This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote on gay icons for an online gay magazine, so I thought I’d include it in my blog. Please remember to take into account its intended audience.
There may have been divas before Maria Callas, but there is no doubt that the modern idea of what is a diva owes a great deal to the legendary opera singer, who, without ever singing a note of popular music, was as famous during her lifetime as a movie star. Even today, 41 years after her death and over 50 years after she last appeared on stage, her records outsell those of any other female opera singer.
Callas was born in 1923 in a New York hospital to Greek immigrant parents. Her mother, bitterly disappointed not to have had a son, wouldn’t even look at Maria for the first few days after she was born. Maria was an awkward, bespectacled, dumpy child with, in her mother’s eyes, one redeeming feature. She could sing. And, from an early age, Evangelia, Maria’s mother, decided Maria would become a star. No doubt here began the seeds of Callas’s burning desire to succeed, and also, what her record producer Walter Legge called, her superhuman inferiority complex. It was only by singing that she could get approval from her mother. It was a tempestuous relationship, and later they had a very public quarrel, leaving them estranged for the rest of Maria’s life.
Callas started out as everyone’s idea of the fat lady who sings, but shed 80lbs to become the svelte, elegant, iconic figure we know today, modelling her look on that of Audrey Hepburn. Some say this weight loss was also the reason for her relatively early vocal decline. Paradoxically, the more famous she became, the more her voice let her down, and her brilliance was relatively short, its peak lasting barely ten years, though as American opera star Beverly Sills once said, “Better 10 years like Callas, than twenty like anybody else.” She created a revolution in the staging of opera too, for Callas didn’t just sing, she could act, and it was her burning desire to fulfil all the dramatic demands of her roles, which was behind her decision to lose weight. To her way of thinking, it was crazy to have a fat, healthy looking soprano supposedly dying of consumption.
From the very beginning she caused controversy. Her voice was not conventionally beautiful, but it was better than that. It was a voice like no other, instantly recognisable with an extraordinarily wide expressive range, which she exploited to searingly dramatic ends. It was a large, dramatic voice too, and yet she had the technique to sing roles usually associated with much lighter voices. Those who just wanted to close their eyes and listen to beautiful sounds were jolted out of their complacency, and they didn’t like it. In her early days she enjoyed showing off her versatility, and within a week she alternated one of the heaviest roles in the repertory (Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre) with one of the lightest (Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani). It was a feat unheard of at that time, and she began to be known as the soprano who could sing anything. The traditionalists didn’t like it and battle lines were drawn.
From 1951 until 1958 she was the reigning queen of La Scala, Milan and Luchino Visconti, lured into opera by the prospect of working with her, here mounted some of the greatest opera productions ever in operatic history. It was also at La Scala that she worked with Franco Zeffirelli for the first time, and with conductors such as Victor De Sabata, Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. It was a period of amazing artistic achievement, and tenor Jon Vickers, often referred to Callas as one of the people most responsible for the revolution that occurred in opera after the second world war, rescuing it from the fustian stand and deliver concert in costume it had become, and creating living, breathing theatre. The La Scala audience was never an easy one, and she often had to deal with hostility from it, but, such was her genius, she could usually win a hostile audience over by the end of the evening. She was definitely a fighter.
The Callas myth is very much one made by the media. Her musical genius is often lost amongst the details of her private life and the scandals attached to it. The media concentrates on the occasional cancellations, the rows with opera managements, and often forgets the genius which made her a star. They build a picture of the capricious, temperamental, demanding opera singer, which, though partially true, tends to ignore the fact that she was intensely professional, dedicated and respected by most of the musicians she worked with. Her outbursts were usually brought about by what she saw as unprofessionalism. Unlike many divas who flounce in, do their bit and flounce out, Callas was often the first to arrive at rehearsal and the last to leave. She lived for her art. That is, until Aristotle Onassis arrived on the scene. Callas stupidly, blindly, fell in love and from that moment the media hardly ever left her alone.
