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Maria Callas: The soprano of the century

Maria Callas as Rosina in Rossini's <em>Il Barbieri di Siviglia</em>, at Milan's La Scala theater in 1956.
Erio Piccagliani
Teatro alla Scala
Maria Callas as Rosina in Rossini's Il Barbieri di Siviglia, at Milan's La Scala theater in 1956.

The legendary – and controversial — soprano Maria Callas, who would have turned 100 on Dec. 2, continues to command attention. Of course opera fans remain enthralled, but Callas also appeals to many from the arts and entertainment world. For instance, Angelina Jolie.

"I take very seriously the responsibility to Maria's life and legacy," the actress said recently in a statement about Maria, a forthcoming biopic starring Jolie in the title role. "I will give all I can to meet the challenge." Among the greatest challenges in telling stories about Callas is confronting her many contradictions, both in her life and in the legacy of divided opinions about her voice.

That film, in production now, is just one of the myriad ways Callas still looms large 47 years after her death. Her albums are routinely reissued, and this fall La Divina, a luxurious 131-CDbox set, was released. She's been the subject of recent biographies, coffee tablebooks,plays,operas,documentary films,hologram tours and previousbiopics.

Why does Callas endure? Is it her melodramatic rags-to-riches story? Her doomed love life? Her sudden and early death? The best place to start looking for an answer is the voice — a voice adored by some, hated by others.

"It is a matter of loving my kind of voice or not," Callas said in an interview that aired on WQXR in the 1970s. "Some people say I have a beautiful voice and some people say I have not. It's a matter of opinion." Few opera fans, even today, are without convictions when it comes to the Callas voice and what she did with it.

"She was and is, in my opinion, the queen of opera," declares soprano Angel Blue, who currently sings many of Callas' most famous roles. "I would describe Maria Callas' voice as every emotion at once. I listen to her and I feel joy, I feel pain, at the same time."

Even Callas' most ardent fans would admit that her voice was not perfect, or perhaps not always beautiful in a traditional way. Lyndsy Spence, author of the biography Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas, says that in the beginning there was the shock of the new when Callas' career emerged out of the ashes of World War II. "She can sing like a tsunami," Spence observes. "She can give you the beauty, she can give you the darkness, the richness of her voice. And she was a freak, more or less, when she was doing that."

Callas is in her own category, according to author and Metropolitan Opera producer William Berger. "To me, it was about the way she inhabited characters with her voice. And by characters, I don't just mean characters in a synopsis. I mean archetypes." Berger says she not only found intellectual and vocal heft in the roles she sang, but etched her portrayals in stone, locating the essence of a character that others only reached for.

That rigor, he adds, could be disturbing: "It's so scary, in a way, when we hear her sing Lucia or Tosca, because she's finding the aspects of the role that are not just pretty." In her acclaimed 1953 recording of Puccini's Tosca, when her character resorts to stabbing her assailant, encouraging him to die, she repeats the word "Mori" in breathy eruptions, like verbal knife wounds. That's part of the Callas phenomenon, Berger believes — creating performances of mythic quality, almost like rituals.

"When I listen to Maria Callas, I can hear her life story," Blue explains. "Listening to her sing 'Vissi d'Arte,' the way she sings, it is just entirely honest." Blue thinks of Callas as a great actor, willing to tweak lines in an unconventional way to make the drama real. That sometimes meant emitting unattractive notes, to which Blue says she can also relate. "I'm not trying to make everything beautiful, because life isn't always beautiful," she says. "Singing isn't always beautiful."

Born to immigrant Greek parents who squabbled and separated, Callas moved to Athens from New York in 1937 with her domineering mother and sister, both of whom she fought with bitterly. She threw herself into opera, singing her first lead role at age 15. In 1947, in Italy, her international career took flight, and thefirst recordings came two years later.

Even with all the success, Callas was conflicted. She would have given it all up just to find true love, settle down and raise a family. Instead, she became something closer to a figure of Greek tragedy — an artist who rose from poverty, sacrificed everything for her art and died, brokenhearted, at 53.

Spence says Callas channeled all of her pain and suffering in her music, and occasionally her joy. "I think of her [1964] recording of Carmen. She was going through a renaissance, almost, with her relationship with [Aristotle] Onassis, and she was happy and in love. You can really hear that in therecording."

But Berger warns against falling into a kind of schadenfreude trap. "I am uncomfortable with people almost enjoying the tragedy and not going to the courageous next step of the transcendence of that which she was putting out there. The idea of pigeonholing that great artist as a victim negates the artist who has shown you how to do something better with it."

Throughout her life, Callas the ferocious artist existed in perpetual conflict with Maria the vulnerable woman. That was a contradiction Spence couldn't resist exploring. "Her story, in my opinion, has been hijacked by people who don't know very much about Maria the woman," Spence says. "And I really wanted to get to the bottom of who Maria the person was."

The Maria whom Spence found was someone, beyond the tabloid stories and high-fashion lifestyle, not so different from us. She loved watching Westerns on television, playing with her dog and collecting recipes. "I felt that in the end," Spence says, "this is just an ordinary woman with an extraordinary talent. She was the greatest for a reason and she put the work in. It wasn't just luck. It wasn't a publicity machine. She deserves all of the accolades that we're giving her, even today."

Along with her status as an opera superstar, Maria Callas (photographed here in 1958 in London) also became a fashion icon.
Weston / Getty Images
Getty Images
Along with her status as an opera superstar, Maria Callas (photographed here in 1958 in London) also became a fashion icon.

Despite the accolades, suffering was a real part of Callas' story. She faced a disastrous love life with a gold-digging older husband and later an abusive lover in Onassis, pushy impresarios, a few overdoses from sleeping pills and a voice that began to show signs of wear uncommonly early. The last of those was irresistible fodder for the Callas detractors, who speculated that her new, slimmed-down figure in the early 1950s had led to vocal problems. And yet, some of her most vivid recordings were made in 1964, near the end of her career, including a complete Carmen showing savvy technique and personality to burn, and a Verdi album where shetosses off a cadenza in an aria from I vespri siciliani that spans nearly three octaves.

From hunger during the war years in Greece to being bullied by the men in her life, Callas persisted to become the game-changing opera singer, and at the same time a cultural icon, in spite or perhaps because of her hardships. "Maybe Maria Callas is that woman who really did live for her art and really did live for love," Angel Blue says.

In the end, true love may have eluded Callas. But her art, William Berger says, endures forever. "I don't see how Maria Callas can ever be forgotten. The name has become part of the communal unconscious."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.