Saturday 20 October 2018

The mysteries of Maria Callas

Diva: Maria Callas arriving in Paris in 1958. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Diva: Maria Callas arriving in Paris in 1958. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

George Hamilton

The term "prima donna" could have been invented for Maria Callas. First lady of opera, for sure, at the height of her career she also exhibited a temperament that fitted with the more negative use of the title. "I will always be as difficult as necessary to achieve the best," she once said by way of explanation.

Like her contemporary, the great tenor Mario Lanza, she was the American offspring of European immigrants.

From the very outset, she seemed destined for a life of some controversy, an aspect alluded to on her passing 40 years ago this year.

The Spectator magazine noted that "in her death, as in her life, journalists and critics seemed unable, or unwilling, to separate fact from fiction".

Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria (or was it Anna Maria Sophia Cecilia?) Kalogeropoulou (shortened to Callas by her father) was born to Greek parents in New York on this day in 1923. Or was she?

That's what purports to be her birth certificate states, though Maria herself maintained she was born on December 3, while her mother insisted it was December 4.

They would later become estranged, Maria blaming her parent for an unhappy childhood. But as a teenager it was with her mother that she settled back in Greece when her parents' marriage disintegrated.

There she had her formal musical education, and made her professional debut as Beatrice in Franz von Suppé's Boccaccio with the Athens opera, not long after she had turned 17.

She was clearly a star in the making. Maria burnished her reputation in Tosca, Fidelio, Cavalleria Rusticana.

Following the end of hostilities in World War II, Maria returned to America, and here the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred again.

She auditioned for the Met and, it was reported, turned down roles in Fidelio (she didn't want to sing it in English rather than the original German), and Madama Butterfly (she felt she was too big for the main role). The Met, though, said she was never offered a contract.

There was nothing for it but to go back to Europe where audiences couldn't get enough of her. A steady stream of successes followed. By 1951, she had scaled the summit, opening the season at La Scala, Milan.

The Met wouldn't get to hear her in person until 1956, when she arrived as one of opera's greatest stars to take the title role in Bellini's Norma.

This didn't go well, as Time magazine had done a hatchet job on her, interviewing the mother with whom she'd had no contact for six years.

There were boos from the audience who didn't liked what they'd read, nor appreciated the diva's style. It didn't stop a round of curtain calls.

Maria remained headline news throughout, and indeed beyond, what was a relatively short career - she was only 41 when she made her last appearance on stage, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Her voice was no longer what it used to be. One theory had it that a constant battle with her weight had diminished her ability to control her breathing.

Her fame earned her a shot at an acting career but Medea - the 1969 film in which she starred - was not a success.

An affair with Aristotle Onassis kept her in the gossip columns, and though he would marry Jacqueline Kennedy, he was never far from Maria's thoughts. It's been suggested that she never got over his death in 1975.

Mystery followed her to the end. When Maria died two years later, aged 53, it was reported that a heart attack was the cause, but there was no autopsy before her cremation.

Whatever the fact, and whatever the fiction, Maria Callas remains one of the most popular of all of opera's stars.

In 1959, in the American magazine Life, she wrote: "I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not the devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged."

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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