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Culture

Remembering Maria Callas: 1923-1977

September 16 marked 37 years since the untimely death of opera legend Maria Callas.  The Greek soprano superstar died of a heart attack at age 53 in her Paris apartment. The newspaper The Guardian, reported Callas’ death the following day, September 17, 1977:

“Maria Callas, the opera singer who put as much passion into her life as into her art, died in her Paris flat yesterday of a heart attack. She was 53. The ‘divine Callas’ was the international symbol of prima donnas, as much for her incomparable voice as for her tantrums and her long love affair with the Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis.

“She had not appeared on stage in the last four years. Friends said her obsession with her weight and vigorous dieting have contributed to her sudden death. She was plagued by weight problems all her life. At 20, she weighed 15 stones (280 lbs). In the fifties she had to crash-diet, losing more than four stones (56 lbs.) in a few weeks, so that she could take leading romantic roles.

“Her close friend, Lord Harewood, managing director of the English National Opera Company, described stories of her temperamental outbursts as ‘exaggerated.’ But, he added, ‘the legend will live on. She was a truly great artist. I doubt if we will ever see another like her in our time. She was unique. She was much better in person than on records. The records do not do her justice.’ He said Callas never sang in private – ‘she was an artist for the large stage.’

“In Barcelona, soprano Victoria de los Angeles burst into tears at the news of Callas’s death. “Something very, very important has gone, for the world of music, for art – in spite of all that has been said about her.”

Born Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City in 1923 to Greek immigrants, she went to Athens at 14, with her mother and her sister after her parents separated. She was accepted into the National Conservatorie, and won a prize in 1939 for her stage debut in Cavalleria Rusticana.

After returning to the United States in 1944 in the midst of World War II, the 21 year-old Callas turned down the lead in Madama Butterfly, already preoccupied with her weight, thinking herself too obese to play a fragile 14 year-old.

A stormy marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini followed, during which her career, guided by him, soared. A torrid affair with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, a friend of her husband’s broke up the marriage, but after a few years of a whirlwind relationship, he cast her aside to marry Jaqueline Kennedy. Devastated and already experiencing voice problems, Callas became addicted to diet pills and sleeping pills, and grew very reclusive in her later years.

She is regarded by many as the greatest soprano ever to perform, and by most at least among the very elite.

 

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