Professional name of Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos (1923-77), American operatic soprano, the preeminent prima donna of her day, and the first modern soprano to revive forgotten operas of the bel canto repertoire. Born in New York City, she moved to Athens at age 13, making her first major appearance there in 1941 as Tosca. Callas began her career in dramatic roles such as Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Aida. After 1949, encouraged at the La Scala opera by her mentor, the Italian conductor Tullio Serafin, she turned toward coloratura bel canto roles; they included Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor and many roles in long-unperformed operas. Praised for the distinctive color of her voice, her dramatic presence, and her careful musicianship, she sang principally at La Scala, the Rome and Paris operas, Covent Garden in London, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Maria Callas (real name Kalogeropoulos) was born in New York on the fourth of December 1923. Her parents were Greek emigrants. As a small child Maria acquired an ear for music by listening to gramophone records and radio programmes. Piano and singing lessons followed.
The family at that time was in difficult financial circumstances. Her father was forced to give up his drugstore and found a badly paid job in the pharmaceutical industry. In Greece the standard of living was lower than in the United States and, also because of marriage problems, mother Kalogeropoulos decided to return to Greece with her two daughters. The money Maria's father sent over enabled them to lead a satisfactory life and it could pay for Maria's singing studies at one of the academies of music in Athens. Her tuition under a famous singing master took from morning till night. After several school performances she was offered a part in the Royal Opera in Suppé's Boccaccio. This formed the start of her professional career.
In 1940 Greece became engaged in the Second World War, as a consequence whereof the monthly payments from America stalled. The position Maria had with the Opera brought some compensation, and from time to time she performed for the enemy troops. In 1942 she replaced a soprano at the opera who was taken ill. With this part of Tosca she got her first publicity. In October 1944 Athens was liberated by the British Forces, for whom she worked as an interpreter for some time. Because the situation in Greece deteriorated, caused by the civil war which broke out in December 1944, and because of her bad relationship with her mother, Maria decided to return to her father in New York in September 1945. Life in New York was quite luxurious compared to life in Athens, but immensely difficult for an up-and-coming singer. The United States were over-run by singers from Italy, so competition was heavy. What should have been her debut in Chicago one day was blown off because the company went bankrupt. In the meantime her mother came back to New York, and with her the family problems. So when Maria was offered a contract for La Gioconda in Verona, she jumped at the occasion and went to Italy. The journey there was paid for with borrowed money. In Italy she met with her future husband Meneghini, as well as with her mentor Tullio Serafin and the obtrusive Italian press. Her sensational performance in Wagner's Walküre and two days later in Bellini's I Puritani received worldwide publicity. In Italy from then on she was a star and she received many offers from the gramophone record companies. Her records made her famous and popular the world over.
The press haunted her constantly and invaded her private life; her divorce from Menighini and her affair with Onassis were covered by the press all over the world. Her affair with Onassis was not only tragic to her personally, but also disastrous to her career. She contracted a throat disease which caused her voice to lose quality, but she did not take it seriously. After Onassis' marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy Maria broke down. She made several disappointing attempts to pick up her career, but her life had lost its sense to her. Her death on the 16th of September 1977 brought to an end to the tragic life of this fascinating artist.
It is over 20 years since the death of Maria Callas and she is still regarded as one of the greatest singing actresses of all time.
"She shone for all too brief a while in the world of opera, like a vivid flame attracting the attention of the whole world, and she had a strange magic which was all her own. I always thought she was immortal-and she is." Tito Gobbi
Callas changed the sound of her voice for every role she sang and it ranged from black in 'Medea' to white in 'La Sonnambula', although one could never mistake her for anyone else. She also thought much about expression, what the character was trying to say at each point in the opera:
"We must not forget that the composer drew his inspiration from a script- a drama-and that the music sprang from every word of that drama. The notes weren't simply chosen as ornamentation. Every note and every phrase has a precise meaning, and it varies enormously, as in a conversation. Wouldn't it be horrible to hear someone express varied sentiments without ever changing the tone of voice?" Maria Callas
Callas' favourite roles were revealed to be Norma and Violetta, in 'Traviata', when she was interviewed by David Frost in 1970 (269KB wav format).
Callas and Norma
Norma was the role Callas sang most often in her career, over 80 times, and it
was also one of her favourites. She first sang the role in 1948 and last in 1965.
Her earlier performances of the role were somewhat powerful in content, perhaps
even over- powering, as Callas concentrated on the emotional aspects of rage and
jealousy. Gradually she developed the varied emotional content of the role and so
we had a fully finished Norma, by turns tender and loving, raging and cursing, calm
and serene, going to pieces. The character showed all her aspects as lover, friend,
mother, priestess and victim. When I first read about Norma I noted how
composers such as Wagner loved it and thought of it as a great work. Then I
heard a modern live recording of the work and wondered what the fuss was
about. Then I heard Callas sing it and I understood. Callas brought the role to life
in a manner few sopranos can hope to match. She didn't just sing the role, but
acted it out as well. Most sopranos concentrate their full resources on the vocal
demands only. Callas' final Normas were probably her most personal, because
like Norma, she was losing a battle, but for her it was to keep her voice. She was
reportedly very tender with the children and, it is known, she had been wishing for
a child of her own. It was agreed that, although her voice was not strong, her final
Normas were the most moving of her career.
