Maria Callas – the operatic icon who transcends time

Maria Callas embodies the drama, the passion and, ultimately, the tragedy that makes opera what it is.

Of the many dozens of artists profiled in this feature over the years, can any, I wonder, lay greater claim to truly iconic status – in the sense approaching the word’s true meaning – than Maria Callas? She’s an operatic singer who transcended, and 46 years after her death continues to transcend, the boundaries of her small corner of the cultural world. Her voice was, and is (thanks to a rich recorded legacy), immediately recognisable like few others’. Her face, similarly immediately recognisable, has become emblematic of the operatic diva. Indeed, Callas is for many the quintessence of opera: she embodies the drama, the passion and, ultimately, the tragedy that makes opera what it is.

Even in the studio Callas can leave you on the edge of your seat as she pushes the boundaries of what the voice can do

This is in no small part down to drama, passion and tragedy in her own life, gleefully amplified and embellished by a gossip-hungry press: the supposed run-ins with opera-house managements and headline-grabbing cancellations; the abandonment of a stable marriage in favour of a fiery relationship with fast-living shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis; the steep decline in her vocal health that followed; and the early death, aged just 53.

It’s all too tempting to project Callas’s life on to the dramas she portrays on record. To do so, however, is to risk underplaying the astonishing achievements of her career. Indeed, the image of La Divina as celebrity risks overshadowing the hard work that defined not only her early years but also her career throughout the 1950s, the decade of her greatest achievements both in the theatre and on record – a period, it’s worth remembering, that ran from her late twenties to her late thirties. Callas was quite simply one of the most prodigious vocal talents of the 20th century, with a career whose wealth of triumph and incident can only be most superficially glossed over in an article of this length.

She was just 13 when she began her formal vocal training in Athens, claiming to be 16 to gain entry to the National Conservatory, before two years later moving to the Athens Conservatoire to study – with utmost diligence and hard work – with Elvira de Hidalgo, who introduced her to bel canto repertoire. She sang her first Tosca aged 18. By 1947 she was singing Gioconda in Verona opposite Richard Tucker and with Tullio Serafin conducting, and Serafin invited her to sing Isolde in Venice a few months later, in December. In January 1949 she alternated Brünnhilde in Die Walküre (in Italian) and Elvira in I puritani, again with Serafin, in what marked a turning point in her career – and it was certainly a noteworthy achievement for a singer still only in her twenties!

Her first records, 78s made for Cetra, followed later that year and it wasn’t long before she was snapped up by Walter Legge at EMI, for which she recorded more than 20 different operas – some more than once – just as the LP era was beginning in earnest. With guidance from Serafin, though, she moved away from heavier roles to concentrate on bel canto repertoire, which she is credited with saving from being the preserve of decorous coloratura sopranos.

Through both her remarkable ability to convey specific character through a voice of astonishing colouristic range and the ability to combine impeccable coloratura technique with heft she brought gravitas to works whose dramatic kernel had largely been obscured. And it was, according to several sources, the related search for theatrical truth that inspired her to lose weight dramatically in the first years of the ’50s – a sign as much of her commitment to her art as of the expectations of the time.

She is no less compelling in the many Verdi roles she recorded, or in Puccini. Her most famous recording from this period – and perhaps her most famous complete opera recording of all – is arguably that of Tosca, a 1953 set that for a long time was Gramophone’s reference for the opera, despite initially being compared unfavourably with the 1952 recording by Callas’s great contemporary and (as the press would have it, at least) sworn rival Renata Tebaldi. As recent discussions in these pages have shown (see Classics Reconsidered on the Callas set – 1/19; and Mark Pullinger’s Tosca Collection – 8/22), the Callas-Tebaldi debate is far from over.

Indeed, judged against Tebaldi’s voice (or that of any number of other great sopranos), Callas’s itself is not the most appealing: often clotted, sometimes wild, with a pronounced beat at the top even on earlier recordings. But compelling operatic performances have never been just about beauty or perfection, and even in the studio Callas can leave you on the edge of your seat as she pushes the boundaries of what the voice can do.

Anyone who takes a while to warm to Callas and her art is in good company: John Ardoin, co-author of one of the first major studies of the singer (Callas: The Art and the Life – The Great Years, 1974), begins his account of her artistry by declaring that he gave away his copy of her 1953 Lucia di Lammermoor after just one hearing. When he admitted this to Callas herself, she was unsurprised. ‘Generally, I upset people the first time they hear me,’ he reports her saying, ‘but I am usually able to convince them of what I am doing.’

Defining moments

•1923 – Beginnings in America

Born Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou on December 2 in New York, where her Greek parents immigated to earlier the same year. Father changes family name to Callas six years later; she starts piano lessons aged eight

•1937 – Move to Greece

Moves with her mother and sister to Athens; begins studies at National Conservatory aged 13

•1939 – Studies continue

Begins studies with Elvira de Hidalgo and makes stage debut as Santuzza in student production of Cavalleria rusticana

•1947 – Italian debut

Meets future husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini; makes Italian debut with La Gioconda in Verona, conducted by Tullio Serafin

•1949 – Astonishing feats

In the space of one month, she performs both Brünnhilde and Elvira (I puritani), marking a breakthrough in her career

•1952 – Starts work with EMI

Signs contract with EMI; following year, makes her first recording for the company – Lucia di Lammermoor

•1956 – New York debut

Makes debut as Norma at Metropolitan Opera, where she would have a troubled relationship with general manager Rudolf Bing

•1958 – High-profile cancellation

Suffers huge press backlash after withdrawing from gala performance of Norma in Rome after Act 1

•1959 – The Onassis affair

Begins relationship with Aristotle Onassis after being invited to a party on his yacht; starts to cut down her operatic appearances

•1964 – Final operatic performance

July: royal gala performance of Tosca with Tito Gobbi at Royal Opera House, London; parts of same production staged in early 1964 were filmed – only extant footage of her on operatic stage

•1974 – The last concert

November: gives final public performance in Sapporo, Japan, at end of tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano

•1977 – Dies aged 53

September 16, Paris, of suspected heart attack


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