By Despina Metaxas, Press Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic
Maria Kalogeropoulou, a plump, ugly little girl, was born in New York and grew up in Athens, but never became an adult; she was effaced by the stardom of Maria Callas, whose every constituent part had a different homeland.
A few years before her death she wondered: "I am a person without identity. I was born of Greek parents, yet I have never felt absolutely Greek. I was born in America, yet I am not an American. I lived the most crucial period of my career in Italy, I married an Italian but, of course, I am not an Italian. I now live permanently in Paris, but this doesn't mean I feel French. What the hell am I, after all?". She gave the answer herself: "What am I? I am alone, always alone".Although twenty years exactly have elapsed from her death in September 1977 Maria Callas was never silenced. She is still wandering restlessly among us, seeking to acquire the identity she deprived herself of: that of the normal, everyday woman living away from the shadow of her admirers and of the statue her legend has turned her into. She was the marvel that shook the foundations of the aristocratic domain of bel canto, bringing into it, in her unique manner, innumerable ordinary mortals who recognised in her voice the passion and dignity of Norma, La Traviata or Turndot.
In the late Thirties, the young student of the National Conservatory of Athens met the Spanish soprano Elvira de Idalgo and started studying under her. Her teacher detected immediately the quality hidden in this gauche, at first glance, adolescent and devoted herself to her education. She was the first to recognise Maria's instinctive knowledge of the art of movement and the stage, as well as the strange alloy of her voice, with its extraordinarily wide range. Maria was persistent and self - disciplined. De Idalgo discerned the first faint signs of the future diva. She initiated her into the secrets and the importance of the school of bel canto and taught her her technique: As Callas said in an interview many years later, in 1969, "Technique should be learnt when one is very young. I started when I was very young and thus I acquired all my technical skills long ago, during my years in the Conservatory. I started when I was 13 and now I can cope with anything. I am proud that I can come as a surprise to me now. I learnt all the possibilities when I was very young. That's why one has to study...".
Maria made her first professional appearance in von Suppe's Boccacio in 1939 and sang the leading part in Tosca in 1942. After a series of disappointments and resenting envy by her colleagues, she returned to the American land of her birth. She lived there for two years (1945-1947), met the bass Nicola Rossi - Lemeni and through him came to know the tenor Giovanni Zenatello, artistic director of the Arena of Verona. Maria Kalogeropoulos left for Italy, met the industrialist Giovanni Batista Meneghini, married him, became Maria Callas and experienced her artistic life's curtain raiser without suspecting that she was about to emerge as the lyric theatre's most brilliant personality. Her first appearance in Italy as La Gioconda was directed by Tulio Serafin. Her acquaintance with him would lead her to new forms of expression.
Having lost 30 pounds of weight, she revealed her Doric profile to the public. Her strange, though not perfect voice, was to become recognisable even by people who thought opera a sterile and inaccessible genre. Roman Vlad, trying to account for her imposing presence not only within the inner circle of initiates into her art, but also among the general public said of Maria: "No artist seemed to confirm more than Callas the truth that music is made of the unwritable. What has been put down on paper will be performed. However, in order to breathe life into it, one has to interpret it. Callas the interpreter asked the impossible from Callas the performer. In using her voice with every fibre of her being, she went to extremes. She was not economical in using her resources. She would only commit herself wholeheartedly to each part she sang; thence the immensely imposing power of her art".
Callas liberated opera from its institutional character and the often superfluous use of perfect means of expression. Stendhal once wrote the following as the pitfalls of perfection in the voice of female singers: "The fundamental range of tones produced by a single voice constitutes one of the richest sources of musical expression, which can be exploited by a great and skilful female singer in her art. The history of the art of singing may suggest that it is not the perfect, pure, silvery voice, impeccably precise in every note of the register, that is capable of the greatest exploits in ardent singing. A voice totally incapable of variation can never produce that kind of opaque, smothered tone, which is at the same time so moving and natural in rendering specific cases of violent emotions or vehement agony". Maria led her interpretations to the paths of instinct and austere stage presence. She interpreted her parts with the passion of a tragic actress, confusing imitation with reality. Her acting skills were enormous. Maria was of the stuff great tragedians are made of and she impregnated her interpretations with the archetypal elements of theatric art: periods of silence and fiery glares, wavering between human existence and tragic transcendence. Her Greek blood guided her in the difficult interpretation of Cherubini's Medea, releasing the agony of the princess from Colchis, in a performance which was historic for the state of things in Greece, in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, in August 1961 (Stage direction by Alexis Minotis,1 scenery and costumes by Yiannis Tsarouhis2). In 1969, her good friend Pier Paolo Pasolini directed her in the same part, in an incarnation of the heroine with the pangs of scorned love etched on her face.