Callas and Tosca
Tosca was Callas' earliest major role, her first performance was in 1941 in
Athens. She sang the role more than 50 times and recorded it twice. It was also
the last opera she appeared in. In spite of this she actually didn't care for the role
very much, Puccini was too modern for her tastes. She felt more at home in the
music of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. However she could be an outstanding Tosca,
her first recording is held to be one of the best commercially recorded opera sets
of all time and her performances at Covent Garden in 1964 were electrifying, as
the film of the second act shows. In her earlier performances she sometimes made
her mistake of being too powerful, especially in Rio in 1951, but this, of course,
Callas and Medea
Medea was Callas' darkest role, a witch who murders her children and burns her
lover's bride to death. The vocal tone is almost completly black throughout with
very rare patches of lightness (they occur when Medea is pleading with another
character, or when she expresses tenderness for her children, before the final
resolve to kill them). The dominant feelings of the role are jealousy, hate and
Callas and Lucia
Callas first sang Lucia in 1952. Her first contact with the role was in concert
where she sang the mad scene, minus the cabaletta, in a RAI Martini Rossi
Concert in Rome. Lucia became one of Callas' greatest successes. Opera lovers
had been used through the entire history of opera recordings to light, coloratura
sopranos like Mado Robin, Lily Pons, Amelita Galli- Curci and others singing
Lucia, but with Callas they heard the 19th Century tradition of a dramatic soprano
heroine again. Lucia was also the role in which Callas had the most amount of
vocal trouble, especially with the e flat of the mad scene. This led her to gradually
trim away many of the demands of the role in the form of cuts. This can be
especially heard if one compares her final studio recording of the role with the first,
her voice sounds far less comfortable in the final and the cuts are obvious. Callas
sang her final Lucias in Dallas in 1959.
Callas and Anna
Callas sang only two series of performances of Anna Bolena, but it is still
considered one of her greatest roles, such was the impression she made in it. She
performed the work in 1957 and 1958 at La Scala, Milan. The first performance
she gave was recorded and already the characterisation was complete, and she
had the advantage of looking the part as well. Callas sang the final scene only in
concerts given in Dallas in 1957 (rehearsal recorded) and London 1962
(performance recorded). She also recorded it for EMI in 1958.
When I work on a character, I always ask myself: "If I were in her place,
what would I do? One must transform oneself while remaining oneself.
From time to time I consult the historical context, but with prudence: when I
played Anne Boleyn, for instance, I wanted to read books, collect
information, and I realized that the real historical person had very litte to do
with the heroine of the opera! I think that it's instinct in the first place that
points us in the right direction-the music suffices to explain everything."
Maria Callas, Paris: February 1965.
Callas and Amina
Callas had first been attracted to the role of Amina in her student days in Athens,
where she was reportedly jealous that another soprano was chosen to sing part of
the role in a 'review' type performance. She first sang the role in 1955 at La Scala
under the direction of Visconti and the baton of Bernstein. The two men helped
create her Amina. Visconti gave her the graceful, ballerina posses and Bernstein the
19th Century prima donna vocal decorations. Callas presented a tender, shy,
affectionate girl who lives for love. She is crushed when her lover rejects her and
ecstatic when she gets him back. Visconti concieved for her a 19th Century Prima
Donna look and, in the viruoso finale, he turned on all the lights in the house. Before
Wagner's Bayreuth the auditorium lights had remained lit during performance.
Callas only performed this role in the one production, but it was seen in cities other
than Milan, such as Edinburgh. This marked a 'scandal' in Callas' career. She had
been engaged for four performances, which she sang in spite of doctor's orders.
Without consulting her La Scala announced a fifth performance, which she had no
contract for. Because of this, and because she was ill, she left for a holiday and La
Scala had to bring in Renata Scotto for the additional performance. La Scala made
no attempt to explain the situation and Callas was seen as having 'walked out',
when in fact she had honoured her contract, even though she was ill.
Callas and Lady Macbeth
Callas' Lady Macbeth was a series of might-have-beens. Although she sang it in
only one series of performances at La Scala, she was to have sung it more often.
Toscanini wanted to present her in it, but this didn't happen because of his ill
health. She was to have sung it in San Francisco, but was sacked when she
couldn't fullfill her contract due to ill health. Bing wanted her to sing it at the Met,
but his demands to alternate it with Lucia di Lammermoor were impossible for any
singer to meet. However she did sing all three of the Lady's arias at various
It is agreed amongst critics that she could change her voice into the ugly, demonic
voice that Verdi wanted for the role, as well as the dramatic talents he also
Callas and Butterfly
Callas' most famous assumption of this role was the EMI recording made at La
Scala in 1955 with Herbert von Karajan. Many critics have applauded this set as
being one of the best for this role. Callas produces probably the most touching
Butterfly on disk, as she changes her voice to suggest the 15 year old girl and the
too quickly matured broken hearted woman.
She also sang the role in Chicago later the same year. Unfortunately no recordings
were made, except for a brief silent film of two flashes from a rehearsal of Act I.
Callas did perform the arias in concert however, and a number of audio
recordings were made.
Callas and Leonora
Leonora was a role that Callas prepared on her own for her first performance.
Serafin, who had been helping her prepare roles as she took them up, was very
reluctant to help her prepare for a production he had nothing to do with (Mexico
City 1950). Therefore the interpretation Callas gave in this production is very
much her own.