Greek American soprano Maria Callas was one of the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century. Born in New York City in December 1923, her parents, George and Evangelia, were Greek immigrants who eventually shortened their last name to Callas by the time of Maria’s christening.
Born and raised in New York until she was 14, Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou returned with her mother and siblings to Athens in 1937, where she spent the war years studying music and performing professionally to support her family.
Callas began taking classical piano lessons when she was 7 years old. Though overshadowed by her older sister Jackie, who was viewed as beautiful and charismatic, Callas had an amazing talent at singing music with dramatic flair, with her mother pushing her to pursue a vocal career. In 1937, when Callas was a teenager, her parents separated and that is when she, her mother and sister moved back to Greece.
Though she was a sensation in Europe by the time the war ended, Callas did not find immediate success after making her way back to America in the late 1940s. Significantly overweight since childhood, Callas effected a dramatic physical transformation in her early 30s that fundamentally altered the trajectory of her career. She dropped more than 70 pounds (35 kilos) over three years in the mid-1950s, becoming, in the words of Time magazine, “Svelte, successful…a diva more widely hated by her colleagues and more wildly acclaimed by her public than any other living singer.”
During World War II, Callas struggled to find roles. In the mid-1940s, she moved back to New York to spend time with her father and look for work, but experienced a number of rejections. She eventually moved to Verona, where she met rich industrialist Giovanni Meneghini. The couple married in 1949.
Callas’s Italian opera debut took place at the Verona Arena in August 1947, in a performance of La Gioconda. Over the next few years, under the management of her husband, Callas continued to perform in Florence and Verona to critical acclaim.
Though her voice captivated audiences, as her fame increased, Callas developed a reputation as a temperamental, demanding diva and was nicknamed “The Tigress.”
Her reputation as a “Diva” was earned through years of backstage battles with costars and Callas’ habit of grabbing solo curtain calls at every opportunity. A public spat with a rival soprano at La Scala in Milan turned parts of the Italian audience against her.
Fiercely resilient, Callas said of audience members’ jeers, “Hissing from the gallery is part of the scene. It is a hazard of the battlefield. Opera is a battlefield, and it must be accepted.”
Callas finally conquered America in the late 1950s, becoming not only opera’s biggest live draw but also its most successful recording artist since Enrico Caruso.
In 1956, had the opportunity to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in her home city of New York, but in 1958 was fired by director Rudolf Bing. Callas’s marriage had also begun to unravel. Callas and her Italian husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini split at the end of the decade, during which time she was said to be having an affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who later wed former U.S. first lady Jackie Kennedy causing much grief for Callas.
On September 16, 1977, Callas died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 54.
*Listen to Maria’s dynamic voice here-