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2006-02-07 A fairytale life tainted by tragedy

Many real-life fairy tales do not have a happy ending. For me, one of the saddest is the story of a lady, who despite changing the face of the opera world and succeeding as the most celebrated soprano of the twentieth century, failed as a woman - a contemporary Greek tragedy from beginning to end.

 

Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Calageropoulou  not the catchiest of stage-names  was born in New York in 1923. Her parents had emigrated from Greece, and were disappointed when a second girl was born. In 1929, Mr Calageropoulou changed his surname to Callas. Mrs Callas was pushy, living her own dreams through her daughters. After a divorce the three Callas ladies returned to Greece alone. Having studied piano from an early age, Maria was a fast learner. She studied voice with one of Athens top teachers. After several high-profile performances in Greece, Maria returned to New York. Two years later, she met a rich businessman  Meneghini - who became her husband in 1949. Meneghini became a father-figure to Maria, allowing her to pursue her goals, as well as terminate her relationship with her mother, for good.

Successful débuts at Verona and La Scala (under the guidance of conductor Serafin and director Visconti) were swiftly followed by a recording contract with EMI. Thirty years after her death, her many full opera recordings remain some of EMIs top-sellers.

In 1954, Maria lost more than 30 kilos in her quest to be as beautiful, and as adored, as her Hollywood contemporary Audrey Hepburn. Around this time, Maria began her affair with Greek tycoon and professional lady collector  Aristotile Onassis. Maria became Onassis latest trophy. He never supported her career  why did she need to sing when hehad money?

Callas was a controversial Diva, and at the height of her fame had several high profile arguments, tantrums and last-minute cancellations. She seemed happy to change from Queen of Opera to Queen of Jetset Society. But with Onassis, Maria began to experience vocal and emotional problems, at one time attempting suicide. She performed less on the operatic stage, and only infrequently on the concert platform. For Onassis, she aborted their child, the child she had longed for.

Marias spellbinding performance as Tosca at Covent Garden in 1964, under the direction of Zefferelli, is thankfully preserved on film. For her Tosca at New Yorks Met, people queued for standing tickets for four days.

Her voice possesses the most distinctive timbre on disc. At times, when the drama took over, she went slightly sharp, and so the voice occasionally sounds flawed. I say it is the most expressive instrument, tinged with authentic sadness, and vulnerability. Marias artistry and stage presence in all of her many varied roles was unmatched. She was the first acting-singer (like Domingo), she became the role, and gave of herself to her audience.

But like many classic Divas, her life was tragically flawed. Opera was a mask covering up many miseries. She longed to be loved (at times not even trusting her adoring public), she longed for a child and to be a good mother, and she wanted to be beautiful. What was the point of being the most successful in her field, without love? Callas the artist was in constant turmoil with Maria the woman.

In hindsight, the roles she sang were almost auto-biographical  Tosca the vulnerable Diva, Violetta cheated of life and love, Normas conflicts between her job as priestess and the woman, and Butterfly giving up her precious baby.

After Onassis married his latest trophy Jacqueline Kennedy, Marias career began to wind down. Her famous Juilliard Masterclasses were later to become a stage play. After a publicly successful concert tour with her friend and colleague Giuseppe di Stefano was damned by critics, Maria became a recluse in Paris. She lost all enthusiasm for life. The mask had gone. Like a scene from Sunset Boulevard, Callas the artist had died, and all that remained was an empty shell of womanhood. People had given up on her.

On September 16th 1977, La Divina made her final exit at the age of 53. As the coffin left her Parisian apartment, crowds cheered Brava for her final curtain call. Her ashes were scattered on the Aegean Sea. She left her legacy, but the fairy tale had gone horribly wrong.