Maria Callas life and biography

Maria Callas picture, image, poster

Maria Callas biography

Date of birth : 1923-12-03
Date of death : 1977-09-16
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-08-25
Credited as : Coloratura soprano, ,

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Maria Callas was one of the great coloratura sopranos (female vocalists who specialize in an elaborate form of opera singing) of the twentieth century. She revitalized opera and increased its appeal because of her dramatic skill.

Childhood in America

By most accounts Maria Callas was born Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City, New York, on December 3, 1923, just four months after her parents, George and Evangelia (Litza) Kalogeropoulos, arrived in New York harbor after moving from Greece. Callas was formally baptized Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria. It was around the time of her birth that her father shortened the family name to Callas. By the time she started school, Maria Kalogeropoulos was known as Maria Callas.

At age seven Callas began her musical studies by taking piano lessons. She loved opera music even as a youngster, and she had a beautiful voice. She especially loved to sing La Paloma. She took great comfort in listening to the many opera records in her family's collection. Young Callas soon discovered that she had a natural talent and a flair for the dramatic. She won several amateur talent contests while she was in elementary school, and she was a popular performer on children's radio shows.

When Callas graduated from the eighth grade in 1937, her mother decided to return to Greece in order for Callas to receive voice training in the classical tradition. She was a dedicated student, driven by a spirit of excellence. Callas's teachers, and later her directors and producers, were continually amazed at her exceptional memory. She easily learned music and lyrics in a matter of days, where others would require weeks or months.

Finds success in Italy

After World War II (1939–45; when Germany, Italy, and Japan clashed with European and American forces), her music coach, Elvira de Hidalgo, encouraged Callas to move to Italy to establish her career. Her Italian debut, held on August 3, 1947, was a performance of La Gioconda at the Verona Arena. She went on to perform Tristan and Isolde and Turandot in Venice, Italy, in 1948. She sang the title role in Bellini's Norma, her most popular role, for the first time in Florence, Italy, in 1948. Critics took note, and her career began to soar.

Almost immediately upon her arrival in Verona, Italy, in 1947 she married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy Veronian industrialist. Meneghini withdrew from his business interests to manage Callas's promising career, and generally devoted his life to fulfilling her every need. During the late 1940s and 1950s Callas toured Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil. She worked with famed Maestro Tullio Serafin, as well as noted directors Franco Zeffirelli (1923–), Francesco Siciliani, and Luchino Visconti.

Finds fame in America

Callas's United States debut was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Illinois) in 1954. On October 19, 1956, she debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera (the Met), where she performed in Norma. Coinciding with her Metropolitan Opera debut, Callas was featured on the October 27, 1956, cover of Time.

During the peak of Callas's career she easily fit the stereotype (an oversimplified version) of a portly and highly emotional opera singer, but in 1952 she experienced a dramatic weight loss. By 1954 she was sixty-five pounds lighter. She continued to perform, and her career exploded into greatness. She added new operas, including Madame Butterfly, which she had previously avoided because she felt awkward and ungraceful.

The years of decline

During the late 1950s the vocalist's personal life began to deteriorate, and this tragically affected her career. She had an affair with powerful businessman Aristotle Onassis (c. 1900–1975), and she and her husband separated in 1959, divorcing finally in 1971. Onassis eventually divorced his wife, Tina, but married Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), widow of the late president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), though he also remained involved with Callas.

The intrigues of Callas's personal life soon overshadowed her professional life. The stresses of jet-set living, as well as the strain she had put on her voice throughout her career, began to take their toll. A series of high-profile cancellations continued her downward spiral. Although she returned briefly to perform at the Met between 1964 and 1965, she never resurfaced as the great talent of her youth.

Callas died unexpectedly in Paris, France, on September 16, 1977, shortly before her fifty-fifth birthday. Just as no record exists of Callas's birth, her death also remains shrouded in mystery, the cause of her death never fully explained.

