Maria Callas can be used as a symbol for the statement that "talent alone can get you there." Every generation who has listened to a Maria Callas record after her death, testifies that she deserved all the accolades that came her way. Her journey began in Greece and ended as one of the many tragic operas of which she was an integral part.
There was a time when it was mandatory to have her in an opera to lend it some stature. She aptly described the situation, when she said, "an opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house."
Maria Callas was born Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos on December 2, 1923, in New York. She was the daughter of Evangelina Dimitriadis and George Kalogeropoulos, who were first generation Greek immigrants. They had arrived in America in August, 1923.
In 1937, she moved back to Greece with her mother, and began training with Elvira de Hidalgo at the National Conservatory in Athens. By 1940, people began taking note of her precocious talent, and she was offered a chance to debut in November 1940 at the National Lyric Theater in Athens.
She experienced success on the big stage, when she was asked to perform in Tosca at the Athens Opera in 1942. But the biggest stage was New York, and that's where she craved to go.
On her arrival in New York, the prestigious Metropolitan Opera promptly offered her a role in Beethoven's Fidelio and Puccini's Madama Butterfly. A testament to her sense of artistic integrity is that she turned both of them down. She didn't think it was right to sing Fidelio in English.
She felt that she was too heavy to portray the young, fragile Butterfly in Madama Butterfly. Since things were taking a lot of time in New York, her innate impatience brought her to Europe. She traveled to Venice to sing Bride in Die Walk during the 1948-49 season, with Tullio Serafin conducting.
She got her break when Serafin's wife heard her sight-read Elvira's music. She exhorted Maria to sing for him. The next morning, Maria sang for the Musical Director of the Opera House, who decided that she would be the best choice as Elvira. She was given a week to learn the entire opera―this week also contained three performances of Bride in Die Walk.
Maria Callas's performance in Elvira was mind-blowing, her name was on everyone's lips in Italy. She made a few mistakes during the performance. Instead of singing "son vergin vezzosa" (I am a charming virgin), she sang "son vergin viziosa" (I am a vicious virgin). But instead of taking the sheen off her performance, the errors seemed to add to it.
Three months later, she married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a man almost 30 years elder to her. Her next target was Milan, but she was finding it difficult to find work there. Finally, she was offered the lead role in Verdi's composition, when the original choice Renata Tebaldi was unavailable. In 1952, Maria signed an exclusive recording contract with EMI.
It was in 1956 that she made her debut in the Metropolitan Theater in Bellini's Norma. Audience reaction to her was muted, because of the negative publicity that she received when TIME magazine covered her strained relationship with her mother. By the end of the final act, though, the New York public surrendered and Maria received 16 curtain calls.
Things began to slip a bit when she was to perform in Norma on January 2, 1958. The performance was to be attended by Italy's president, Giovanni Gronchi and his wife Maria. However, she brought in the New Year with lots of champagne and very little rest. She realized that she would not be able to deliver a performance fit for the occasion.
Then she informed the Opera House to find a replacement.Since a replacement could not be found on such short notice, she performed. It was an unmitigated disaster. She was jeered off stage. On 3 September 1959, Maria announced that she would be parting from her husband. She began a decade long love affair with Aristotle Onassis.
Onassis, however, went on to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of John F. Kennedy, in 1968. In June 1969, Maria began work on a film of Medea with Pier Paolo Pasolini. Unfortunately, the film was not a success. On May 25, 1970, she was rushed to the hospital, and it was announced that she had tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.
On 16 September 1977, she woke up late in her home in Paris. She had breakfast in bed, then got up and started towards the bathroom. There was a piercing pain in her left side and she collapsed. She was dead before the doctor had arrived. Her funeral was held on September 20, 1977.