The Art of Maria Callas

To speak of Maria Callas is to recall one of the most important periods in the history of Italian Opera, from the end of World War II to the early 1960s, when generations of performers such as Tebaldi, Simionato, Barbieri, Del Monaco, Di Stefano, Bastianini, Gobbi, and Rossi-Lemeni handed over the baton to Freni, Caballé, Valentini Terrani, Pavarotti, Domingo, Nucci, Bruson and Raimondi, to name but a few.

Maria Callas (b. New York, 1923 – d. Paris, 1977) was born Kalogeropoulos, which reveals her Greek origin. When she was born in New York, her parents had recently moved from Greece, and in the U.S. Maria stayed with her mother and older sister until 1937, when she returned to Greece. In Athens she attended the Conservatory and graduated in singing, piano and languages. Even from the beginning, her repertoire was broad in scope. In fact, her debut came with a full performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, on April 2, 1939, when she was only 15 years old. By 1945 Maria had performed seven principal roles and in no less than 57 live concerts.

From 1945 to 1947 she returned to the United States, although she had been advised to go straight to Italy. The early period of the artist’s training is not much studied,[1] despite her making very considerable progress. Callas subsequently became the famous artist judged by many to be of unsurpassable ability after coming to Italy in 1947, where she strung together a series of exceptional interpretations in operas that cannot usually be approached by a single voice type. These included Cherubini’s Medea, Verdi’s Macbeth and La Traviata, Bellini’s Norma and La Sonnambula, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor.

Callas’ voice

We assumed that everyone knows that Callas had a soprano voice. But it should be acknowledged that hers was a voice of higher than normal range, from the low F-sharp, below the stave, to the high E, according to some to the high F, three octaves above. Then, in the various registers of her voice one could find distinctive traits, sometimes harsh, that helped her from time to time in dramatic, lyrical and bel canto passages, performances of unmatched virtuosity, which had not been heard since the first half of the nineteenth century from singers such as Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta.

Her natural gifts had been enhanced by Elvira de Hidalgo,[2] who had taken over from her previous singing teacher Maria Trivella and who made her delve deeper into the operatic and dramatic repertoire. So Maria was a soprano with some aspects of a mezzo-soprano.

First appearances

After the inconclusive two-year period in the United States, Maria, who by then had definitely taken on the surname Callas, made her debut at the Arena di Verona in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, thanks to the bass Rossi-Lemeni and then the great conductor Tullio Serafin, as well as the entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Meneghini, her future husband. Serafin referred her to some language experts to perfect her pronunciation and better Italianize her singing.

Her debut in Rome took place at the Terme di Caracalla in 1948, in Puccini’s Turandot. Maria’s career continued to be increasingly successful with audiences and critics, but with a repertoire not entirely congenial to her. It included some of Wagner’s operas, such as Tristan and Isolde, The Valkyrie and Parsifal, sung in Italian as was the custom at the time. In this regard, it is worth mentioning an anecdote that also documents Callas’ temperament. Received in audience by Pius XII, a great music lover, with other members of the cast after a performance of Parsifal, the pontiff suggested that the operas should be sung in the original language, as has been done for several decades. She replied without hesitation, “But Your Holiness, the people want to understand!”

Her time in the limelight

The turning point in Callas’ career came quite fortuitously. On January 19, 1949, she was persuaded to replace at the last moment Margherita Carosio, who was indisposed, in the role of Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani. No one imagined that she had such an elastic voice and superlative powers of expression. The year 1949 also saw her first recordings with an anthology disc for Fonit Cetra. They included an entire Nabucco by Verdi, conducted by Vittorio Gui. On April 21 of the same year Maria married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, in a special rite, combining the civil and the religious, because she did not intend to abandon the Greek Orthodox Church.

Callas’ debut at La Scala was arduous work, as she was frowned on by the theater’s superintendent, Antonio Ghiringhelli, and by certain Milanese critics, who then ended up being won over almost entirely by her. All those contemporary artists we mentioned at the beginning of the article were performing at La Scala, including Renata Tebaldi, with whom there were often exasperated confrontations, such that Tebaldi even preferred to move to the United States to create her own performance space there.

Maria inaugurated La Scala’s opera season, in December 1951, in the role of Duchess Elena in Giuseppe Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani. After that success, it was a succession of great performances under exceptional batons, including Verdi’s Macbeth, conducted by Victor de Sabata, for the ’52-’53 season; Cherubini’s Medea, conducted by Leonard Bernstein in the ’53-’54 season; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Herbert von Karajan in ’54; and an outstanding Traviata, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, directed by Luchino Visconti in ’55.

During that period Maria also performed at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Metropolitan in New York, the Chicago Opera and Covent Garden in London. Her involvement in an impressive number of major recordings – particularly for La Voce del Padrone – is worth mentioning.[3] Maria remained stubbornly faithful to her favorite repertoire, which was extensive, but never trespassed on other musical genres, such as Greek folk music, for which she had a natural inclination.

The physical change

Between 1952 and 1954 a kind of unusual change in her bodily appearance took place, a loss of weight which she diligently kept track of: from 92 kg she dropped to 64 kg, touching a low point of 54 kg in 1957. It is said that her diet consisted of a careful balance of meats and vegetables. Maestro Giulini recounted with amazement to me, as well as to many others, that in 1954, not having seen her for some time and hearing his name called in a bar near Piazza San Babila in Milan, he persisted in telling her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but I really don’t know who you are!” while she, who would not acknowledge that obvious difficulty, kept repeating, but without saying her name, “But it’s not possible (that I didn’t recognize her), not possible!”

