Maria Callas was born in New York of Greek parents, who separated; her mother returned to Greece with her, where she grew up during World War II. She made her international debut in Verona in 1947 and became an international star in 1951, her major stage career lasting hardly more than a decade. Her last operatic performance was in London in 1965 and she made a comeback tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano in 1973-74 before her death in Paris in 1977. Her reputation, extremely high when she died, has become ever greater in the 30 years since her death. As a personality she remains controversial, but as an artist hardly at all: her genius is recognised as supreme by virtually all opera lovers, indeed it is often from listening to her many recordings that people discover what an incredibly potent art form opera can be.
Callas was always insistent that opera is drama. She had no time for it as an exhibition of vocal or technical prowess, both of which she possessed to an extreme degree. Everything had to serve the purposes of the dramatic action, which she saw as an almost religious act of purgation, for the singer and the spectator-listener. And what she demonstrated to almost everyone’s amazement was that the operas of such neglected Italian masters as Donizetti and Bellini could be brought back to vivid life, on stage and on record, if they were no longer treated as vehicles of display but taken with the same seriousness as Mozart or even Wagner. That would have seemed absurd until Callas proved it, above all in Bellini’s Norma, her favourite role, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Verdi’s La traviata, to which she brought an intensity which can be downright unnerving. So she is as Tosca and Madam Butterfly, the first of which she professed to despise, but which she performed to lacerating effect (its hair-raising Act II is the only complete act in which she can be seen, from Covent Garden in 1964). Her voice is not beautiful in any conventional way, but it is uncannily expressive, and not only in tragic operas, though it is there that she reigns unchallenged. With Callas no phrase is treated as secondary, there are no dead notes, the effect is of someone who is so alive to every impression that life itself is – the cliché is unavoidable – an agony and ecstasy. As with all the greatest artists – and Callas ranks with creative artists, as only two or three performing musicians do – she takes you into a realm where it’s hard to know whether you even want to experience something at this level of intensity, where the demands of being alive seem simultaneously intolerable and exhilarating. Even if she had not run into severe vocal problems (and into Aristotle Onassis) it seems that she must have burned herself out, and not given a damn if she did, so long as she conveyed, through her singing, what it is like to insist on embracing life in
its depths and heights.
In her own words: 'An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.’
Greatest recording: Bellini Norma (1960) EMI 566 4282