maria signed an exclusive recording contract with Walter Legge, director of EMI. A few days after the contract was signed, Legge and his wife, the great German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, went to see Maria in La Traviata at the Arena in Verona, Italy. Following the performance, Schwarzkopf offered Maria one of the most moving tributes she had ever received: Elisabeth would never sing La Traviata again. When asked to explain her decision, Schwarzkopf replied, "What is the sense in doing a part that another contemporary artist can do to perfection?"

November 17, 1955, was the day that established Maria's image as a tigress. She had just finished performing Madama Butterfly at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was backstage celebrating her triumph. As the audience continued to applaud, Maria was approached by Marshal Stanley Pringle, who presented Maria with a summons to court. She was being sued by a former manager, Eddie Bagarozy, on behalf of a 1947 contract that named Bagarozy as Maria's sole representative. Though the two had not been in contact for several years, Bagarozy claimed that he was entitled to a percentage of Maria's fees and the expenses he was supposed to have incurred on her behalf - a total of $300,000. The case was settled out of court on 7 November 1957. The terms were not made public.

Maria finally made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 28 October 1956 as Norma in Bellini's Norma. Unfortunately for Maria, Time magazine had done an interview with Maria's mother, the woman Maria blamed for robbing her of her childhood. Maria had last seen her mother in Mexico in 1950 and had vowed that she would never meet or speak with her again (a promise she took with her to her death). The Time article portrayed Maria as an ungrateful daughter and the New York public reacted coldly when Maria's Met debut came. In fact, the legendary soprano Zinka Milanov received more applause when she took her seat than Maria did when she made her entrance. By the end of the final act, though, the New York public surrendered and Maria received 16 curtain calls.

The next time Maria made headlines was when she was scheduled to sing in a gala performance of Norma at the Rome Opera House on 2 January 1958. The performance was to be attended by Italy's president, Giovanni Gronchi and his wife. Unfortunately, Maria had seen in the New Year by drinking champagne and staying up very late at the fashionable Rome nightclub, Circolo degli Sacchi. When Maria awoke, less than thirty-six hours before curtain-up, her voice had gone. She couldn't even whisper, let alone sing. The Opera House was informed that a replacement would be needed. There was no understudy and a cancellation would have been disastrous. What happened instead was worse than a disaster. Maria, against the orders of her doctors, went on stage but it was clear from her first note that her voice was in ruins. At the end of the first act, half the audience jeered while the other half sat in shocked silence. Maria escaped through a back exit and an announcement had to be made that the performance simply could not go on. The public was furious but Maria was relieved to receive a phone call from Signora Gronchi assuring her that neither she nor her husband had been offended.

On 3 September 1959, Maria announced that she would be parting from her husband. She began a 9 year love affair with Aristotle Onassis. The couple was expected to marry but in the end, Aristotle married Jackie Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's widow, on 20 October 1968. His death on 15 March 1975, is considered to be one of the major factors behind Maria's death.

In the meantime, Maria was performing Medea at La Scala on 11 December 1961. She was not in good voice and during her first act duet with Jason (performed by Jon Vickers), the audience began hissing. Maria ignored the crowd until she reached the point in the text where she denounces Jason with a word "Crudel!" (Cruel man!). After the first "Crudel!" she stopped singing. She looked out into the crowd and directed her second "Crudel!" directly to the public. She paused and started again with the words "Ho dato tutto a te" (I gave everything to you) and shook her fist at the gallery. The audience stopped hissing and Maria received a huge ovation at the end.

In May of 1965, Maria's voice once again became the subject of dispute. She was performing Norma at the Paris Opera with Fiorenza Cossotto as Adalgisa. Cossotto knew that Maria was exhausted and her voice was weak so Cossotto intentionally held on to notes longer than Maria could. On the night of the final Norma on 29 May, Maria was at her weakest. To make things worse, Cossotto treated their big duet like a duel. At the end, when the curtain came down, Maria collapsed and was carried unconscious to her dressing room.

In June 1969, Maria began work on a film of Medea (not Cherubini's opera or Euripide's tragedy but the myth of Medea) with Pier Paolo Pasolini. She hardly sang but still worked very hard. So hard that one day she fainted after running on a dry riverbed in the sun for a particular shot. Unfortunately for Maria, the film was not a success.

By 1970, Maria's singing career had come to a quick halt. On May 25, she was rushed to the hospital and it was announced that she had tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates. It seems unlikely that she actually attempted suicide, though by this time she was known to take more sleeping-tablets to find sleep and more barbiturates to find peace.

In 1973, she began a comeback tour with Giuseppe di Stefano. For the first time in eight years, Maria Callas was singing in public. It was clear from the first concert in Hamburg on 25 October that the tour would be an artistic disaster. Callas and di Stefano had as an accompanist, Ivor Newton, who was well into his eighties. During the tour, Newton began having dizzy spells in the street and fantasizing about his death. He once said to Robert Sutherland, who was turning the pages for Newton, "If I have a heart attack while Maria is singing a high note, you are to push me off my stool and take over as though nothing had happened." Maria refused to fire Newton, fearing that doing so would probably kill him. Sutherland eventually took over as accompanist when the tour travelled to the U.S. The final concert took place on November 11, 1974, in the city of Sapporo in northern Japan. That was the last place on earth that would hear Maria sing.

On 16 September 1977, Maria woke up late in her home in Paris. She had breakfast in bed, then got up and started towards the bathroom. There was a piercing pain in her left side and she collapsed. She was put back into bed and drank some strong coffee. After failing to get a hold of any medical help, they called Maria's butler's doctor who started out immediately for Maria's residence. She was dead before he arrived. Her funeral was held on September 20th. She was cremated and her remains kept at the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris. In the spring of 1979, the ashes were taken to Greece and were scattered in the Aegean.

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