Maria Callas (1923-1977), American-born Greek operatic soprano, the preeminent prima donna (lead female opera singer) of her day, and the first modern soprano to revive forgotten operas of the 19th-century bel canto repertoire. Callas revolutionized opera performances through her vocal and dramatic intensity, transforming what had traditionally been empty display pieces into serious drama. She drew praise for the distinctive color of her voice, her dramatic presence, and her careful musicianship.
Born Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos in New York City to Greek American parents, Callas moved to Athens, Greece, at age 13 with her family. (Her father had changed the family name to Callas while they were in the United States.) In Athens she studied voice and learned the bel canto (Italian for “beautiful song”) style. Though she was still in her teens, the sheer size of her voice and its three-octave range qualified her for roles normally sung by mature sopranos whose voices have grown deeper and heavier with age. These included dramatic roles in Italian opera and even the powerful roles in the operas of German composer Richard Wagner.
Callas made her first major appearance in Athens in 1941 in Tosca by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Her early career included such roles as Isolde (in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), Brünnhilde (in Wagner’s Die Walküre), and Aïda (in the opera by Giuseppe Verdi). She achieved fame in 1949 when she sang Brünnhilde and Elvira in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani in the same week—a remarkable feat (because of the two works’ total difference in style and vocal demands), one not equaled in the previous half century.
Callas joined La Scala in Milan, Italy, in 1951, becoming the prima donna of that opera house, where she sang most of the 37 roles of her repertory. Encouraged by her mentor, Italian conductor Tullio Serafin, she turned toward coloratura bel canto roles, including the title roles in Bellini’s Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Coloratura bel canto singing, with its trills, runs, and other vocal ornaments, requires a flexible voice, clear articulation, a beautiful tone, and a high range. Callas’s voice in addition was able to encompass the conflicting emotions of Norma; the pert and funny humanity of Rosina in The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini; the sad, demented character of Lucia; and the proud, dramatic heroines of Verdi. Some of these operas, especially those of Bellini, had seldom been performed.
In 1953 and 1954 Callas lost her excess weight. Svelte, elegant, and more confident, she was able to bring greater dramatic realism and credibility to her roles. Also in 1954 she achieved her first American success, at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, and two years later she opened the 1956-1957 season of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City as Norma. In the late 1950s she developed vocal problems. By 1962 she had withdrawn from the stage. However, she returned in 1965 for performances of Tosca in Paris, London, and New York City. Despite her vocal defects, these performances confirmed her reputation as the most credible and poignant singer of any in that role.
Callas had a tempestuous personal life. In 1949 she married Italian businessman Giovanni Meneghini, who was 28 years older than she. Meneghini served as her manager and is credited with helping her career. However, the marriage seemed to lack romance, and in the late 1950s Callas began a long-standing and stormy romantic relationship with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Callas gave up her United States citizenship in 1966, in part to annul her marriage to Meneghini. She was said to have been devastated after Onassis married former United States first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968, and was further depressed when Onassis died in 1975. In her final years, Callas lived reclusively in Paris, where she died of a heart attack at age 53. In keeping with her wishes, her ashes were later scattered over the Aegean Sea.