European HerStory: Maria Callas

, by Christian Gibbons

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English] [français]

European HerStory: Maria Callas
Maria Callas performing in Amsterdam. Photo credit: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo

History is not merely a question of fact but of how it is recorded and how we interpret it. What is remembered, and how we remember it, is shaped by our socially constructed understandings of the world as it was at the time and as we know it today.

With the feminine history of our continent often sold short under the weight of enduring patriarchal structures, women’s contributions to science, art, politics and beyond are often at best overshadowed or at worst forgotten.

The following article is part of our fortnight-long feature, “European HerStory”, during which we are presenting inspiring stories of women who have contributed to Europe. With this feature, we hope to help rectify the imbalance stemming from our collective prism of history, and inform ourselves and our readers about female achievements and innovations.

You can read the full presentation of the feature here.

The daughter of Greek immigrants to the United States, Maria Callas became an iconic embodiment of a very European art form: opera. Along with singers like Beverly Sills, Cecilia Bartolli, and Montserrat Caballé, she helped spearhead a revival of the bel canto style of opera that had flourished on the Continent during the 18th and 19th centuries, and became one of the most renowned sopranos of the 20th century.

Torn throughout her life between America, Italy, and Greece, Callas eventually renounced her American citizenship in 1966, taking on Greek citizenship so as to end her marriage with the Italian industrialist Giovanni Menghini. For better or worse, her love life, in particular her affair with the Greek business tycoon Aristotle Onassis, is often remembered as the stuff of legend. Perhaps because of her success, Callas had a complicated, even adversarial relationship with the press, which gossiped endlessly about her professional and personal life. For those who were opera-lovers, Callas was “la Divina Assoluta”; for the broader public, she was a temperamental diva. After her career came to an end in 1965, she gradually ceased to be either: with her voice in a notable state of decline, Callas spent the remaining 12 years of her life as a recluse in her Paris apartment. “Since I lost my voice I want to die,” she is reported to have said. “Without my voice, what am I? Nothing.”

And yet Callas’s voice has never been forgotten. A perfectionist by nature, Callas was also immeasurably, almost incomprehensibly talented. “Maria, you’re a monster,” the composer Victor de Sabata, a long-time admirer of Callas, once said to her. “You are not an artist nor a woman nor a human being, but a monster.” Others were even more direct: the famous soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf once proclaimed Callas a “miracle”, while the composer Leonard Bernstein named her the “Bible of opera”. In death, Callas has become a yardstick for others, her life the subject of plays and films. Her performances in Puccini’s Tosca, Bellini’s Norma, and Bizet’s Carmen are often considered definitive, and she remains one of classical music’s best-selling voices.

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