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01 JUNE 2016

The Life of Maria Callas

It is very difficult to speak of the voice of Callas. Her voice was a very special instrument. Something happens sometimes with string instruments—violin, viola, cello—where the first moment you listen to the sound of this instrument, the first feeling is a bit strange sometimes. But after just a few minutes, when you get used to, when you become friends with this kind of sound, then the sound becomes a magical quality. This was Callas.
In the summer of ’64 a woman asked for permission to sing out of schedule in the summer festival of Lefkas. Rumor had it that it was a famous singer staying in the nearby island of Skorpios, a member of Aristotle Onasis’ faithful entourage. The excited murmurs of the audience ceased the moment she sung the first notes from “Voi lo sapete, o mamma” from Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, which was the first role of her career in the performance of the Greek National Conservatory in 1937. The locals could not believe their eyes or ears as Maria Callas herself, the La Divina of the Opera, poured her heart out in what proved to be one of her last ever lyric performances. For a while it seemed as nature itself ceased all sounds to listen to the divine voice of the world famous soprano, as she reached angelic heights in a performance of a lifetime that remains forever etched in the minds of the locals. This impromptu musical extravaganza signified the end of an era for Callas. Only a year later she collapsed on stage after the third act of Bellini’s Norma, never to return to opera performances- although she never stopped working, singing and recording until her early death a decade later.
It was a sad end to a turbulent life and career. Maria was born in New York to Greek immigrant parents but was raised by an overbearing mother in Athens, a clumsy plumb child with a beautiful voice.  A diligent student, often practicing for more than 8 hours a day, she was the pride of her teachers and especially of Elvira de Hidalgo. Elvira introduced her to the intricate techniques of Italian romantic repertoire. After staring in numerous performances in Greece, Callas moved back to New York determined to take by storm the American operatic scene. After two long years of unemployment she was finally commissioned to sing in the prestigious Arena di Verona. Her huge voice resonated through the stones of the ancient amphitheater and enchanted not only the established conductor and her soon-to-be mentor Tullio Serafin but also Giovanni Battista Meneghini who begun courting her. Following their marriage Meneghini was Callas’ manager, publicist, friend and confidante until the dissolution of their marriage. It was through his guidance that her career eventually took off and Maria begun acting in dramatic soprano roles. Having taken by storm the esteemed Scala di Milano Maria was placed in the center of international interest, securing her professional success; her tempestuous temperament though and extravagant demands fueled scandal and unwanted media attention.
Following Meneghini’s advice the plumb Callas then followed a strict diet plan to lose weight so as to be the perfect embodiment of the delicate characters she represented. Having completely altered her appearance there was nothing to stand in the way of her American dream. She practically enforced her terms to the director of the Metropolitan Opera who agreed to meet her extraordinary financial demands and later declared that the night of her first appearance in the MET was the most fascinating in his lifetime.
Her voice became instantly recognizable and her name a synonym for operatic excellence. Still, partly because of her strenuous dieting and partly owing to her exhausting schedule, her voice and health begun to fail. Maria’s infatuation with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, her tumultuous separation with Meneghini and the marriage of Aristotle to Jackie Kennedy took a heavy toll on her, as did the scandal-mongering press. She became a recluse, eventually dying alone in her apartment in Paris.
Her name and voice had by that time been immortalized in the memories of people from all around the world. Maria has travelled as far as Japan and South America for concerts and performances yet she always considered Greece her home and haven. Her ashes were scattered off the shores of the Aegean so that she could finally rest in peace in the land she loved and cherished so deeply; as the winds of the Aegean howl and the turquoise waves crush on its rocky beaches you can almost hear her voice blasting familiar, heart-warming notes.
 

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