Who was Maria Callas?

For many people, Maria Callas was the greatest singer of whom we have record or records. For some others she is overrated, had an ugly voice, went into decline very shortly after her brief period of glory, and as an actress (as preserved on video) was mannered, even grotesque.


Everything about her is controversial, and to try to produce a balanced account of her, as an artist or woman, is to misunderstand what kind of phenomenon she was, and remains today.

At that stage she was considered a heavy-voiced artist, and went on to perform Isolde, Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, and Kundry in Parsifal, all in Italian, though often with partners singing in other languages: ‘Geliebte!’ ‘Carissimo!’ is the kind of exchange you’d hear between lovers.

But the elderly conductor Tullio Serafin, that great nurturer of talent, persuaded her to learn and perform the role of Elvira in Bellini’s I puritani when the original soprano fell ill and, protesting it was impossible, Callas did it, alternating one of the great bel canto roles with Brünnhilde, an unheard-of feat.

Soon Callas’s extraordinary timbre, the flexibility of her voice and the fanatical dedication of her performances were creating a sensation, one which happily coincided with the arrival of long-playing records, which made the recording of operas under ideal studio conditions possible.

What was Maria Callas best known for?

The number of complete operas that Callas recorded for EMI in the 1950s and early 1960s is prodigious, and until the last ones they were under the omnipotent control of the great producer Walter Legge, who incidentally described Callas as having ‘a superhuman inferiority complex.’

Her energy during the next few years was prodigious. 1955, for example, her annus mirabilis, began with six performances of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier at La Scala Milan, interspersed with four of Cherubini’s Medea in Rome; she then went on to ten La Sonnambulas (Bernstein’s debut as operatic conductor) and five performances of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia – all were new roles for her.

Then at the end of May she gave some of her most stupendous performances in La traviata, conducted by Giulini and directed by Visconti, a landmark in operatic production. During the summer she made a recital record and classic studio recordings of Madama Butterfly, Aida and Rigoletto, with a radio broadcast of Bellini’s Norma, her favourite and most performed opera. And the summer closed with two sensational performances in Berlin of Lucia di Lammermoor, with Karajan conducting – fortunately preserved as perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Callas’s art.

She popped across to Chicago for two each of I puritani and Il trovatore, and three of Madama Butterfly; and brought the year to a close with six performances of Norma at La Scala. In 1956 she was even busier.

‘Driven’ hardly seems to be the word. Since we have almost all the productions on record, first on ‘pirate’ recordings, then assimilated into the EMI catalogue, we can judge that her voice was in magnificent shape throughout this marathon. Probably no singer has ever sung so many vastly varying roles in so short a space, and certainly not with such intensity and disciplined abandon.

There were already mutterings, even from some of her dedicated fans, who by this time were legion, that her voice was showing signs of wear. But the Chinese proverb ‘He who rides a tiger can never get off’ applied with horrible force.

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Always conscious of being surrounded by people who wished her ill, Callas had the choice of showing them that she was invincible or admitting that she had reached her peak.

She naturally chose the former, and had two more brilliant years. All this time she was being supported by her rich husband, Giovanni Meneghini – dull, much older than she was, but a fighter for high fees and a buffer against the world.

Unfortunately, after the sensational loss of weight which Callas achieved in 1954, by what means is still hotly debated – down 30 kilos to a slim Audrey-Hepburn figure – she decided she wanted to take her place in international high society, and was shallow enough, once she made the entrée, to enjoy it, posing with princes and other celebrities of the time.

What happened between Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis?

Worst of all, she met the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and he decided, despite being married, to get Callas at all costs. He even endured two and a half operatic performances by her, then asked her why on earth she bothered.

She and her husband went on a Mediterranean cruise on Onassis’s luxury yacht, and by the time it ended, Meneghini was a cuckold. There were lengthy divorce proceedings; there is no doubt that Callas was passionately in love, possibly for the first time, with Onassis.

But in 1963, after they had been lovers for four years, John F Kennedy was assassinated, and Onassis was now free to pursue Jackie, who had become the world’s most famous woman. She married him for his money, and Callas was left lonely and distraught.

Did Maria Callas ever consider retiring?

Maria Callas greets the audience after a concert in New York's Carnegie Hall, May 3, 1974

With no one person to back her, as there had always been, and with failing confidence and appalling nerves, she almost gave up performing complete operas, and took to glamorous recitals, of which many survive, both in audio sound and on DVD. They are marvellous occasions, and give us a powerful insight into her genius.

For instance, during the Prelude to Act V of Verdi’s Don Carlo, with restrained gestures and amazing use of her huge eyes, she creates the whole tragic atmosphere of that great opera, and then sings Verdi’s finest aria, ‘Tu che le vanità’ to eviscerating effect. And she does the same in each item in a long programme.

By 1963 the only complete operas she was singing were Norma, often said to be the most taxing of all for the singer of the title role, and Tosca, which she gave to hysterical acclaim in Covent Garden, Paris and New York, her last operatic appearance being on 5 July 1965 in London, at the age of 41.

‘Tragic’, that overworked word, is the only way to characterise the 12 years that lay ahead. Even recording sessions of arias terrified her, and though she made some discs, they were not published, mainly, until after her death. Sometimes they were as impressive as they had ever been.

She sang Aida’s great aria ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ in a rage and a single take, having just listened to Régine Crespin’s recording of it and been outraged by its placidity, and it has all the qualities of her singing in her peak years.

There were many plans for her to return to the stage, but she always pulled out, dreading the battle with herself. She made a not very successful film of Medea with director Pier Paolo Pasolini – as a spoken drama.

Neither he nor she knew the difference between cinematic and operatic acting. She tried producing an opera, but since she was, as she always had been, almost blind, she was unable to mobilise large forces. But she did give a successful series of master classes in New York, in which she sang snatches of the arias the students were presenting.

Finally, in 1973 Giuseppe Di Stefano, her one-time regular stage partner, and now her lover, persuaded her to undertake a world tour. They sang operatic arias and duets, but with piano accompaniment only. Di Stefano took his usual casual approach, Callas was beside herself with terror.

The results can be seen and heard in some DVDs, on YouTube and on ‘private’ CDs. Often they are painful, Callas too frightened to give much attention to interpretation. Even so, there are moments, but that is all they are.

When did Maria Callas die?

At the end of the tour, in Sapporo, she retired to her Paris apartment and became a recluse. Onassis had died, and although they had long separated Callas was devastated. She got up at about noon on 16 September 1977, and collapsed, was given some coffee, then died of a heart attack. She was just 53 years old.

Everyone who cares about opera knows where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

When was Maria Callas born?

Maria Callas was born in New York on 2 December 1923 to Greek immigrant parents.


We named Maria Callas top in our survey of the greatest sopranos of all time


Michael TannerJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Michael Tanner is a critic for BBC Music Magazine and the opera critic of The Spectator. He is now a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having lectured in the Philosophy faculty at the University of Cambridge for 36 years. In 2010, he released The Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner.