Maria Callas: 15 facts about the great soprano

Maria Callas was one of the outstanding soprano singers of the 20th century. Ninety years after her birth, this diva’s extraordinary voice and acting – captured on albums, CDs and DVDs – continue to enchant people the world over.

1. Viva La Divina!

Born in New York City on 2 December 1923, Maria Callas was adored by both public and critics alike for her vocal technique and dramatic gifts. Her repertoire ranged from serious classical operas to the bel canto works of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini; to the masterpieces of Verdi and Puccini; and even to Wagner. Her talents led to her being hailed as La Divina. She is seen here rehearsing for her title role in Medea at Covent Garden, June 1959.

2. An unhappy childhood

Callas often spoke of her unhappy childhood. After her mother spotted Maria’s talent for music, the five-year old was pushed into singing lessons. When her parents’ marriage broke down, Maria went to Greece with her mother and sister. There she received her musical education.

3. Model student

Callas’s teacher described her as “a model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day…Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality.”

4. The “God-given”

After several student appearances, Callas began appearing in secondary roles at the Greek National Opera. She made her professional debut in February 1941. Her first leading role a year later was as Tosca. Following her early performances, even her detractors began to refer to her as “The God-Given”.

5. The turning point

The great turning point in her career occurred in Venice in 1949. Callas was pulled in to cover a soprano role in I puritani. She had six days to prepare – and triumphed. Two years later she debuted at La Scala Milan, and the theatre became her artistic home throughout the 1950s.

6. Star at La Scala

La Scala mounted many new productions especially for Callas by directors such as Herbert von Karajan, Franco Zeffirelli and, most importantly, Luchino Visconti. He stated later that he began directing opera only because of Callas. He mounted lavish new productions of La traviata, La sonnambula and Anna Bolena. Callas is seen here in Donizetti’s Poliuto at La Scala, December 1960.

7. Gaining a reputation

Callas’s Metropolitan Opera debut, opening the season with Bellini’s Norma on 29 October 1956, was preceded by an unflattering cover story in Time magazine, which wrote about her temper, her supposed rivalry with soprano Renata Tebaldi and her difficult relationship with her mother. Callas is pictured here with German soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

8. London debut

In 1952, Callas made her London debut at the Royal Opera House. Callas and her London audience had what she called “a love affair” and she returned to the Royal Opera House in 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1964 to 1965.

9. An outstanding Tosca

It was at the Royal Opera House where, on 5 July 1965, Callas ended her stage career in the role of Tosca, in a production by Franco Zeffirelli and featuring her friend Tito Gobbi. Maria Callas and Zeffirelli are pictured here after the first night of Tosca at Covent Garden, January 1964.

10. Weight-loss

Callas turned herself from a heavy woman into a svelte and glamorous one after a mid-career weight loss, which might have contributed to her vocal decline and the premature end of her career. The director of the New York Met would later say that Callas was the most difficult artist he ever worked with, “because she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But Callas you could not get around. She knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it.”

11. Socialite and scandal

Callas was always a controversial figure in the press. She is pictured here with Peter O’Toole, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at a race meeting in Paris. In 1957, while still married, Callas was introduced to shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The affair that followed received much publicity. In 1968, Onassis left Callas for Jacqueline Kennedy.

12. Starring in Medea

In 1969, the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini cast Callas in her only non-operatic acting role, as the mythological character of Medea. The production was grueling and Callas reportedly fainted after a day of strenuous running back and forth on a mudflat in the sun.

13. A magnetic presence

Medea was not a commercial success, but as Callas’s only film appearance, it documents her dramatic ability and presence. Thirty-five years after her death, she remains one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists and the legend continues.

14. Enduring legacy

Callas staged a series of joint recitals in Europe in 1973 and in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan in 1974 with the tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano. Critically, this was a musical disaster owing to both performers’ worn-out voices. However, the tour was an enormous popular success. Audiences thronged to hear the two performers, who had so often appeared together in their prime.

15. Final years

Callas spent her last years living largely in isolation in Paris and died aged 53 on 16 September 1977 of a heart attack. She later was cremated at the Père Lachaise Cemetery and her ashes were placed in the columbarium there. After being stolen and later recovered, in the spring of 1979 they were scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, according to her wish.

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