When she met Onassis, she was still married to a man 51 years older than her, Gian Battista Meneghini. She married him shortly after she arrived in Italy in 1947, still only 23, overweight and gauche, and he had provided inestimable support in the early days of her career. By the time she met Onassis she was a very different person, svelte and elegant, and used to mixing with the artistic elite. Onassis, still married himself, was as taken by her fame as by her beauty and determined to make her his own. Callas, the ugly duckling who became a swan, was flattered by his attention, and became his mistress. She practically gave up her career for him, believing that one day they would marry, until, devastatingly, he married Jackie Kennedy instead. After the affair, Callas did try to pick up the threads of her career, but, along with the growing problems she was having with her voice, much of the fire had gone. During the Onassis years, she severely curtailed her engagements, attempting a comeback in 1964, after Onassis’s marriage. She agreed to appear in two new Zeffirelli productions to be shared with Covent Garden and the Paris Opéra, Tosca and Norma. Though the London performances of Tosca scored her an enormous personal success, the Normas in Paris went less well, and when she returned to the role there in 1965, the final performance of the run was abandoned, as Callas was simply too exhausted and unwell to continue. Later that year she made her final ever appearance in opera at a royal gala performance of Zeffirelli’s Tosca at Covent Garden, the only performance of the scheduled run she felt well enough to sing. She was singing against doctor’s orders, and even then only on condition that she sing only that one performance.
After that she lived as a recluse in Paris, occasionally attempting to revive her career. She played the role of Medea in Pasolini’s non-operatic film. Though her performance was enthusiastically greeted by the critics, the movie was not a commercial success, and she made no further pursuits in the direction of a movie career. She also gave a series of public master classes at the Juilliard in New York (the basis of Terrence McNally’s play Masterclass), and had an unsuccessful attempt at directing, with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, at the Turin Opera. She was, by this time, in a relationship with Di Stefano, and, probably unwisely, agreed to embark on a world concert tour with him, at which they would sing duets and arias, accompanied by piano only. She had only just turned 50, but her voice was a pale shadow of itself. Only too aware of her shortcomings, she wryly noted how the critics were being much kinder to her then, than they were years ago when she was singing brilliantly. Audiences, though, went mad, screaming for more, besieging the stage with floral tributes, as if finally acknowledging now, in her ruin, the great star that she was.
When the tour came to an end, she holed herself up in her Paris apartment. She never stopped loving Onassis, for all that he treated her so badly. They secretly revived their friendship, though, according to her secretary, Nadia Stancioff, she flatly refused to have any kind of physical relationship with him after he married Jackie. After he died, it was as if all the fight was knocked out of her. Conductor Jeffrey Tate, who was working with her at this time (she never completely gave up the idea of a comeback), felt that she simply gave up living.
She died in 1977 at the age of 53 in circumstances that are still unexplained. Officially she died of a heart attack, but she was on so many uppers and downers by then, that some think it may have been an accidental overdose. Whatever it was, dying young certainly contributed to her legendary status.
Nowadays she continues to enthral and inspire, and her influence goes far beyond the opera house. Aside from the aforementioned Masterclass, Terrence McNally also wrote a play The Lisbon Traviata (taking its title from an at that time unavailable live recording of Callas singing La Traviata in Lisbon), which focuses on two of McNally’s pet subjects; gay relationships and the gay man’s love of opera. During her lifetime she was something of a fashion icon, having fabulous gowns designed for her by Milanese designer Biki, by Pucci, Fendi and Yves St Laurent. Not so very long ago Dolce and Gabbana produced t-shirts with her image on them for their 2009 collection, and recently American designer Zac Posen based an entire collection on costumes Callas wore in Argentina in her early years, and a couple of years ago, Mark Jacobs incorporated images of Callas onto his designs of capes, t-shirts and bags.
In the world of film her records are frequently used on film soundtracks. Most recently it is the voice of Callas we hear singing Casta Diva in The Iron Lady. Marvel’s Bruce Banner (the Hulk) listens to her version of the same aria in The Avengers movies and Gus van Sant used her recording of Tosca as a backdrop for much of his brilliant Milk. And who could possibly forget that scene in Philadelphia, in which Andrew Beckett (played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks) attempts to explain to his lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), what opera means to him? As Maria Callas’s recording of La mamma morta from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier begins softly in the background and then swells to fill the theatre, Andrew translates the words and conveys the passions and emotional meanings behind this operatic excerpt.
“I am divine, I am oblivion, I am love. “
No wonder the Italians called her La Divina. After her death, baritone and colleague Tito Gobbi, said
“I always thought she was immortal, and she is.”