Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Happy Birthday, La Divina!

On December 2, 1923, Sophia Cecelia Kalos was born here in Manhattan. Later christened Sofia Cecilia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos, Maria Callas was the 3rd child of Greek immigrants George and Evangelia Kalogeropoulos.

Since Maria's older brother had died from meningitis, Evangelia (or Litza) was convinced that her third child would be a boy; she was so disappointed by the birth of another daughter that she refused to even look at Maria for four days. Around age three, Maria's musical talents began to manifest themselves, and after Evangelia discovered that her youngest daughter also had a voice, she began pressuring Maria to sing. Callas would later recall, "I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it."

After a non-existent childhood, Maria's mother moved her and her sister Jackie back to their home in Greece. Callas began studying voice and before long was studying with spanish coloratura Elvira de Hidalgo at the Athens Conservatoire. De Hidalgo would later recall Callas as "a phenomenon... She would listen to all my students, sopranos, mezzos, tenors... She could do it all." Callas herself said that she would go to "the conservatoire at 10 in the morning and leave with the last pupil ... devouring music" for 10 hours a day. When asked by her teacher why she did this, her answer was that even "with the least talented pupil, he can teach you something that you, the most talented, might not be able to do."

On April 2, 1939, a 16 year old Maria Callas undertook the part of Santuzza in a student production of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at the Olympia Theater, and in the fall of the same year she officially enrolled at the Athens Conservatoire. After several appearances as a student, Callas began appearing in secondary roles at the Greek National Opera. De Hidalgo was instrumental in securing roles for her, allowing Callas to earn a small salary, which would help her and her family get through the war.

Callas made her professional debut in February 1942 in the small role of Beatrice in Franz von Suppé's Boccaccio. Later, Callas made her leading role debut in August 1942 as Tosca, going on to sing the role of Marta in Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland.

Back in the United States by 1945, she auditioned for Edward Johnson, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in December. Callas maintained that the Met offered her Madama Butterfly and Fidelio, to be performed in Philadelphia and sung in English, both of which she declined. She felt she was too fat for Butterfly and did not like the idea of opera in English. Although no written evidence of this offer exists in the Met's records, in a 1958 interview with The New York Post, Johnson corroborated Callas's story: "We offered her a contract, but she didn't like it—because of the contract, not because of the roles. She was right in turning it down—it was frankly a beginner's contract."

Refusing the Met in the beginning proved no effect on her career. She quickly became one of the most recognized and famous women in the world and was also responsible for bringing many of the long forgotten Bel Canto operas back to the stage. Of course, with fame comes scandal and controversy: The dramatic weight loss, a "rivalry" with Renata Tebaldi, her difficult temper, her firing from the Met by Rudolf Bing, a relationship with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis which ended when Onassis left Maria for Jackie Kennedy and her subsequent vocal decline.

Because of this vocal decline, her singing career was essentially over by the time she was 40. In a magazine article printed shortly after her death, Callas is quoted as saying:
I never lost my voice, but I lost strength in my diaphragm. ... Because of those organic complaints, I lost my courage and boldness. My vocal cords were and still are in excellent condition, but my 'sound boxes' have not been working well even though I have been to all the doctors. The result was that I overstrained my voice, and that caused it to wobble. (Gente, October 1, 1977)
Callas spent her last years living largely in isolation in Paris and died on September 16, 1977, of a heart attack. A funeral was held at St. Stephen's Greek Orthodox Cathedral on rue Georges-Bizet, Paris, on September 20, 1977, and her ashes were interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. After being stolen and later recovered, they were scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, according to her wish.

As with many people of her stature, Maria Callas' genius was overshadowed by the controversy that followed her and the scandals that distracted her. No matter, though: Her artistic achievements were so great that Leonard Bernstein called her "The Bible of opera". In 2006, Opera News wrote of her, "Nearly thirty years after her death, she's still the definition of the diva as artist—and still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists."

Happy Birthday to Maria Callas who would have been 86 years old today.

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