When Tosca sings: "Vissi d' arte, vissi d' amore" ("I lived on art, I lived on love"), Callas might have been singing about herself. In interpreting this aria she provided her most concise and comprehensive autobiography. Mortal and vulnerable, she projected her femininity as a means of expression. She rejected the strict rules followed by her colleagues. Maria wanted to escape, to be entertained, to live, disregarding the fact that she was little by little wearing down her voice. She had never considered the instrument of her art as something separated from the other aspects of her life. When she interpreted her parts, she made her heroines three - dimensional, she brought them close accessible to every spectator, identified new approaches, created new echoes of pain in the human voice. She secularised opera and rekindled interest in bel canto, which before her was in decline.
Her Greek origins helped her humanise her interpretation. A diva is thus revealed who does not suppress pain and deprivation; she embodies the 'discovery of theatric truth'. She offers heretical interpretations and she is adored by the public. Moved by her performance in Bellini's Norma in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, Marios Ploritis3 wrote on 26 August 1960 in the newspaper Eleftheria: "Rarely does a thespian entering the stage rivet the spectator in the way Callas' appearance does. Her regal bearing, her imposing gait, her monumental posture, her hawk - eyed look, her distinct profile dominate everything around her and the eyes of thousands of spectators are joined in watching her every move, hanging on every word she sings...".
This was her favourite part and she interpreted it 89 times from 1948 to 1965. It is the moment when the Callas phenomenon is gradually evolving on stage. Her voice acquires the form of a suffering woman, stunning spectators with the direct revelation of her passion. Even at plain hearing, this part acquires 'cinematic' dimensions thanks to the hovering voice - image, an experience that no other female singer has succeeded in creating. Helen Vlachos4 said at the time: "There must be a bit of Norma in Callas. In this opera the great priestess is devastated because she wants to combine the love of an ordinary mortal with the life of a goddess...".
This opinion was painfully true. The exhausting trials to which she subjected her personal life were indeed, to a certain extent, identified with the parts she sang. She offered the vain glamour of high - society stars in a domain where the prevailing ethos of ascetic devotion to art prevailed. The scent of lightness that the enamoured Maria tried to combine with the hard discipline required by the preparation for each performance formed an explosive mixture that taxed her voice immensely.
Callas had always had a tempestuous and venturesome spirit. In 1949, at the beginning of her career, in Venice, she sang the part of Brcnnhilde in Wagner's Die Walkcre and three days later she interpreted Elvira's part in Bellini's I Puritani. The interpretative and vocal skills required by these two parts are poles apart. Callas succeeded, but, in going to such extremes she put her voice under severe stress. She started to show signs of fatigue.
Already in the late Fifties she continued, disregarding the specialists' advice. Her passion was uncontrollable. Enchanted by the conflicting emotions she evoked, she became the diva, solitary and inaccessible, and at the same time vulnerable to her own desires. In addition to her quest for perfection, she also pursued absolute dominance in La Scala, the most famous opera house. Much has been written about her rivalry with Renata Tebaldi, the "Angel's Voice", as characterised by Toscanini, who was always perplexed by the hard alloy of Maria's voice. Tebaldi's admirers held Callas responsible for Renata's removal from La Scala, feeding the climate of discontent prevailing in the press. Her relationship with Onassis then came into the limelight and gave rise to various comments. Extravagant as she was, Callas abandoned herself to her fancies and, without counting the cost, dreamt of a conventional life, totally incompatible with the stark necessity she herself had created: she strove to reconcile her increased professional obligations with her personal choices. The victim, once again, was her voice. Many claim that, at the time, this demanding singer was reaching the end of her tether. At night she entertained herself to excess, during the day she worked exhaustingly. Vocal problems appeared in May 1964, during the Paris performance of Norma (stage direction by Franco Zefirelli), when she sang for the last time. A year later doctors advised her to retire. She chose Paris as her domicile and isolated herself. Two years later Onassis married Jacky Kennedy and Callas tried - without much success - to survive the blow. During the years 1971-72 she taught at the Julliard School of Music in New York, where she tried to transmit parts of her experience to young students. In September, 1977 she was found dead in the bathroom of her flat. In June 1979, her ashes were sprinkled over the Aegean Sea, as she had wished. A tiny speck of dust will thus always exist in the sounds she had loved and had offered her audience. n