Maria vs Callas
Sometimes I sit in front of the blank sheet and I know exactly how to begin. This is not one of those times. Maria vs Callas. That’s what I’m thinking. The Voice vs the Woman. I remember when I was watching “Philadelphia” for the first time and Tom Hanks, portraying the protagonist dying of AIDS, swaying gently to this magnificent voice. Tears were rolling down my face. For a person who is not that much into classical music that says a lot. It wasn’t till the end of the scene that I realized it was Maria Callas.
I had read about her, I used to have a book, one of the 30 books written about her, but I must have been very young and foolish when I read it. Now I know – Maria was the woman who died of love. Callas was the Voice that refused to come out without love. So many years after her death, her performances are still best-selling and it’s not only because of the voice and the acting brilliance, but because of a personality so difficult to comprehend. She was out of this world, she never belonged to us and that is why we never understood her.
Maria was born in New York in 1923. She was the second child and to her mother’s deep disappointment, she was a girl. Her mother refused to look at her for days. She was christened too late as Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos. Her father shortened the difficult Greek name to Kalos and later to Callas, which was easy to pronounce and better for his business – he had a pharmacy. Maria grew up as the ugly duckling. She was the ugly duckling. Her sister was favoured by her mother, while Maria was totally neglected till she was five – the time when her voice started showing and the mother, with her ill ambitions to live in artistic circles, put so much pressure on the poor child to train her voice. After all, according to the family, Maria had nothing else to show.
“I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it,” she remembered years later.
Maria was put in that destructive frame of mind that she always had to sing to please someone – her mother, the audience, her friends, the people who had faith in her to perform brilliantly. That mindset proved to have catastrophic consequences for her later in her short life.
Her parents separated and her mother took the girls back to Greece. Maria was tall and rather overweight, not pretty, not even attractive, but she had the voice. “My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted… I’ll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money. Everything I did for them was mostly good and everything they did to me was mostly bad.”
She was exceptional at the music academy, her voice… Well, it was not perfect, there are so many contradicting views on it – for some it was “bothering, disturbing” even and for others it was “thrilling and inspiring”, but never perfect. However, everyone would agree that it was the most expressive voice ever. “When on stage, she was totally “naked”, standing there with her heart and soul only, and people saw that, they adored her for that,” shares one of her colleagues.
Callas made her way to the grand operas as a tall almost obese young girl with a voice whose exceptionality no one denied. Behind that voice she was the insecure, fat, unattractive child, who was not good at anything, but singing, and she threw herself into it with all the passion he had in her. She chose to be Callas the Voice while Maria the Woman, scared and naïve, was buried deep inside. It was almost like a split personality, which later played out disastrously.
I am not going to talk about her unsurpassable talent, nor of the range and the specifics of her voice – so much has been written already. Her marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini was a needed shelter for her. He was almost 30 years older, but he was her friend, her husband, her father, her support. She wrote him beautiful letters of love and dedication. She wanted to be loved so badly! And she was loved and probably as a daughter because Maria was to discover love the hard way.
Callas’ glory was taking off big time. Then, in 1953 she saw Audrey Hepburn and it was the pivotal point in her life. Her purpose was to become as slim and elegant as Audrey. Maria always achieved whatever she put her mind to. In one year se lost almost 40 kilograms and that is the Callas you are probably used to seeing in pictures – the ever so elegant and tall woman, dressed with exquisite taste, her big brown eyes glowing with emotions so deep and shattering – it’s unfathomable. She moved on stage the same way she moved through life – with her heart open to receive love, living for someone’s approval, never satisfied with her small imperfections, visible and audible only to her. There are singers and actors who can snap out of a role in seconds, but Callas was building up to a part, she was living it, she was Norma and Toska, she wore all the sadness of her heroines and she relived their fate every time she was on stage. That deep devastating love she longed for? Well, it reached her.