Legacy

In late 2004, opera and film director Franco Zeffirelli made what many consider a bizarre claim that Callas may have been murdered by her confidant, Greek pianist Vasso Devetzi, in order to gain control of Callas's United States $9,000,000 estate. A more likely explanation is that Callas's death was due to heart failure brought on by (possibly unintentional) overuse of Mandrax (methaqualone), a sleeping aid.

According to biographer Stelios Galatopoulos, Devetzi insinuated herself into Callas's trust and acted virtually as her agent. This claim is corroborated by Iakintha (Jackie) Callas in her book Sisters, wherein she asserts that Devetzi conned Maria out of control of half of her estate, while promising to establish the Maria Callas Foundation to provide scholarships for young singers. After hundreds of thousands of dollars had allegedly vanished, Devetzi finally did establish the foundation.

In 2002, filmmaker Zeffirelli produced and directed a film in Callas's memory. Callas Forever was a highly fictionalized motion picture in which Callas was played by Fanny Ardant. It depicted the last months of Callas's life, when she was seduced into the making of a movie of Carmen, lip-synching to her 1964 recording of that opera.

In 2007, Callas was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In the same year, she was voted the greatest soprano of all time by BBC Music Magazine.

The 30th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas was selected as main motif for a high value euro collectors' coins; the €10 Greek Maria Callas commemorative coin, minted in 2007. Her image is shown in the obverse of the coin, while on the reverse the National Emblem of Greece with her signature is depicted.

On December 2, 2008, on the 85th anniversary of Callas's birth, a group of Greek and Italian officials unveiled a plaque in her honor at Flower Hospital (now the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center) where she was born. Made of Carrara marble and engraved in Italy, the plaque reads, “Maria Callas was born in this hospital on December 2, 1923. These halls heard for the first time the musical notes of her voice, a voice which has conquered the world. To this great interpreter of universal language of music, with gratitude.”

Gus Van Sant's 2008 movie Milk features selected recordings of Callas' rendition of "Tosca", which, it is suggested, was an opera of which Harvey Milk was particularly fond. Similarly, Jonathan Demme's 1993 movie Philadelphia features a recording by Callas.

A number of musical artists including Linda Ronstadt, Patti Smith and Emmylou Harris have mentioned Callas as a great musical influence, and some have paid tribute to Callas in their own music:

* R.E.M. mention Callas in their song "E-Bow the Letter" from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
* Enigma named a song which featured samples of Callas's voice, on their 1991 album MCMXC a.D., "Callas Went Away".
* Buffalo Tom's 2007 album Three Easy Pieces contains the song "C.C. and Callas", which appears to be about songwriter Chris Colbourn's reflections on Callas.
* La Diva, on Celine Dions 2007 French language album D'elles is about Maria Callas. The track samples the 1956 recording of "La Boheme".
* Son Lux, aka Ryan Lott, samples Callas for a song on his debut album, At War With Walls And Mazes. Lott splices together several of Callas's vocal samples to form a new arrangement.
* Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright mentions Callas in his song Beauty Mark, from his album Rufus Wainwright. Rufus is known to be an opera fan, particularly passionate about Callas's work. In an interview to the Spanish newspaper El País he declared that one of the things anyone should do at least once in a lifetime was to listen to a Maria Callas album after a night out, if possible during sunrise. On Jonathan Ross' Radio 2 show he stated that Lord Harewood's interview of Callas is part of the inspiration for his opera Prima Donna.
* Jason Mraz lists her performance of "O mio babbino caro" as a romantic musical influence for him.
* Ben Sollee mentions her in his song "Mute with a Bullhorn."
* Band Faithless sampled her voice on the intro to one of their songs on Reverence, "Drifting Away".
* The Mountain Goats mention Callas in their song "Horseradish Road" from the album The Coroner's Gambit.

Notable recordings

All recordings are in mono unless otherwise indicated. Live performances are typically available on multiple labels.

