Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.
Biography of María Callas, Greek soprano. When talking about opera singers, the name María Callas automatically comes up.
The great merits of soprano María Callas
Her name has been linked to bel canto, as the most eminent singer of the 20th century, who gave brilliance and popularity to the operas of Verdi, Wagner and all the great composers.
This extraordinary woman of Greek origin and born in New York in 1923, was endowed with an incredibly beautiful voice and a great presence on stage.
There is no doubt that her innate qualities required great sacrifices and enormous willpower, throughout her life, to achieve the wide and perfect mastery of vocal technique and dramatic talent.
Her vocal register was extraordinarily broad: it spanned three octaves. Which allowed her to alternate soprano and alto voices, without losing the musicality and poetic expressiveness.
She was able to delight her audience, with over-sharp notes that she qualified with great lyrical talent. They said that with her the beautiful Italian romantic song touched the sky.
Her name is associated in the collective memory with that of Aristotle Onassis.
In total, she gave voice to 47 characters, and her stage repertoire included the works of all the great composers. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Amilcare Ponchielli, Giuseppe Verdi, Arrigo Boito, Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz von Suppe, Joseph Haydn.
This reveals two facts: a) that she devoted all her efforts to polishing and improving that magnificent vocal instrument with which nature had endowed her; b) a very serious and professional job to memorize texts and scores as varied.
No less numerous is the number of albums of songs and complete operas that she recorded for 20 years, from 1949 to March 1969.
Childhood and family of María Callas
María Callas was the daughter of a couple of Greek emigrants who came to the United States in August 1923.
It is curious to know that another great soprano, Victoria de los Ángeles, was also born in 1923.
Her mother was called Evangelia Dimitriade. Her father, George Kaloyerópulos, was a pharmacist by profession.
When Mr. Kaloyerópulos opened a family business in a Greek neighborhood in Manhattan, he decided to change her last name to Callas, much easier to pronounce and remember.
In 1937, after the separation from her husband, Evangelia Dimitriade returned to Greece with her two daughters: María and Yacinthy.
Both reverted to their original last name, Kaloyerópulos.
Musical formation of the soprano María Callas
With the firm support of her mother, María began her musical training at the Athens National Conservatory.
Since she was only 14 years old, she was allowed to falsify her age so that she could register (16 years was the minimum age).
She studied with the soprano Maria Trivella and with Elvira Hidalgo (Spanish, and one of the best sopranos.
Elvira Hidalgo had retired from the stage in 1923, and also formed Montserrat Caballé.
In 1938, in Athens, María Kaloyerópulos made her unprofessional debut playing the role of Santuzza, in Cavallería Rusticana (by Pietro Mascagni).
Soprano María Callas debuted in Athens
In 1942, María Callas made her true debut, performing at the Teatro Lírico Nacional in Athens.
Her first great success was achieved in that same year, at the Athens Opera, with Tosca (by Giacomo Puccini).
In the closing months of World War II, the British fleet evicted the German occupiers from Greece, and Maria decided to return to New York alone.
María arrived at her father’s house and was renamed María Callas again.
María Callas’ first successes in the United States
Her successes were not many, but in 1946-1947 she rejected two offers from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York: one, she did not want to sing at the opera “Fidelio“, because it was in English; She declined the other offer, because she didn’t want to start in New York with the role of Butterfly.
María Callas always showed a very strong character and was decisive in her decisions.
In 1946, she continued to work hard to achieve the perfection of her portentous voice and to learn the operas that most interested her.
The development of her memory went hand in hand with the improvement of her vocal and theatrical techniques.
In 1947, she agreed to sing the opera “Turandot” (music by Giacomo Puccini) in Chicago, with a cast of famous European singers.
Soon after, in New York, she met the director of the “Arena de Verona”, who hired her to sing in that amphitheater “La Gioconda” by Amilcare Ponchielli.
María Callas married Giovanni Meneghini
She then traveled to Italy; There in Verona, she met Giovanni Meneghini, a wealthy construction industrialist, 30 years her senior (María was 24 years old).
Since then Giovanni Meneghini was decisive in managing María Callas’ incipient artistic career.
In 1949, Maria married Giovanni and was renamed María Meneghini Callas.
Her performance at the “Gioconda” was a great success. Unfortunately, this was not reflected in new contracts.
After that, María Callas found herself without a job; but, thanks to the financial support provided by Meneghini, she managed to continue her private singing studies.
Beginning of the great successes of María Callas
She began preparing to apply for the title role in Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde” at the “La Fenice” theater in Venice.
She got the role and had a resounding reception from the public. Thanks to this success, she won contracts to sing “Turandot“, by Puccini, and the character of Brunilda in “The Valkyrie” by Richard Wagner, during the seasons of 1948-1949.
