Maria Callas's legacy and tragic life
Series I

By Sigurd Neubauer

04/02/2022

Maria Callas (1923-1977) stands out as the greatest opera singer of the modern era.

She played an indispensable role in reviving the genre of bel canto opera, which had long been forgotten by the time Callas took the world by storm in the early 1950s.

Throughout her career, Callas sought to pay absolute fidelity to the composer’s own vision, as outlined in the score. She considered the artist’s principal role to be a “servant” of the composer, who, as she frequently reminded her colleagues, and years later her students at The Julliard School, had often lived in abject poverty.

For Callas, bel canto – which means beautiful singing in Italian – was the ultimate art form. Its principal composers, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini and Luigi Cherubini all became staples of Callas’ operatic repertoire, and with her success, she brought them back to life.

Her operatic and personal style as the ultimate diva of her generation, coupled with almost endless drama and intrigue in her personal life, only contributed to her appeal as the world’s most famous and glamours woman.

Yet, the story about Callas is hardly about glamour alone. It is also a story about tremendous tragedy, outright betrayal by those closest to her, but she ultimately prevailed through perseverance, vision and determination.

Nearly 50-years after her premature and tragic death at her Paris apartment, no one – with perhaps Luciano Pavarotti as a distant second – has done more for opera in the modern era than Callas. 

In her postmortem, Callas remains part of the conversation as her haunted life – yet brilliant career – continues to steer emotions among her thousands of fans around the world.

While Callas the artist continues to be celebrated through her legendary recordings of Bellini’s Norma, Cherubini’s Medea, Puccini’s Tosca and Bizet’s Carmen, Maria the woman is not fully understood, at least until now.

“I wanted to provide an account about Maria the person and not the artist,” says Lyndsy Spence

In her new biography, “Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas,” Irish author Lyndsy Spence provides a comprehensive and spectacular account of Callas’ life, her triumphs and struggles.

“I wanted to provide an account about Maria the person and not the artist,” says Spence in an interview with Man & Culture.

The life of Callas is a classic American “from rags to riches story,” starting with her birth in 1923  in New York City into an impoverished and highly dysfunctional immigrant family from Greece. Callas’ mother, Litsa, whose conniving, grotesque, and narcissistic personality displays some of the worst possible imagined human qualities, are extensively documented throughout Spence’s book.

For instance, Spence writes:

“Disappointed” with the birth of a girl [Maria Callas], “Litsa turned her head to the window and for four days refused to look at her.”

The family dynamics, including between the parents (George and Litsa), and between Maria and her older sister, Jackie, are also covered at length.

But to Mrs. Callas credit, it was her that early on detected her daughter’s formidable talent for singing and for opera in particular, even if her motivation for pushing her daughter towards excellence was motivated by extreme narcissism. Mr. Callas, throughout his life, remained for the most part an irrelevant figure in the Callas family.

This becomes clear when Mrs. Callas decides in 1937 to return to her native Greece, bringing her two teenage daughters along, but her husband remained in New York.

Once in Athens, the combination of extreme poverty and Mrs. Callas’ toxic personality leaves the three women isolated from their immediate relatives without the means to support themselves. At this point, Mrs. Callas effectively forces her older daughter, Jackie, to become the mistress of an older and wealthier man to support the family.

Mrs. Callas does not work but engages in numerous sexual promiscuities while Maria, who was at the time considered, unattractive, enrolled in singing lessons.

Through her discipled studies, Callas eventually got admitted to the Athens Conservatory where she studied under Elvira de Hidalgo, who would become a mentor and lifelong friend.

“Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas,” by Irish author Lyndsy Spence

“Despite de Hidalgo’s similar personality to Mrs. Callas, Callas and her teacher maintained a strong friendship,” says Spence.

By the time World War II erupted, Callas was already recognized in Athens for her operatic talent and was able to secure scarce food provisions for mother and sister by performing for the occupying Italian forces. But once the German troops invaded Greece in 1941, the country’s economic situation deteriorated and Athenians faced mass starvation, Mrs. Callas encouraged her younger daughter to liaise with the troops.

She not only refused, “but from that point on the relationship between Mrs. Callas and her daughter never recovered,” says Spence.

Following the war, Callas returns to New York in 1946 hoping to reconnect with her father, who she had adored from a far although he had hardly been in touch with his family. Once in New York, Callas discovers to her disappointment that her father wanted Callas to become his maid.

While in New York, Callas auditioned before the Metropolitan Opera, an institution she eventually would have a complicated relationship with. Even though Callas was unknown internationally at that point, she turned down a contract to perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio in English at the Met.

