Friday, 12 December 2008

Ave Maria, the tragic opera diva

Maria is a fat little girl born in New York City in 1923. Her parents are Greek immigrants, George and Evangelia Kalogeropoulos. George is a pharmacist with a host of mistresses and Evangelia is entrenched in the role of self-sacrificing, unappreciated wife and mother. At an early age, Maria is manipulated into a singing career by Evangelia; her ambitions to be a dentist are ignored. To Evangelia, singing will lead to success. Success means money and money leads to happiness.

Little Maria’s emotional needs are not taken into consideration. She feels robbed of her childhood and of a mother’s unconditional love. She has no friends, she believes she is ugly, and her only solace is in excessive eating. Later she will say there should be laws against treating children in such a manner: ‘A child treated like this grows old before its time.’ As she grows into adulthood, Maria’s resentment against Evangelia will be extremely bitter. At one point she will say: ‘The only time I’ll want to see my fucking mother is when she’s lying in her box, and then it’s to make sure she’s dead.’

The Wall Street Crash results in George losing his pharmacy business, and he takes a low-paid job selling pharmaceuticals. Money problems intensify the already tense domestic scene, so Evangelia takes Maria and her sister Jackie to Athens. It is cheaper to live there and the money George sends over enables Maria to study at the Athens Conservatory.

In 1940 Maria makes her public debut in Boccaccio and will have her first success two years later with Tosca at the Athens Opera. She will also perform in Fidelio, Tiefland and Cavalleria Rusticana. But Maria also performs for the occupying troops, accepting food from Italian and German admirers. When Greece is liberated, her contract with the Athens Opera is not renewed. Civil war follows soon after and Maria returns to America.

But Athens is far away from New York, and no one is impressed with her successes in another country. Maria is disheartened, eats pizza and cheeseburgers and puts on weight. When she is offered leading roles in Fidelio and Madame Butterfly, she turns them down. The artist in her does not want to perform Fidelio translated into English and she feels she is too fat to play the teenage, fragile Butterfly.

Luckily she impresses Verona Festival artistic director Giovanni Zenatello, who recruits her for the leading role in La Gioconda. Before sailing for Verona, Maria will, after much indecision, sign a contract with Edward Bagarozy, stipulating that he will be her sole promotional agent for 10 years, in return for 10% of her gross earnings for that period.

While in Verona, Maria meets an opera-loving industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a man in his mid-fifties. But he will listen to her, console her, reassure her and protect her: a father figure almost 30 years her senior. She moves on to Venice, performs I Puritani, achieves success, becomes the talk of Italy. When she performs I Verpri Siciliani at La Scala, the adulation is triumphant. The public figure La Callas is born.

She also undertakes the first of many performances in the leading role of Norma. But performing Norma is stressful, demanding a mastery of trills and scales, substantial breath control for long melodies, with flowing lyricism alternating with dramatic emotional outbursts. It is a substantial challenge for Maria’s voice, but she is determined to meet that challenge, and will do so repeatedly, performing the role 90 times in eight countries throughout her career. Her final stage performance in 1965 is Norma. Exhausted by the end of second act, she is not able to change into her final costume, and collapses afterwards.

Norma – the Druidic priestess who tragically forsakes her holy vows and falls in love with a Roman proconsul, is the embodiment of the conflict between public roles and responsibilities and private emotional needs. Behind the public La Callas there remains a little girl who craves for a conventional, private existence.

A few months later she marries Menehgini, despite his family’s objections. “ They thought I had come to Italy to marry a rich man,” she will later complain.

Indeed, with the public praise, there also comes much criticism – particularly of her voice. It is too harsh, too unrefined. It is not classical, not quite beautiful. Once, during an ovation, a bunch of radishes is thrown at her feet. Where Maria expects praise, instead reviews are instead lukewarm. Her moods are volatile and her temper explosive.

Maria does not just convey music through her voice, but also through her body. Some will regard her as a powerful actress. She is, almost by genetic intuition, in touch with the ancient spirit of tragedy. On one occasion, before a performance, she is found on the floor of her changing room summoning the Greek gods for strength and for guidance.

During the early 1950s Maria travels and performs in Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Covent Garden in London. She is worshipped, adored, becomes an international celebrity. She signs a recording contact with EMI. She undergoes substantial weight loss, dropping by twenty-eight kilos within two years. An elegant, Doric figure emerges and her beauty is widely admired.

When in Mexico she also meets Evangelia for the last time. Evangelia will complain afterwards that Maria treats her like a distant relative. One night, though, Maria breaks down in tears, crying that she wants children, that she wants to be a normal woman. Evangelia comforts her, but when she arrives to visit Maria in the morning, she is pushed away. “ I’m not a child anymore!’ Maria says harshly.

In 1955, the first traumatic legal wrangle occurs: Baragozy – who has not had contact with Maria for several years, is demanding his fees, totally $300 000; Maria maintains Baragozy had done nothing for her career and refuses payment. When she is handed a summons by a court marshal after a triumphant performance of Madame Butterfly in Chicago, a newspaper photographer snaps Maria’s vicious expression. “I will not be sued!” she yells. “ I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me!” The case is settled out of court two years later.

