Maria Callas: The Most Famous Soprano of the 20th Century | History Hit

Maria Callas: The Most Famous Soprano of the 20th Century

Maria Callas in the Netherlands, 1973
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Greek-American soprano Maria Callas (1923–77) was one of the most famous opera singers of her generation. Known for her charismatic, soaring voice and evocative interpretations of a number of iconic roles, Callas’ repertoire ranged from serious classical operas by composers such as Verdi and Puccini to the bel canto works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Both immensely popular and musically respected, Callas was nicknamed ‘La Divina’, The Divine One.

However, in spite of her enormous professional success, Callas’ own life was marred with strained familial and romantic relationships, professional rivalries and struggles with her voice. By the time she died, alone in Paris in 1977, she had largely retired from opera and had long suffered from ill health.

Here’s a rundown of Maria Callas’ extraordinary life.

She was born into a poor family

Maria Callas was born Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City in December 1923. Her parents, George and Evangelia, were Greek immigrants who had shortened her last name to Callas by the time Maria was christened.

Maria’s mother was convinced that her third child would be a boy, and was so disappointed at the birth of another daughter that she refused to even look at Maria for four days.

She moved back to Athens as a teenager

Callas started taking piano lessons aged 7, and quickly proved talented at singing music with dramatic flair. Though she felt overshadowed by her older sister Jackie, who was perceived to be more beautiful and charismatic, Callas was pushed towards singing by her mother.

Maria Callas in Venice

Image Credit: Nicola Quirico, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, when Callas was a teenager, her parents separated and Callas, her mother and sister moved back to Athens. There, Callas studied at the prestigious Athens Conservatory, where she made her debut in 1939 in a school production of Cavalleria Rusticana, for which her performance was formally honoured by the conservatory.

Her professional debut was in Athens

In 1941, Callas made her professional debut in a small role with the Royal Opera of Athens in Boccaccio. It was later recalled that Maria’s performing ability, even in rehearsal, was exemplary, and other singers tried to prevent her from appearing. Later the same year, she took on a major role in Tosca, for which she received glowing reviews.

Callas continued to perform in Greece extensively. By the time she left the country for the US in September 1945, just short of her 22nd birthday, she had given 56 performances in 7 operas and had appeared in around 20 recitals. She also began to be called the nickname ‘La Divina’, and rival soprano Anna Remoundou even asked a colleague of Maria, ‘Could it be that there is something divine and we haven’t realised it?’

Her first venture in the US was unsuccessful

Callas returned to the US in 1945 to audition for a number of prestigious opera houses. An audition at the Metropolitan Opera led to brilliant feedback, but an argument about her contract meant that she didn’t ultimately take on a role.

In 1946, she was again offered a role at the opera house in Chicago, but the company folded before opening. However, this led Callas to an opportunity to audition for an opera at the Arena di Verona. During her audition, retired tenor and impresario Giovanni Zenatello was so excited by Callas’ rendition of the act 4 duet that he jumped out of his seat and joined her. It was in this role that she made her Italian debut in 1947.

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She met her first husband in Italy

In Verona, Callas met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an older, wealthy industrialist. The two courted and were married in 1949. Meneghihi assumed control of Callas’ career for a decade afterwards, until their marriage broke up. Indeed, during the prime of Callas’ career, she went by the name Maria Meneghihi Callas.

The ten-year span of their marriage saw Callas perform in Turin, Florence, Rome, Buenos Aires, Naples and Mexico City, where her strong and theatrical soprano voice meant that she was quickly thrust to the forefront of contemporary opera talent. Her British debut came in 1952, while her US debut was in 1954: in both countries, she was adored. Moreover, her operatic style meant that 19th-century bel canto works, which had otherwise been dropped from standard repertoires, were revived.

She developed a reputation as a diva

Callas’ fame increased, and with it, her reputation as a temperamental, demanding diva. An unflattering picture of her appearing to snarl was published, and she earned the nickname ‘The Tigress’. However, of audience members’ jeers, Callas responded that hissing was part of the ‘battlefield’ of opera.

During the early 1950s, a rivalry allegedly arose between Callas and Renata Tebaldi, an Italian soprano, whose voices were very different. Tebaldi once said, ‘I have one thing that Callas doesn’t have: a heart’. In response, Time magazine said that Callas quipped that comparing her with Tebaldi was like ‘comparing Champagne with Cognac…No… with Coca Cola’.

Maria Callas as Giulia in the Opera ‘La Vestale’, by Gaspare Spontini, 1954

Image Credit: Teatro alla Scala, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Spats with opera houses and managers were also extensively reported. Most significantly, Callas’ strained relationship with her mother was widely commented upon by the tabloids, who published unpleasant comments they made about one another.

She was pressured to lose weight

Between 1953 and 1954, Callas lost almost 80 pounds, which turned her into what conductor Rescigno called ‘possibly the most beautiful lady on the stage’. She was followed by rumour as to how she’d lost the weight: some suspected a tapeworm, while pasta company Panatella Mills claimed she lost weight by eating their ‘physiologic pasta’, prompting Callas to file a lawsuit.

Callas never lost her slim figure. However, some believe that the loss of body mass made it difficult for Callas to support her voice, which in turn triggered vocal strain that was to become increasingly apparent over coming years.

Her voice declined in quality

Callas’ voice declined in quality as she grew older. Many singers believed this was because of several heavy roles she undertook early on in her career, while Callas’ husband Meneghini wrote that she experienced early onset menopause, which can significantly alter the voice.

Others cited her weight loss. However, a study from 2010 showed that Callas was very ill at the time of her death, likely with dermatomyositis, a rare, connective tissue disease that causes a failure of the muscles and ligaments, including the larynx. This would have had a profound impact upon her voice.

Maria Callas in 1959

Image Credit: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

She had an affair

In 1957, while still married to Meneghini, Callas met Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The pair began an affair, and in 1959, Callas left her husband. It seems that Onassis appeared to offer Callas a way out of her career that was becoming increasingly overshadowed by scandals and her declining voice. Callas herself claimed that she was trying to ‘fulfil [her] life as a woman’.

Onassis and Callas’ relationship ended in 1968, when Onassis left Callas for Jacqueline Kennedy. Nonetheless, the pair continued to meet in secret in Paris, where they resumed their clandestine affair.

She died in isolation in Paris

Callas spent her last years largely alone in Paris, where she died of a heart attack in 1977. After first having her ashes interred at St Stephen’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Paris, they were later scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, according to her wishes.

Lucy Davidson