Instead, she wanted her debut to feature her best opera – Bellini’s Norma. “Not only did Callas identify with Norma,” says Spence in our interview, but her signature aria became Casta Diva, which is why the author cleverly chose it as the book title.

“Many people though it was a corny title,” says Spence with a laugh.

After rejecting a contract at the Met, Callas travelled to Verona in Italy where she would first establish herself as the preeminent opera singer of the day – and ultimately – as an international celebrity.

“Shortly after her arrival in Verona, Callas had met her future husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who eventually would become her main protagonist, along with her mother, father and sister.”

Her initial Italian debut – which arguably also became her breakthrough – was in Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda in Verona in 1946. Her newfound success helped the young singer establish a relationship with legendary conductor Tullio Serafin, who immediately recognized Callas’ formidable talent.

Still, Callas expressed disappointment with the initial stages of her career and even contemplated returning to the United States. Sarafin, as her voice teacher, was at that point the only one who foresaw her success, Spence writes in her book. He immediately drew on his extensive network by opening doors for Callas, including at Milan’s prestigious La Scala theater.

The two would collaborate extensively over Callas’ career, including recording some of her signature operas, which continue to be celebrated to this day.

While Callas spoke fondly of Sarafin throughout her career, she decided at the end not to attend his funeral in 1968 as she was recovering from an illness.

Despite all that Sarafin had done for her, Callas’ failure to attend his funeral reveals, perhaps at best, an indifference she would exhibit towards many of her colleagues throughout her career.

Callas exhibited similar characteristics following a performance by legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini when she declined to attend a dinner dedicated in his honor. She declared: “Maria callas is tired, and Toscanini was dead.” At the end, however, Callas did attend his funeral in 1957.

Meanwhile, on November 30, 1947, under Sarafin’s baton, Callas had her undisputed professional breakthrough in Norma at the Teatro Comunale in Florence.

Shortly after her arrival in Verona, Callas had met her future husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who eventually would become her main protagonist, along with her mother, father and sister.  Shortly after her arrival in Verona, Meneghini became her agent, and lover.

Callas, however, struggled with the shame that she experienced living with Meneghini as an unmarried woman and the stigma that came with it in conservative catholic Italy during the immediate post war era.

In Verona – where they cohabited – “Callas kept pushing him to marry her,” says Spence.  But before eventually doing so in 1949, after she had threatened to not return from an upcoming trip to South America, Meneghini had negotiated several lucrative recording contracts for her with Cetra Records where she found success with Bellini’s I Puritani, Puccini’s Turandot and Wagner’s Parsifal.

Giovanni Battista Meneghini who was Callas’s agent and lover eventually become her husband

Callas, perhaps in contrast to the promiscuous lives her mother and sister had enjoyed in Athens, saw herself as a traditionalist who more than anything wanted to have a stable and loving family.  

Decades later, in the 1970s, Callas expressed aversion to the modern feminists of the day, even though she herself had lived a life of a modern woman and suffered through discriminatory policies that favored her estranged husband.

Another major theme in Spence’s book is Callas’ unhappy marriage, including Meneghin’s persistent refusal to provide her with wife a child.

“Meneghini, over 20 years her senior, her first agent and lover, who would eventually become her first husband, would “in time…ignore Maria the woman, and exploit Callas the artist, writes Spence. 

Ultimately, “he viewed her not as his wife but a valuable product and was prepared to sell her to the highest bidder.”

“It was Meneghini’s greed which explained his decision to not want a family as he feared Callas would retire to raise children instead of being a top earner.,” says Spence.

Meneghini also embezzled Callas’ money, which would have real implications for her life as she was ultimately unable to retire, which is another theme in Spence’s book.

In our interview, Spence maintains that Meneghini never loved Callas. “If he did, he would have conceded to her request for a divorce.”

Although they had married in 1949, and Callas first requested a divorce in 1959 after she had met Aristotle Onassis, it was only in 1971 that Italy repealed its divorce laws.

Once Callas had filed for a divorce, Meneghini recounted the early days of their relationship, saying: “When I first met her, she was fat, clumsy, dressed like a dog. A real gypsy. She didn’t have a cent and didn’t have the least prospect of making a career for herself.”

Spence’s negative portrayal of Meneghini, including of his greed and embezzlements from Callas, is another major theme in the book.

“It was Meneghini’s greed which explained his decision to not want a family as he feared Callas would retire to raise children instead of being a top earner,” says Spence

Initially, Meneghini was considered among Callas scholars to have been her benefactor, the husband who had helped establish her career while she was a struggling artist in a foreign land.