In 1949, during the European summer break, she made her South American debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, with “Aída” by Verdi and “Norma” by Bellini.
Back in Italy, the circumstance occurred that in Venice the opera “I puritani” by Bellini would be performed with Margherita Carosio in the role of Elvira.
But, Margherita Carosio became ill and had to be replaced urgently. María Callas did a test for the musical director of the theater, who decided that she would be the best choice as Elvira.
She was given a week to learn the entire opera. After the first performance of “I puritani“, María Callas became “the voice of Italy“. She was 26 years old.
La Scala in Milan the scene of the Callas triumphs
On December 7, 1951, she sang in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aída“. On that day, the Scala in Milan surrendered to Maria’s magnificent performance.
María Callas continued at La Scala during the 1951–1952 season, singing Verdi’s plays and being acclaimed as the best soprano.
From that date, the successful performances of the Callas multiplied by all the great world stages.
International performances of María Callas
In Paris, at the Opera Garnier, María Callas gave a live recital on December 19, 1958. The recital was broadcast to more than a dozen countries in Europe.
This was the beginning of María Callas’s intimate relationship with the city of Paris.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the record industry had undergone impressive technical development. The EMI company was the most important in those years.
In July 1952, Marría Callas signed an exclusive recording contract with Walter Legge, EMI music producer.
Thanks to this contract, music lovers from all over the world have been able to hear the prodigious voice of María Callas over and over again, in all the roles of the most famous operas of all time: Rigoletto, La Traviata, Bohemia and so many others.
Between 1953-1954, María Callas gave a sample of her great professionalism and willpower.
When Luchino Visconti performed the staging of the opera “La Traviata“. Visconti wanted María Callas to represent the character of Violetta Valéry, sick with consumption and who died on the scene.
María Callas was tall and stout. In order to plausibly interpret the consumptive Violetta from the play, she struggled to lose more than 36 kilos.
Needless to say, Visconti hired her for all the other similar stagings she performed.
In 1957, a party took place in Venice, where her friend Elsa Maxwell (columnist and music critic) introduced her to the Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis.
In 1958, María Callas sang together with the young Canarian tenor Alfredo Kraus, in Lisbon. It was one of the most acclaimed performances of Verdi’s “La Traviata”.
Also in 1958, in the city of Dallas she sang “Medea” by Luigi Cherubini, together with the young Spanish woman Teresa Berganza.
María Callas had a performance at the Teatro del Liceo, Barcelona, in 1959. On that occasion, cheers of “Long live Tebaldi!” were heard.
This unfortunate incident was due to the fact that her great rival in bel canto was the famous Renata Tebaldi.
However, this did not cloud María Callas’ tremendous victory in Barcelona.
The idyll of María Callas with the millionaire Onassis
At that time, the idyll that she maintained with Aristotle Onassis was made public. The Greek magnate covered her with millionaire praise and gifts.
In November 1959, Maria Callas left her husband, Giovanni Meneghini, after 10 years of living together.
Meneghini retired from public life. However, he always remained a faithful defender of María Callas. Meneghini passed away at age 85, in 1981.
The idyll with the Greek millionaire never ended. This was due to Onassis’s reluctance to grant Maria Callas’s requests for marriage.
The decline of the voice of soprano María Callas
Their relationship lasted until 1968, when Onassis suddenly abandoned her, to marry Jacqueline Kennedy.
From 1961, the voice of María Callas began to decline noticeably.
Finally, in 1965, she performed hers last opera performance, with “Tosca“, at Covent Garden in London.
She was not yet 42 years old. Her performance in the lyrical world left an imperishable mark; and contributed decisively to the flourishing of the operatic genre worldwide.
The last years of María Callas
Once she retired from the lyrical stages, María Callas worked on a Paolo Pasolini film.
She also dedicated herself to teaching some singing master classes.
Shortly before, she had renounced US citizenship and re-adopted Greek nationality.
She settled definitively in Paris. There she lived in complete solitude, in an apartment near Trocadero, on Avenue George Mandel.
In 1973, after years of absence from the stage, her friend and former stage partner, Giuseppe di Stefano, encouraged her to perform with him in “El tenor de la Callas“.
They did it to evoke the good old days of success together. The first concert of the world tour took place on October 25 in Hamburg.
With hardly a trace of her proverbial voice, this concert was an artistic failure. However, it turned out to be a nostalgic hit, worldwide.
The final concert took place on November 11, 1974 in Sapporo (a city in northern Japan). It was the last place on the planet where María Callas was heard singing.
On September 16, 1977, Maria passed away in her Paris apartment.
Her funeral took place on September 20, 1977; her body was cremated in the Parisian cemetery of Père Lachaise.
The ashes were scattered in the Aegean Sea.
More than 40 years have passed since her death. But the voice of María Callas continues to delight millions of people.
Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.