Maria Callas — La Divina — was a phenomenon who changed the very nature of operatic singing. She was born Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos to Greek émigré parents in New York in 1923. Her father changed their surname to Kalos (meaning beautiful), later to Callas. She went on to become perhaps the most celebrated female opera singer of all time.
Her repertoire was huge. While still in her twenties she sang utterly different title roles, from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, to say nothing of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre the same year. At 27 Callas was summoned by La Fenice in Venice at six days’ notice to sing the leading soprano role in Bellini’s I puritani, an opera based on a play set in the English Civil War. It was a triumph, leading her to champion the great bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, in addition to better known fare by Puccini and Verdi. Her debut at La Scala in Milan was in Verdi’s I vespri siciliani in 1951, where they subsequently mounted numerous productions around her voice.
At the New York Met, she got into a row with the director Rudolf Bing — a great admirer — and he cancelled her contract. But when asked about it later she demonstrated perfect professionalism. La Divina did not stoop to human failings, though in her many roles she exhibited raw human emotion in ways not previously seen in opera.
Her swan song was at Covent Garden in the title role of Tosca in 1965. Tickets were impossible to get, and I recall a story of people thronging outside to catch a glimpse or hear a note. One man outside the stage door said excitedly that he had heard the diva sing. In fact it was opera director John Copley who could sing all the roles in any opera he produced. I don’t recall where I heard that tale, possibly from Copley himself, who could do remarkable imitations.
Callas, like Tosca (Vissi d’arte vissi d’amore), lived for art and for love, which she used to escape an ambitious but unstable and controlling mother. Sadly she left her husband for the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. He, like her, was a self-made success story, but he had no interest in opera or indeed singing. Though she renounced her American citizenship, perhaps hoping to marry Onassis, they were ill-matched. In 1968 he abandoned Callas to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, who had been born into money and suited him better. Having retired at the early age of 41, Callas died in 1977 just 12 years later.
The 7 Deaths of Maria Callas at the English National Opera is an intriguing compilation of film sequences and on-stage singing by Marina Ambramović, who created the libretto jointly with Petter Skavlan. The extra music by Marko Nikodijević, conducted by Yoel Gamzou, created a compelling atmosphere, though I could have done without some of the video projections. But for anyone unused to opera this was a fine introduction to some of the great operatic arias in works where the heroine dies a tragic death. The seven deaths are: Violetta in La Traviata; Tosca as she faces Scarpia (and we see her terrifying descent from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo); Desdemona singing Ave Maria before Otello arrives to strangle her; Butterfly singing Un bel di as she dreams of seeing smoke rise from afar showing Pinkerton’s ship returning (her joy is short-lived when she finds he has arrived with his new American wife); Carmen’s teasing habanera (Don José will later kill her out of jealousy); Lucia’s mad scene il dolce suono in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor; Norma’s famous casta diva as she fulfils her duty to the goddess despite learning that her lover, to whom she has born two children, has abandoned her; and finally Maria Callas’s own death scene in Paris at the age of 53.
She died suddenly of a heart attack. The doctors had dismissed her ailments as symptoms of a stressful life, but they were surely those of an undiagnosed medical condition. Her loss was a loss to us all, and had Callas lived to a ripe old age we might now be celebrating her hundredth birthday.
This co-production with the Bayerishe Staatsoper, the Greek National Opera, the Opéra national de Paris and the Teatro San Carlo in Naples continues at the ENO on November 8, 9 and 11 (matinée and evening).
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