In 1957 Maria met Onassis – the shady millionaire who collected women. He was not too welcome in the social circles because of his business and most influential people would not accept him cordially. But, oh, he was charming… at first, he was charismatic even and the Greek tragedy began. Unfortunately, it was a one-sided love affair. Maria was madly in love. She discovered her femininity, her sensuality, she wanted to live, to compensate for every lost second of her childhood and youth. The war between the Voice and the Woman started.
Onassis needed access to influential circles and Callas was his free ride. He squeezed everything she could give and she gave with no regret. She opened doors for him, she abandoned singing. She lived in a love affair which was only in her mind. Her divorce was inevitable, too. Onassis never bought her a single token of… well, we can’t say love, but at least some gratitude. Maria lived on her own means, paid her meals, her plane tickets, she never saw any kindness from the tight ass he was. The affair lasted for ten years till he could still squeeze something out of her. In one of her biographies the birth of a child, who died seconds after birth, is mentioned, but that has never been confirmed. The abortions, however, are still on record. Maria never became a mother and it is suspected the decision was not hers. She was like a moth circling around the lamp, which she mistook for the sun. Ever so pure and naïve, ever so blind and deaf to hear her best friends’ advice, she marched on to death.
After a ten-year toxic relationship, Onassis dumped her like an old ragged doll and married Jacqueline Lee Kennedy, who politely waited five years after the assassination of her husband, John Kennedy, and his untimely death. America’s favourite married the name Onassis, a name he made for himself through the connections and love Maria received from everybody.
The world missed her, missed her presence, her immaculate taste, her voice, her smile, her outbursts and snapping at journalists, who she absolutely despised. The world had long forgiven her for the times when she would appear for the first act and would not return for the second. Truth is, she would only perform if she felt a certain chemistry between the people on stage, the orchestra, the conductor. Callas was convinced that if she was to present the greatness of an opera, she had to do it flawlessly.
Did she try to live after his betrayal? Of course she did, but Onassis wouldn’t let her be. Even with another woman at his side, he would call her in need or when he was sick, when he was in hospital and she would run with the hope of winning him back. She tried acting, she tried teaching music, she tried other relationships, but the world knew she was doing it to show him she could live without him. Could she really? The moment Onassis left her, she had lost the only motivation she had had – to sing for somebody else. Now, she had no one to sing for.
Losing the qualities of her voice hurt like hell, but the other pain was stronger. The devastating and unforgiving critics spared no offences after her two unsuccessful performances and wouldn’t let go, but she never read those anyway. Her supporters, however, defended her with all they could. People expected her to be that embodiment of perfection she had always been and would not forgive her for falling in love with a man like Onassis and not staying in love with music.
After Onassis’ death in 1975, she lost the motivation to live, too. She started taking pills to ease the pain – she would take three and then she would forget she’s taken them and take three more. She walled up in her Paris estate and seeing Maria was almost impossible – she always found some excuse not to see her friends, but would let in the most trusted ones.
“Every day, thank God, is one day less,” she used to say.
“If we had given her a sense of… life…” her friends would say later in documentaries. But they didn’t, they gave up. She marched on to the heavens, where she probably came from.
The day she died, that warm September noon in 1977, at the age of 53 only, she was in bed, with serious heart problems and one of her closest friends went to see her. She was so beautiful, her face white, her eyes shining, her summer dress elegantly wrapping her thin body. “She was absolutely stunning,” he remembers. On the armchair next to her there was another dress, a most exquisite one, and he didn’t know where she had prepared it for. He realized a few hours after he had left her home – she was ready for her travel to the beyond.
Human nature can be amazing and disgusting at the same time. Her ashes were stolen from the cemetery in Paris before being transported to Greece where, as per her will, they had to be scattered above the sea. Her advisor, a Greek female, who was responsible for Maria’s trust fund, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, which were eventually recovered and the Maria Callas Foundation was established. What is it with these morons and stealing from hurting, dying people?
Yet, I choose to hold on to the words of young people, probably 15 or 16 years of age, among the hundreds sleeping for days outside the New Your Opera House before her last performance there. That was the time she regained her American citizenship:
“She’s THE Callas! There will never be another voice, another woman like her. I came here, because this is history! She marks history in the most beautiful way.”
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