Maria Callas (1923-77), painted here by Ulisse Sartini, was an extraordinary artistic phenomenon well beyond the world of singing, opera and music itself. To find a similar kind of fanatical devotion to a star, you would have to look in the world of cinema or popular music. This great Greek-American soprano, who became an Italian citizen, owes the building of her dramatic, musical and popular mystique mainly to La Scala.
Her career at the Milanese theatre lasted for 10 and a half years, from 1950 to 1961. From around 40 roles, 23 were at La Scala of which 6 were 7th December premières.
She had a voice full of Greek tragedy, all nerves and anxiety, made for divine roles like Norma, or for ambitious, evil women like Lady Macbeth (Verdi) or witches like Cherubini’s Medea. She was queen of the downtrodden, seething with pain to the point of madness, able to produce thousands of shades and nuances. Empathy with the characters she portrayed led her to involve us in her own unhappiness, that internal pain so inexplicable in such a successful woman. As a youngster she compensated for her slightly overweight frame with the perfection of her singing voice. It was in 1954 that she performed Spontini’s The Vestal Virgin and when she also first met film director Luchino Visconti. In the same year she sang Bellini’s The Sleepwalker, with Leonard Bernstein on the podium. Amongst her credits, she participated in a Donizetti-Renaissance by performing Anne Boleyn, also directed by Luchino Visconti.
When her voice began to lose its youthful polish, caused by dieting in 1954, she compensated for it with her slimmer figure and more severe face. For her the same principle applied to wine or cognac: age makes the vintage. On the basis that her prime was from ‘47 to ‘54, and unable to agree, the experts say that her best season was 1952 given that her long slow decline began in 1956. Callas had the fascination of a flower whose beauty is enhanced by the brevity of its life. Throughout the 1950s, she was known as Maria Menghini Callas. It wasn’t until 1960 after meeting Onassis
that she dropped her husband’s name and appeared on the bill for a production of Donizetti’s Poliuto as simply
Maria Callas. But all her fans already called her simply “Maria”.