MARIA CALLAS: A Greek Tragedy
By Robert James Taylor
She was recognized as the greatest operatic singer of the 20th Century, idolized all over the world; the ultimate diva whose artistry took her to heights of genius never seen before, and yet before her death in 1977 she would suffer humiliation, neglect, exploitation and finally abandonment.
Born in 1923, in New York, already the prospect of a loving childhood was grim: her mother wanted a boy to follow an elder sister, she would not embrace her baby for days. Maria would have a troubled relationship with her mother throughout her life- it was not long after that the family broke up and Maria returned to Greece, her native country, with her mother and elder sister.
During her early teenage years Maria’s voice had already manifested itself and her mother, sensing some future accomplishment, that would benefit her, found a local instructor, with whom Maria spent two years, and later, a new tutor, Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo who would have the greatest influence on Maria whose voice was described by Hidalgo as phenomenal. In time Maria was performing at the Greek National Opera.
Maria was then a heavy set woman, not unusual for operatic singers at the time; even finding suitable dresses for her stage appearances was a challenge. Maria Callas’s career rise was meteoric, she was now singing in Italy, whose audiences were amazed at this ‘bel canto’ voice and her persona. Enter Giovanni Meneghini, a short, paunchy successful businessman from Verona, who courted Maria after their first introduction and later marriage followed: he would become her business manager and would accompany her on all her recitals from thereon.
Not long after, Maria Callas would transform herself—losing eighty pounds, the butterfly would emerge from the cocoon, she had streamlined her figure, changed her hair styles often, wore resplendent gowns – she had re-invented herself. She would be referred to as the‘La Divina,’ sought by the most famous opera houses in the world. Her absolute dedication to perfection, her unbridled discipline, her strict unyielding insistence on delivering what the composer had intended, all these characteristics would create the legend.
However, she had suffered crippling insecurities for many years, and now her marriage was faltering: her relationship with Meneghini was sexless, and Maria knew that he had been siphoning off her money for his own gain. The marriage ended in divorce filed in Greece later.
In 1957, while still married, Maria was introduced to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Onassis, a serial womanizer, was obsessed with power and those who had it. He seduced not just for pleasure, but for worldly gain; famous women were his trophies, and his desire to have Maria Callas as his latest prize, soon became public. He invited the Meneghinis to his private yacht, the famous luxurious ‘Christina’, and during the Mediterranean cruise, the world’s most famous two Greeks began an affair in the presence of their spouses.
This would be the beginning of the end of Maria’s greatest years. She had dedicated her life to reaching the pinnacle of her artistry, and now that was jeopardized—the attraction of high life and society were now open to her. The Onassis /Callas affair was widely publicized; magazines, tabloids had a field day. Maria felt loved for the first time in her life. It would not last long. By 1966, after the assassination of JFK, Onassis was making secret trips to New York. Jackie Kennedy would entertain him in her New York apartment; the attraction for each was simple: she wanted the security for her family which his wealth could provide, and he wanted to make inroads into the Washington establishment, which he mistakenly thought Jackie could provide.
This betrayal left Maria Callas inconsolable, despondent, and grief stricken; she was heartbroken when she heard the news of their marriage, retreated to her Parisian apartment, and became reclusive to many of her friends. Onassis, the love of her life, had deceived her. Within months, the Onassis/Kennedy marriage collapsed. Onassis returned to Paris and Maria took him back, but the union was soon thwarted after Onassis’s son was killed in a plane crash and the billionaire spiraled down into a great depression from which he never recovered. He died in 1975. (Jackie Kennedy received 150 million from his estate, Maria received nothing.)
In 1974, Callas tried to make a comeback, but the voice was gone: her final recital was in Japan; her career as the greatest soprano lasted just over thirty years. For the next three years, she stayed alone in her Paris apartment being cared for by her two loyal servants. At this time Vasso Devetzi, a Greek pianist, entered the scene: she had insinuated herself into the confidence of Maria, and took charge of filling prescriptions for Maria’s sleeping pills, a move the servants objected to, but with her dominant personality Devetzi more or less took over control of the Callas household. She would flatter Maria often, slowly endearing herself more and more into Maria’s trust. It became known later that this was a Machiavellian move on her part: at this point Maria’s health was such that she either did not care or was unaware of what was happening to her.
Maria would slowly sink into a state of despondency, forlorn hope and bitterness; she was by then addicted to sleeping pills. On September 16th 1977, Maria’s servants found her on the bathroom floor. A doctor was called, but she was dead minutes later. Callas was 53 years old.
Devetzi soon appeared on the scene and when the doctor asked who was the next of kin, Devetzi replied “There is no next of kin. I am Madame Callas’s executor.” None of these statements were true, for Maria’s mother and sister were still alive. At the funeral, after the coffin was placed in the hearse to be taken for a private burial, the hearse actually took Maria’s body to its cremation. This hasty decision, planned by Devezti, raised serious questions, because she had allowed no one to be consulted. Cremation was not the normal course of the Greek Orthodox Church. Doctors later agreed that Maria had not died of a heart attack, as initially believed, and with no autopsy, her death is still shrouded in mystery. Franco Zeffirelli, the renowned operatic director and close friend to Maria always believed she was poisoned.
The vultures appeared on the scene. Maria’s first husband Meneghini now stated that their Greek divorce was not recognized by the Italian court and he therefore was entitled to her estate. In the end, after legal wrangling and bickering with Devetzi, Meneghini settled for half of the estate, with the rest going to the Maria Callas Foundation– another spurious scheme devised by Devetzi, but it was phony. She would deceive the Callas family by stealing two million dollars from the so-called Foundation. She had duped the family and gotten away with it. She died not long afterward, taking her secrets with her.
At the end of Tosca, in one of her most famous arias, Maria sings the words “I lived for art, I loved for love…In this hour of pain, Why, Oh, Lord, do you repay me thus?”