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Viva la Diva: Evaluating Maria Callas on her centenary 

Maria Callas was the opera singer who put as much passion into her life as into her art. The “divine Callas” was the international symbol of prima donnas, as much for her incomparable and occasionally unsettling voice, which ranged over three octaves, as for her tantrums. She was also a dramatic actress of exceptional talent, starring in Pasolini’s Medea in 1970, though possibly best known for her long and often clandestine love affair with the one they called Onassis. Let me recap…

On 16 September 1977, as a bunch of NYC alt rockers release their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, the opera singer Maria Callas died of a heart attack at her home in the fancy 16th arrondissement of the French capital. 

In medical terms, the singer’s death is usually ascribed to overuse of Mandrax (very probably deliberate though hushed up), though those of a romantic bent believe she willed herself to journey’s end, dying of a broken heart after the passing of her long-term lover, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who married JFK’s widow Jackie Kennedy, instead of her. 

Whatever the truth of her demise, as a mere sapling of eight years old I remember the news of Marc Bolan’s fatal car crash that very same day – and what I said to my mother when we watched the report on TV – yet I have zero memory of hearing Callas’s name at all. 

Of course, the T. Rex glam rocker has been a homegrown pop star so news of his tragic demise was always going to be a talking point, but on a personal level it’s striking: Callas was of Greek heritage like my maternal family, and passed in the posh bit of Paris aged 53, with my mother’s mother going at 54 in the rather less chic Aylesbury.

Such was its emotional power, it’s said that Callas’s signature aria, Casta Diva, could move people to tears. As a lover of all things Greek and classical, I’m sure my grandmother would have been an admirer of Callas, despite representing two rival cities — Polymnia in Thessaloniki and Maria in Athens. Yet my own mother surprised me when I phoned home one day circa ’98 and told her I’d just invested in a CD set of Callas’s best bits released by EMI Classics called – La Divina (“The Divine One”).

“Maria Callas? Oh, I don’t like her voice. She always sounded a bit off to me.”

“She’s Greek though, so I just…”

“But she was born in America though.”

And it’s true, she was. Born Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos north of New York City, on 2 December 1923, Callas was possessed of a superlative soprano and a fiery temperament which added to the drama of opera. 

Often dubbed with the possibly telling tag, ‘Callas by name, callous by nature’, Maria was the archetypal unsolvable problem diva, regarded as a peerless performer on stage despite being famed for impromptu cancellations – sometimes in mid-show (even the blessed Madonna wouldn’t be that imperious). 

Callas’s voice, as was her life, is unique, tremendous and rather tragic. Her timbre is instantly recognisable, her powerful dramatic resonance can indeed send shivers down one’s spine. In the crowd-packing large-scale operas such as Aida or La Gioconda, Callas sang with such focus of concentration that it could be almost a terrifying experience. Even when her vocals weren‘t totally under control, the intensity of her conception made one forget her struggles with pitch and high notes.

Yet there is a sad underlining tone to her delivery… and one can hear this in her early as well as late recordings, though perhaps more distinctly in the latter. Perhaps her voice encompassed a reflection of her life, whereby she came from nothing, achieved everything, and then heartbreakingly descended into nothing, yet again, as the depressingly laconic column inches of ’77 seemed to indicate.

Happily, a stirring chorus of films, live shows, exhibitions, even a new museum and a hologram show, have all vying to mark the centenary of the great soprano’s birth with the loudest fanfare.

Following Marina Abramović’s celebratory English National Opera project, 7 Deaths Of Maria Callas, Angelina Jolie has been shooting Maria, a Pablo Larraín helmed biopic from the pen of Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight, while in the Hellenic Republic itself a new museum devoted to the singer has just opened in Athens after 20 interminable years of planning. 

The next few weeks also see the international publication of Diva, the new book about Callas written by British author Daisy Goodwin, and in Milan, the scene of many of the singer’s noted stage triumphs at La Scala, a display of portraits has opened on at the Gallerie d’Italia.

“Too beautiful to live, too young to die,” Marc Bolan used to brag in the heady days of the early seventies. But in Smash Hits parlance, it’s like glam never happened. 

Steve Pafford 

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