But this is where Spence’s book breaks new ground.

The author’s ability to break new ground on Callas’ complicated life is directly attributed to obtaining access to newly released information, including of her letters and medical records

which had been collected by Robert Baxter.

Baxter, a Callas fan, and collector had purchased much of her correspondence at various auction houses over the decades but donated his collection to Sandford University upon his death.

But despite Callas’ miserable marriage, on the surface her life appeared successful, at least according to her initial competitor at La Scala, Renata Tebaldi.

Spence writes:

“For Tebaldi, who considered herself ‘La Scala’s own creation,’ her position was clear, and she resigned after the season. She said, ‘[Callas] seemed to succeed in everything she desires. She wanted money – she married a rich man. She wanted clothes and jewelry – she has them now. She wanted to become thin, and she did. She wanted La Scala, and she succeeded.”

From the outside Callas appeared happy and successful.  “They were very young when they were rivals, but always respected each other, says Spence. “When they got older, in their 40s, they became friends,” adding that “Callas always respected Tebaldi because she fought back.”

“She respected the fighter in Tebaldi,” Spence adds.

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis is how Spence describes Callas’ physical transformation.

“In 1947, [Callas] was not thin but she was not overweight either. Her hourglass shape and height made her a striking, if imposing, figure and her dark hair, parted in the middle, and almond-shaped eyes gave her a Middle Eastern look, perhaps validating rumors that her father had Turkish ancestry,” Spence writes.

In 1954, she traveled to Switzerland for medical treatment for weight loss where she ultimately went down to 140lb. Callas’ physical transformation turned her into an international celebrity overnight.

Prior to her physical transformation, two of her future collaborators Franco Zeffirelli and Rudolf Bing, are quoted in the book commenting on Callas’ appearance.

During a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at La Scala in 1950, Zeffirelli “compared her ancles to an elephant’s legs and loudly asked, ‘why is she so fat? She left La Scala without a contract,” Spence writes.

Franco Zeffirelli described the world of opera as “BC” and “AC,” which means “Before Callas and After Callas”

In 1952, Callas met with Bing in Florence who was “repelled by her monstrously fat and awkward appearance, claiming she had ‘a lot to learn before she can star at the Met, “Spence adds.

 

In our interview, however, Spence maintains that Callas had not been overweight and certainly not by today’s standards. “Callas and Tebaldi were the same size,” the author argues.

Scholars have since debated over whether Callas’ dramatic weight loss ultimately impacted her voice.

“The change in Callas’ voice was triggered by a combination of poor health – prior and after the weight loss – as she had a neuro-muscular disease that also attacked her central nervous system, thus giving her symptoms that were similar to Multiple sclerosis,” says Spence.

Another Callas complexity we discussed is how she was subservient at home – and later on with Onassis as well – but played an absolute and domineering role on the opera stage where she took full control of her artistry.

Callas new style was branded after American actress Audrey Hepburn, whom she would first meet in 1967 but the two did not enjoy a relationship, Spence says.

Meneghini, however, did not like Callas’ physical transformation. Instead, he solicited plus-size prostitutes at a Milan-brothel, according to Spence. At first, Callas brought her husband wealth from her performances, then status and fame as she had transformed herself into an international celebrity.

The glorious 1950s

In 1952, talks between Callas – spearheaded by Meneghini – and the Met’s Bing resumed but no agreement was reached as the New York opera company did not want to pay the fees Meneghini had demanded. “Bing hated Meneghini,” Spence says.

Callas’ American debut was at the Chicago Lyric Opera (1954/55), but ultimately fell out with the company. This opened the door for negotiations with the Met where she premiered in 1955 as Norma.

Zeffirelli, who had once criticized Callas’ appearances, described the world of opera as “BC” and “AC,” which means “Before Callas and After Callas.” His observation was made after Callas’ performance of Medea at La Scala in 1953 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

As a testimony to her growing international popularity, Callas performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in London in 1952

Bernstein had initially declined to work with Callas due to her reputation of being “difficult,” but she ultimately convinced him during a telephone conversation.

“Callas was ready for younger collaborators, and this is where Bernstein and Zeffirelli came in. Because Callas helped reinvent bel canto, an equal emphasis was put on the visual,” Spence reveals. Callas would continue to collaborate with Zeffirelli through the years. Their first collaboration was of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia in 1955.

As a testimony to her growing international popularity, Callas performed at a Royal gala in London in 1952 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s ascent to the throne.

In 1952, talks between Callas – spearheaded by Meneghini – and the Met’s Bing resumed but no agreement was reached as the New York opera company did not want to pay the fees Meneghini had demanded. “Bing hated Meneghini,” Spence says.

