Saturday 23 February 2019

Mary Kenny: The diva who starved her voice

Heartbreak and weightloss turned Maria Callas's life into a Greek tragedy

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Next Saturday, September 16, her adoring fans will gather together in many parts of the world to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas, whom they regard at the "greatest soprano ever".

Callas died alone in Paris in September 1977 at the age of 53, and, like one of her own romantic heroines, her last years were often lonely and sad. Her death was attributed to heart failure, or, more probably, a pulmonary embolism, but some claimed that she took her own life - she used the drug methaqualone to help her sleep and that could have contributed to her demise.

Yet Robert Sutherland, who was her final musical accompanist, and wrote a memoir of his time with Callas, Diaries of a Friendship, says that she would never have turned to suicide. She was religious, he says: she always carried a picture of the Virgin Mary with her, and propped it up before her as she prepared for a performance. She told him: "I have been touched by the hand of God." She believed that her gift came from God and that it was her destiny to assume the power "to give something to the public". She certainly did. And still does. Hear her sing Casta Diva on YouTube, and the gift still goes on giving. (There are also fine re-mastered versions of her greatest performances being reissued for the anniversary.)

She was known as 'La Divina', but her voice, among musicologists, was sometimes discussed controversially. I heard the renowned opera critic Philip Hope-Wallace say: "She sings like a cat - though she is still divine." Others criticised her for "harsh sounds", and being "wobbly on high notes".

There were many who thought she suffered a "vocal decline" after she lost a great deal of weight - slimming down from over 14 stone to about eight-and-a-half stone. Avril Gray, a retired Royal Opera singer of distinction, says that it is "never a good idea to lose too much weight as a singer: we need it to earth us down, to contain our instrument within it." Callas, says Madame Gray (with whom I'm fortunate to have singing lessons for reasons of speech and breathing, rather than any diva ambitions), "had a marvellous voice as a generously-figured young singer… what we would have called bonny and curvaceous. When she became more international she was persuaded to slim down. The voice became more strident and lost the beauty of the former body resonance." Pavarotti, perhaps the greatest tenor in our lifetimes, "housed" the great voice in a big body, full of resonance.

But "there was also the emotional factor of the unsatisfactory relationship with Onassis." Surely Maria Callas's love affair with Aristotle Onassis was a Greek tragedy. She had been married to the much older Italian industrialist, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, at the age of 25, but the marriage was never sexually fulfilling for Maria, according to her biographers. She met Onassis when she was 33, and he became the love of her life. Their relationship was passionate and Maria felt that he truly fulfilled her as a woman.

Yet Onassis was a faithless alpha-male who often saw women as trophies: and when he left Maria to marry the ultimate trophy, Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of JFK, Callas felt broken and abandoned.

What was worse, he had forced her into an abortion when she conceived a much-wanted baby at the age of 41. She had been his lover for seven years, but, although they had both divorced their spouses, Onassis refused to marry her. When she told him, to her delight, that she was pregnant, he replied, "Maria, you are 41 and we are not married." According to Anne Edwards' biography of Callas, he then arranged for her to terminate the pregnancy at a Paris hospital, under the guise that it was a hernia operation. She had a horrible time, "bled profusely and suffered post-operative depression". Onassis sent her a pearl and diamond necklace as a consolation prize.

When Onassis's son, Alexander, died subsequently in an aircraft accident, did it cross his mind that the child he and Maria might have had could have been his consolation? He went into a decline, himself, after that. Despite all, Maria went on loving him after his marriage to Jackie crumbled (it is satisfying to learn that Jackie relieved him of quite a bit of his dosh).

In her last years, though her voice was enfeebled, Callas gave some moving recitals and Master Classes (some televised). She had once had a reputation for tantrums and prima-donna behaviour, but Robert Sutherland found her unfailingly kind and considerate in her last years. And always meticulous about preparation.

Whether Callas was the greatest ever diva is open to dispute, but she did bring something very special to bel canto: magnetism, personality, sensuality, drama. She inhabited her parts more like a great actress than a singing performer. Listen to her sing the elegiac J'ai Perdu mon Eurydice or L'amour est un Oiseau Rebelle and you'll hear that emotional depth, and sense of truth, she brings to a part.

Maria Callas was fat, plain and bespectacled as a child, growing up in a struggling Greek family in New York, and she blossomed into a slim beauty. But maybe it wasn't the dieting but the emptying of her heart that truly affected the voice.


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