Portrait of Maria Callas (1923 - 1977)
Portrait of Maria Callas (1923 - 1977) © Getty

Maria Callas : 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the infamous diva

The timeless and unrivaled Maria Callas. Half a century after her passing, the singer is still in the limelight, leading us to believe we know already all there is about the Divina assoluta. And yet…

Both fragile and yet seemingly unshakeable on stage, Maria Callas is unquestionably an operatic diva and legend of the 20th century. Love it or hate it, her voice leaves no listener indifferent.

What remains to discover about the singer? Perhaps these ten (little) lesser-known facts, hidden behind the grand escapades and scandals, will help better retrace step by step the life of this incredible soprano.

The ugly duckling

The soprano's childhood has been widely detailed, including by the singer herself. Raised by an absent father and an unstable mother, wild-tempered and frustrated, incapable of affection but constantly exploiting her daughter's musical talents.

Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos was born 2 December 1923 in Manhattan, New York, from a Greek family. Her earliest memories are tainted by a troubled childhood. Overweight and shortsighted, the young Maria is convinced her mother prefers her sister, Jackie. It is only through singing that Maria manages to overcome her physical hang-ups.

De gauche à droite : Maria Callas, sa mère Evanghelia et sa soeur Jackie. A Athènes, en 1940.
De gauche à droite : Maria Callas, sa mère Evanghelia et sa soeur Jackie. A Athènes, en 1940. © AFP  /  Leemage

In the heart of Verona's arenas

It is in Verona, Italy, that young singer lands her first title role, that of La Gioconda in the eponymous opera by Ponchielli.  Verona is the home of the love story between Romeo and Juliette, but also Maria Callas and her future husband.

Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an Italian business man, is much older than Maria but falls nevertheless helplessly in love with the young singer. From that moment on, Meneghini never leaves her side, as her lover then husband, her confident and her manager.

Juin 1947 : Maria Callas en chemin vers l'Italie, photographiée à bord du transatlantique.
Juin 1947 : Maria Callas en chemin vers l'Italie, photographiée à bord du transatlantique. © AFP

Maria and her voices

Encouraged not only by Meneghini but also the conductor Tullio Serafin (another acquaintance from Verona), Maria Callas slowly conquered every stage on the Italian peninsula. Venice, Trieste, Genoa, Turin, Pisa, Florence, and Rome: the soprano was everywhere and interpreted every role imaginable.

Her ability to interpret a wide variety of different roles truly set Maria Callas apart, establishing her as a phenomenon, an operatic diva. She was able to fully exploit the dramatic strength of her low vocal range as much as the high and bright notes of her high range. In 1949, she astounded critics by interpreting in the same week two very different roles: that of Brünnhilde, powerful goddess and warrior in Wagner's Die Walküre, and the delicate and romantic Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani.

Icon but no role model

With her unique sound and style, Maria Callas overthrew the traditional and well-established codes of the lyrical scene. Alongside her vocal virtuosity, she brought to the operatic genre a theatrical dimension, an attention to the artistic performance and stage presence that would later become the norm against which artists would be measured.

However, any and all artists who dared to imitate the great soprano's style would run the risk of coming up short. There was only one Callas capable of such eloquence, and similarly her vocal style. The Diva's technique wass far from exemplary, and many have since remarked the risks she took in her singing, contributing greatly to the deterioration of her voice.

Maria Callas dans "Médée" au Convent Garden, Londres, le 17 juin 1959.
Maria Callas dans "Médée" au Convent Garden, Londres, le 17 juin 1959. © AFP  /  Leemage

Her first time at La Scala

Maria Callas was invited at La Scala for the first time in 1950, asked at the last minute to replace the sopraon Renata Tebaldi in the title role of Aida by Verdi. Her performance, however, was far from the initially anticipated success: the public was unenthusiastic and the following critical reviews were generally negative. Above all else, her voice was deemed uneven and forced.

A disappointing first time that would soon be forgotten. The following year, Maria Callas was invited yet again by the Milanese theater for a production of Verdi's Les Vêpres Siciliennes; this time, her performance is deemed a triumph. Until the end of the 1950s, the soprano was a veritable mainstay of La Scala, highly prestigious and demanding European institution.

