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Maria Callas, the greatest Diva of them all, at 100 – by Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Dec 02, 2023

At La Scala, 1954 (Picture: La Scala)

Today, 2 December, is La Divina’s centenary. Has there been anyone quite like Maria Callas in the world of opera?

Her voice, THAT Voice, ranged over three octaves, not always evenly but such was the passion and theatricality of her delivery and presence that many maintain she had no equal. Her life offstage was equally operatic - and just as compelling

Like many before her - and since - her New York childhood was miserable - with mismatched, warring Greek parents, George Kalogeropoulos, later Kalos, later still Callas: an easy-going faithless husband, a pharmacist; & Litsa, an unscrupulously ambitious mother who, while favouring her elder, prettier daughter, Jackie, pushed her plainer, younger but infinitely more talented one.

In 1937, Litsa took her daughters back to Athens where she convinced Maria Trivella to take ‘Mary’ for a modest fee. Trivella recalled “a very plump young girl, wearing big glasses for her myopia....The tone of the voice was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations like a carillon. It was by any standards an amazing phenomenon ... a great talent that needed control, technical training and strict discipline ....to shine with all its brilliance.” 

She soon shone alright and earned the accolade ‘La Divina’.

In Maria by Callas, his striking, adulatory documentary released in 2017, Tom Volf brings it all back with lost footage, complete arias and almost the whole script in Divina’s own words, delivered in the best traditions of a diva. She tells David Frost, “There are two people in me. I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas I have to live up to.” As for the (other) great passion of her life, Aristotle Onassis, Joyce diDonato reads Maria’s entreaty to take her back, ‘This is a hurt and tired woman’s letter’.

As Lyndsy Spence reveals in her fascinating biography - Cast A Diva (History Press, 2021) drawn from three huge (until then unpublished) collections of letters - while Callas the artist soared; Maria the woman was wretched.

Her husband stole from her; her mother blackmailed her; her father extorted money from her; Onassis mistreated then deserted her. She lost weight; transfigured into a glamorous diva then she lost her voice.

Her legacy - apart from some electrifying recordings - is that she revitalised 19th century bel canto. In that way, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Teresa Berganza and Marilyn Horne were her children. She made her debut in 1947, but was virtually sung out 20 years later.

Her London Farewell Concert was in November/December 1973 at Royal Festival Hall. It had been eight years since her London audiences had heard her. Much had been lost but her fans did not mind; and there were still flashes of the world’s greatest operatic actress. The Times’s William Mann wrote, ‘In ‘O mio babbino caro’, her encore, she reminded us of the phrasing and colouring and expressiveness that we remember, fined down to miniature.’

La Divina was accompanied by her great old friend, Giuseppe di Stefano. Not even the most optimistic could have hoped for a repeat but how many returned home to listen to their Tosca, recorded in 1953 – with Maria in the title role, di Stefano as noble Mario, Tito Gobbi as the villain, Scarpia, conducted at La Scala by the towering maestro, Victor de Sabata?

That Tosca is celebrated still as not just the greatest version of that opera but one of the most celebrated of classical recordings and one of the best-selling opera recordings of all time. Leontyne Price and Ruth Bader Ginsberg regard this as their favourite recording. As one critic wrote, it was Puccini’s Tosca that expressed Maria’s mantra: ‘Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore’ - I lived for art, I lived for love.

When, in 1962, the great Herbert von Karajan was making his own recording of Tosca, he would play and replay parts of the recording. After listening several times to a passage in Act 3, he conceded he couldn’t match it.

Imagine having Callas sing for your birthday? JFK had that honour in May 1962 at Madison Square Garden to mark his 45th. Maria sang the seductive Habanera & Seguidille from Carmen but was outrageously outshone by a histrionic performance from Marilyn Monroe whose dress was so tight she could barely walk.

Marilyn sure could breathe but never quite like Callas.

Maria’s very last public performance would be at Carnegie Hall in March 1974, a few months after her Royal Festival Hall appearance. When she sang for the last time in recital with di Stefano, a voice bellowed from the balcony as she appeared, ‘You are opera!’

Her artistic director, Michel Glotz, was the last to see her - lying at peace in her bedroom in Avenue Georges Mandel on 16 September 1977. She was only 53. “It was the image of La Traviata as she played it in 1956 at La Scala.”