* Verdi, Nabucco, conducted by Vittorio Gui, live performance, Napoli, 20 December 1949
* Verdi, Il trovatore, conducted by Guido Picco, live performance, Mexico City, June 20, 1950
* Verdi, Aida, conducted by Oliviero De Fabritiis, live performance, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, July 3, 1951
* Ponchielli, La Gioconda, conducted by Antonino Votto, studio recording for Fonit Cetra, September 1952
* Bellini, Norma, conducted by Vittorio Gui, live performance, Covent Garden, London, November 18, 1952
* Verdi, Macbeth, conducted by Victor de Sabata, live performance, La Scala, Milan, December 7, 1952
* Bellini, I puritani, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for EMI, March-April 1953
* Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for EMI, August 1953
* Puccini, Tosca, conducted by Victor de Sabata, studio recording for EMI, August 1953.
* Verdi, La traviata, conducted by Gabriele Santini, studio recording for Fonit Cetra, September 1953
* Cherubini, Medea, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, live performance, La Scala, Milan, December 10, 1953
* Leoncavallo, Pagliacci, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for EMI, June 1954
* Spontini, La vestale, conducted by Antonino Votto, live performance, La Scala, Milan, December 7, 1954
* Verdi, La traviata, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, live performance, La Scala, Milan, May 28, 1955
* Puccini, Madama Butterfly, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, studio recording for EMI, August 1955
* Verdi, Aida, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for EMI, August 1955
* Verdi, Rigoletto, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for EMI, September 1955
* Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, live performance, Berlin, September 29, 1955
* Bellini, Norma, conducted by Antonino Votto, live performance, La Scala, Milan, December 7, 1955.
* Verdi, Il trovatore, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, studio recording for EMI, August 1956
* Puccini, La bohème, conducted by Antonino Votto, studio recording for EMI, August-September 1956. Like her later recording of Carmen, this was her only performance of the complete opera, as she never appeared onstage in it.
* Verdi, Un ballo in maschera, conducted by Antonino Votto, studio recording for EMI, September 1956
* Rossini, The Barber of Seville, conducted by Alceo Galliera, studio recording for EMI in stereo, February 1957
* Bellini, La sonnambula, conducted by Antonino Votto, studio recording for EMI, March 1957
* Donizetti, Anna Bolena, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, live performance, La Scala, Milan, April 14, 1957
* Bellini, La sonnambula, conducted by Antonino Votto, live performance, Cologne, July 4, 1957
* Puccini, Turandot, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for EMI, July 1957
* Cherubini, Medea, conducted by Tullio Serafin, studio recording for Ricordi in stereo, September 1957
* Verdi, Un ballo in maschera, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, live performance, La Scala, Milan, December 7, 1957
* Verdi, La traviata, conducted by Franco Ghione, live performance, Lisbon, March 27, 1958
* Mad Scenes (excerpts from Anna Bolena, Bellini's Il pirata and Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet), conducted by Nicola Rescigno, studio recording for EMI in stereo, September 1958
* Cherubini, Medea conducted by Nicola Rescigno, live performance at the Dallas Civic Opera in 1958; considered to be Callas's most notable performance of Cherubini's opera.
* Ponchielli, La Gioconda, conducted by Antonino Votto, studio recording for EMI in stereo, September 1959
* Puccini, Tosca, conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario, live performance, London, January 1964
* Bizet, Carmen, conducted by Georges Prêtre, studio recording for EMI in stereo, 1964. It is her only performance of the role, and her only performance of the complete opera; she never appeared in it onstage. The recording used the recitatives added after Bizet's death. Callas's performance caused critic Harold C. Schonberg to speculate in his book The Glorious Ones that Callas perhaps should have sung mezzo roles instead of simply soprano ones.
* Puccini, Tosca, conducted by Georges Prêtre, studio recording for EMI in stereo, December 1964.

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