Milan, Théâtre de la Scala, 19 avril 1950 : la soprano Maria Callas se prépare pour son rôle dans l'opéra "Aïda".
Milan, Théâtre de la Scala, 19 avril 1950 : la soprano Maria Callas se prépare pour son rôle dans l'opéra "Aïda". © AFP  /  ARCHIVI FARABOLA

My fair lady

Thus began a new chapter in the life of Maria Callas, one that sparked much discussion: her physical transformation. In an incredibly short time (less than two years), the soprano lost more than thirty kilos.

Her female role model? The actress Audrey Hepburn. And much like her character in My fair lady, Maria Callas had her own "Pygmalion", a Professor Higgins there to perfect her look and gestures: film director Luchino Visconti. In the early 1950s, he too was taken by the Diva's on-stage charisma, and equally taken by her newly found hourglass figure. 

From this collaboration between Callas and Visconti were born five operatic productions, most notably the legendary production of Verdi's La Traviata at La Scala in 1955. A new era had arrived for female opera singers: physical beauty was now of the utmost importance, a cinematic beauty as elegant as Maria when interpreting Violetta, wearing an exquisite Liberty dress.

A gauche : Audrey Hepburn en 1961 dans le film "Breakfast at Tiffany's". A droite : Maria Callas à Londres, en 1959.
A gauche : Audrey Hepburn en 1961 dans le film "Breakfast at Tiffany's". A droite : Maria Callas à Londres, en 1959. © AFP

Maria on the big screen

Maria Callas was a diva in every sense of the word, even its most negative connotations. Her tantrums and outbursts in front of journalists are countless. Unhealthily obsessed with the media, she collected every article, every review mentionning her name, ultimately adding to the cult surrounding her persona. Unashamedly open with journalists, she shared even the most intimate details of her childhood and her romantic adventures.

However, the singer was on occasion caught off guard by the intrusions of the paparazzi, or a particularly scathing review from critics. It was at this time that Maria Callas's voice began to lose its strength and to deteriorate. In the 1960s, completely absorbed by her amorous relationship with the Greek billionaire Aristote Onassis, the soprano had all but entirely given up singing and sought to discover other domains, such as cinema alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini, though the experience would be short lived.

Maria Callas sur le tournage du film "Médée" de Pier Paolo Pasolini, tourné en 1969.
Maria Callas sur le tournage du film "Médée" de Pier Paolo Pasolini, tourné en 1969.  © Getty

Carmen, but never on stage

Maria Callas's Carmen, recorded alongside Georges Prêtre in 1964 is to this day considered an essential reference. Interestingly, this is not the Diva at the peak of her career but already the Callas in decline, her voice frayed due to being overworked and her rapid weight loss. This voice however, dark, raspy and dangerous, fits perfectly with the character of Carmen: passionate and unpredictable, determined and bohemian. Unfortunately, Callas never brought to life a physical interpretation of this character, never singing Bizet's opera on stage in full.

Ten years of solitude

After 1965, Callas was never seen on an opera stage again. Though she performed a final tour with her old music partner (and new lover) Giuseppe di Stefano, and her stage presence still fascinated the public, her legendary voice was unfortunately gone forever.

"Since I lost my voice I want to die. Without my voice, what am I? Nothing", she once confided to her sister Jackie. Maria Callas spent her final years alone, a recluse in her Paris apartment, mourning the death of of Aristote Onassis, the lover she never married. She passed away in Paris on 16 September 1977.

Mystery surrounding her death

Soon after the death of the iconic singer, a pulmonary embolism was thought to be the principal cause. Thirty years later however, in 2010, two Italian doctors refuted this diagnosis, claiming a degenerative vocal chord illness was to blame. A diagnosis that closed once and for all a long series of hypotheses and wild theories: the Diva had committed suicide, had been assassinated... As with all legends, Maria Callas never ceases to this day to intrigue and attract attention, even after her death.

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