Apparently, the model of ideal woman pursued by Maria was that of the actress Audrey Hepburn, as seen in the film Roman Holiday. But she had a totally different figure, which for a few years was to her benefit in memorable performances from a stage and acting point of view, but then, unfortunately, it contributed to her inevitable decline.

Already there were signs of fatigue and sagging in her voice, which reached a low point in the first half of 1959. During the summer, Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis invited her on his yacht for a cruise, along with internationally renowned personalities, including Winston Churchill and his wife. This event marked the beginning of the end of Callas’ marriage, and also the beginning of the end of her singing career.

The decline and the end of the career

As mentioned, as early as 1957 there had been obvious hints of strain and fatigue in Callas’ voice: a very cold performance at the Herodes Atticus Theater in Athens, where she had previously last performed in 1944; a discontinuous series of performances of La Sonnambula at the Edinburgh Festival; and a decision not to perform at the San Francisco Opera, citing health reasons.

The following year opened with an event that caused a worldwide sensation. On January 2, at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, for a gala evening in the presence of the President of the Republic, Giovanni Gronchi, and other dignitaries, Callas did not continue the performance of Norma after the first act, due to a sudden attack of aphonia.

Then continued a sad chronicle of refusing to perform and failures by she who had been dubbed “La Divina” by her most ardent supporters. We will mention only a few moments, highlighting those aspects that were still more or less relatively positive, until her last performance in an entire opera, Tosca, which Callas managed on July 5, 1965, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II.

At La Scala, after a few triumphant performances in Bellini’s Il Pirata, with tenor Franco Corelli, Maria was declared persona non grata, and this was also the case at the Metropolitan in New York, because she refused to alternate between very different operas with brief intervals. It is striking that in those years she had found it increasingly difficult to commit herself to operas congenial to her, such as Norma and Traviata, while she held up better and better to the title role in Cherubini’s Medea, on two separate occasions in Dallas, then at London’s Covent Garden and, above all, at La Scala in 1961 when the opera was conducted by Thomas Schippers.

Callas after Callas

After a brief hiatus from any kind of activity, Maria wanted to regularize her union with Onassis, but the Greek shipowner in 1968 ended up marrying Jacqueline Kennedy. For Callas this was a blow from which she never recovered.

Having fallen into a severe depression, the following year she chose to return to the limelight by accepting the role of Medea in the film of the same name that Pier Paolo Pasolini had been wanting to make for some time, as an ideal juxtaposition of the world of barbarism with that of civilization. The film was not as successful as he had hoped, but it opened up a new cultural world and one of greater scope for Maria than that of the opera. It is known that Pasolini became very involved in his relationship with Callas, to the point of dedicating a number of poems to her that became part of his collection, Trasumanar e organizzar.

Another field to which the singer devoted herself after her retirement from the stage was teaching opera masterclasses. One due to be held in Philadelphia was abandoned due to the insufficient technical preparation of the participants, but then others were held at the Juilliard School in New York from October 1971 to March 1972, and they proved to be successful. Recordings of 46 hours of lectures remain, partly collected in a three-disc album published by La Voce del Padrone, which also contains an introductory booklet by John Ardoin. The U.S. critic, a personal friend of the singer, documents, step by step, in a specially dedicated volume, how Callas proved to be an excellent teacher, even for non-soprano roles, in a repertoire ranging from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Puccini and Cilea’s later works, slowly rebuilding her voice, but in a limited and precarious way, for what was to be her last musical experience: the world tour of concerts with the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano, from October 1973 to November 1974.

Death and myth

After the tour, partly because of disappointments in her friendship with Di Stefano, Callas locked herself away permanently in her Paris home, avoiding any contact with acquaintances and even friends. Meanwhile, two men who had counted so much in her life died, her father and Tullio Serafin. But it was 1975 that brought the greatest bitterness for her: in March Aristotle Onassis died and on November 2 Pier Paolo Pasolini was killed. And on March 17, 1976, Luchino Visconti also died.

Maria died in her Avenue George Mandel apartment on September 16, 1977. She had not yet turned 54. The medical report spoke of “cardiac arrest,” immediately debunking rumors of suicide. Her physical condition had long been compromised by the severe glandular dysfunction from which she had suffered since her youth. In recent years this had been compounded by chronic insomnia, for which she was taking potent medication in excessive doses.

It caused a stir when she chose to have her body cremated. Her ashes were scattered in 1979, at her behest, in the Aegean Sea, by the Greek Minister of Culture, while the “Funeral March” from Wagner’s Siegfried was played.

To conclude, we would like to refer to an article in the magazine Toscana oggi[4] where the renowned scholar and musicologist Cesare Orselli paid tribute to Callas on the centenary of her birth, keeping in mind her relationship with the city of Florence and its musical institutions. Orselli, also drawing on the vivid recollections of the influential Florentine scholar and music critic Luciano Alberti, briefly draws a well-rounded picture of the artist. Thus one can be reminded of a curious concert at the Grand Hotel in Florence, on June 11, 1951, where it seemed that there were no high notes that Callas could not surpass; her various appearances at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; and the recording of Medea, on May 7, 1953, at the Teatro Comunale in Florence.


[1].      An exception is the book by S. Hastings, Maria Callas. La formazione dell’artista (1923-1947), Varese, Zecchini, 2023.

[2].      Elvira de Hidalgo (1892-1980) was a Spanish soprano of great virtuosity. She was in Athens for personal reasons.

[3].      Warner Classics, on the occasion of the centenary of her birth, has released a box set consisting of no less than 131 CDs, three blu-ray discs, a dvd-rom and a 148-page illustrated book. There is also, also on the Warner Classics label, a modest but significant highlights edition in only 6 CDs.

[4].      C. Orselli, “Il mito di Maria Callas nasce a Firenze?” in Toscana oggi, December 3, 2023, 21.

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