Worse still, Evangelia, now divorced from George and struggling financially, writes to Maria requesting a regular income for her and sister Jackie. Maria’s response is that her mother can go find a job. Is this what she sacrificed everything for, Evangelia asks Time magazine, in an article that portrays Maria as an ungrateful daughter and a spoiled, temperamental, heartless prima donna.

Two years later, at a performance of Norma in Rome, which is attended by Italy’s president, Maria’s voice gives out; she can barely whisper. It is rumoured Maria has been at a nightclub until the early hours, drinking champagne. Maria wants to cancel, but there no stand-by performer. So she goes on stage, but by the end of the first act, the audience begins to jeers. The experience is humiliating and she makes an exit through the back door.

Soon Maria begins what she will later call her ‘nine-year meaningless sacrifice’. She falls in love with Greek multimillionaire Aristotle Onassis, who at the time is married. Maria goes through divorce proceedings and so does Onassis, but despite Maria’s hopes, they will never marry. Nevertheless, Maria is happy. At the age of thirty-six she has found not only what seems to be true love. And, as Franco Zeffirelli will later point out: ‘It was a definite sexual passion.’

But the stress of her divorce and the public attention takes its toll. Maria is suffering from exhaustion. At a Covent Garden performance of Luica, her voice strains and she almost breaks down. Later she will say: “ It is not my voice that is sick, it is my nerves.” She will also develop sinus problems, which will make singing extremely difficult and painful.

From now on, her opera performances will reduce dramatically, from 28 in the year before she meets Onassis to 15 over the next seven years. She enjoys a period of ease amid luxury yachts and private jets. She has become the woman that part of her has wanted to be, not a public figure committed to her art. “ I don’t want to sing any more,” she says. “ I want to live, just like a normal woman, with children, a home, a dog.” To many she has not only given up her career and her voice, but also her gift to the world.

Her admirers' resentment is expressed when she performs Medea in 1961. Her voice is losing its power and the audience begin hissing. When, in the opera, Medea denounces Jason as ‘Crudel!’ (“Cruel man!”), Maria addresses this directly to the public, angrily waving her fist at them, singing: ‘Ho dato tutto a te’ ( “I gave everything to you!”.) The audience bursts into applause. Ironically, a few years later, these words could well be addressed to Onassis.

Onassis, who had no love for opera, has cruel, insensitive streaks. He mocks Maria: ‘What do you have? Nothing. You just have a whistle in your throat that no longer works.’ When Maria discovers she is pregnant, Onassis is unenthusiastic and Maria has an abortion.

In 1965 she will give her final operatic performance as Norma. She collapses unconsciousness the moment the curtain goes down. There will still be concerts and recordings but her musical career is effectively over.

So too, within a few years, is her relationship with Onassis, as he marries the widowed Jackie Kennedy. Onassis does not even inform Maria of his intentions. Maria is broken, almost destroyed, and almost a decade of barbiturate dependence will follow.

Still she takes up an offer to play the lead in Pasolini’s move Medea. Medea: the sorceress who helped Jason win the Golden Fleece, only to be discarded by him in favour of another. In resentment, anger and jealousy, Medea murders his royal betrothed and kills their own children. Critics say it is a role made for Maria. Unfortunately, the movie is a flop.

Maria still regards Onassis as the most important love of her life, and continues to see him as the multibillionaire begins to realise his marriage to the extravagant Kennedy has been a mistake. But Maria and Onassis’s relationship will not be rekindled. In 1970 Maria is rushed to hospital with a drug overdose; speculation is that it is attempted suicide.

In the early 1970s Maria gives a series of master classes with opera students in New York and embarks on a concert tour with former colleague Guiseppe di Stenfano. But her voice has lost its strength. Some of the audiences are disappointed, but the majority continue to adore her, and each performance concludes with applause, gratitude and love.

Onasis dies in 1975, a few months after Maria’s final concert, in Japan. Without his existence, she feels life is devoid of meaning. The past is dead and there is no future. Maria withdraws, living behind closed doors in her Paris apartment, going out only to walk her dogs. It is an enclosed world of despair.

On 16 September 1977 Maria experiences a sharp pain in her side. She collapses and is put to bed. A doctor is called; she dies before he arrives.

Maria is cremated and her remains kept at the Pere Lachise cemetery in Paris. Later they will be returned to Greece and her ashes scattered over the Aegean Sea.

The popularity of La Callas does not wane after her death; in fact it increases. But behind the public figure - the loved and adored singer, as well as the stormy and unpredictable prima donna – there remains a woman who wants nothing more than a calm, uneventful, conventional life. But she is constantly torn, like Norma, between her sense of public role and private emotional needs. But as both public and private lives collapse, she finds nothing but Medea’s pain, anguish and emptiness.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, July 2004)

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