Callas’ American debut was at the Chicago Lyric Opera (1954/55), but ultimately fell out with the company. This opened the door for negotiations with the Met where she premiered in 1955 as Norma.

Zeffirelli, who had once criticized Callas’ appearances, described the world of opera as “BC” and “AC,” which means “Before Callas and After Callas.” His observation was made after Callas’ performance of Medea at La Scala in 1953 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein had initially declined to work with Callas due to her reputation of being “difficult,” but she ultimately convinced him during a telephone conversation.

“Callas was ready for younger collaborators, and this is where Bernstein and Zeffirelli came in. Because Callas helped reinvent bel canto, an equal emphasis was put on the visual,” Spence reveals. Callas would continue to collaborate with Zeffirelli through the years. Their first collaboration was of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia in 1955.

As a testimony to her growing international popularity, Callas performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in London in 1952.

“The combination of Callas’ superb artistry, dramatic personality, beautify and elegance made her into a cult-like figure for many of her fans around the world”

With Callas’ physical transformation, she became an international sensation in record time. Yet, her newfound celebrity status also resulted in increasing public scrutiny, including in the press where her private life became the source of nearly constant gossip fodder, which would haunt her throughout her life. During the years of 1955 to 1960, Callas began canceling various performances – often citing health reasons – which, of course, contributed to her public image as the ultimate opera dive on stage as well as in life. In some cases, the cancelation of concerts led to riots among angry fans.

The combination of Callas’ superb artistry, dramatic personality, beautify and elegance made her into a cult-like figure for many of her fans around the world.

By the mid-1950s, Callas was in her early 30s. Yet, had her remarkable and relative swift success already gone to her head?

In our interview, Spence points out that Callas had already begun to suffer from a neuro-muscular disease that also attacked her central nervous system, had poor health in general and was often exhausted from carrying out one demanding performance after another. “She simply got burned out,” the author explains.

The Callas scandals

1955 – Lyric Opera of Chicago: The process server gained access to Callas’ dressing room and served her with court papers on behalf of her former boyfriend, Eddy Bagarozy, with whom she signed a contract in 1946, appointing him her manager. When Callas refused to pay his commission (he never brokered deals for her), he blackmailed her with her old love letters, sent whilst she was living with Meneghini in Verona. The scandal played out in the newspapers, but she eventually settled out of court.

1956 – Time Magazine published an investigative expose on Callas ahead of her Met debut. It interviewed her mother in Athens and reported on the Tebaldi feud. Tebaldi responded with her own Time interview, saying, “I have one thing Maria Callas doesn’t: a heart.”

Many observers believed Callas’s opera career was over after she was fired from the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1958

August 1957 – Callas travels to Greece to perform at the Athens Festival, a state funded event. The public is outraged by her enormous fee, even though she offered to perform for free and the festival took offence, saying it wasn’t a charity.

August 1957 – Callas travels with the La Scala Company to the Edinburgh Festival. She refuses to sing in an extra engagement as she was not contracted to do so. The festival’s manager forced her to cite health issues when in fact she wanted to go to Venice for a party which had been arranged in her honor. “She was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, but photographs of her dancing and sunbathing did not bode well for her public image,” says Spence.

September 1957 – Callas was scheduled to perform at the San Francisco Opera but asked to postpone due to ill health. She had a nervous breakdown. The manager held her in breach of her contract and unsuccessfully appealed to the musicians’ union to ban her from singing at US opera houses.

January 1958 – Callas wanted to cancel her gala performance of Norma in Rome where Italian President Giovanni Gronchi was in the audience. The opera company nonetheless convinced her to sing and under pressure, which she agreed to.  Halfway through her voice gives out and she felt unwell. She wanted to continue but Meneghini forbade her to do so. The Italian public blamed Callas and accused her of having insulted the president, which prompted riots. The Italian government consequently attempted to ban her from singing at state owned theatres, which were most of the Italian opera houses. “Ls Scala considered what happened as bad for its image and forced her into resigning by treating her coldly,” Spence says.

1958 – Callas refused to commit to a contract with Bing at the Met. Meneghini held him ransom and refuses to let her sign, as he wanted more money and Callas wanted a different repertoire. They were both trying to force Bing into dropping her. Callas, on her behalf, expected to have a baby, and Meneghini wanted her released from an opera season in order to make more money from a concert tour of North America and Europe. Bing eventually fires Callas. At that point, many observers believe her opera career had finished.

In 1959, Callas begins an affair Aristotle Onassis, fires Meneghini as her manager and obtains a legal separation from him.

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