A Short Biography of “La Divina”

Maria Callas as Violetta

Maria Callas as Violetta

Maria Callas (New York, 2 December 1923 – Paris, 16 September 1977) American-born, Greek soprano. Although her voice did not have classical purity and homogeneity, her temperament, incisiveness, stunning coloratura and agility make Callas one of the most significant opera singers of the 20th century, to the point that she was hailed as “La Divina”. Her repertoire spans from bel canto (some of her performances of the operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini are considered milestones) to Verdi, Puccini and Verismo. In the first years of her career, she sang also Wagner (Tristano e Isotta, La valchiria) and Mozart operas (Il ratto dal serraglio).

Maria Callas: Beginnings

Born in New York City into a family of Greek origin, at the age of thirteen she moved to Greece, where she studied with Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, a well-known singer who was renowned at her time as a wonderful Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Callas made her debut in Greece, when she was just fifteen. During the War years in Athens, she sang regularly demanding roles as Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Tosca, which was to become one of her eponymous roles in later years.

After her return to New York in 1945, she was engaged by former tenor Giovanni Zenatello to sing in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda in Verona. After her successful Italian debut in 1947, Callas sang demanding roles as Aida, Turandot, Norma, Isolde, Kundry and Brünnhilde. In the meantime, she married G. B. Meneghini, who became her manager, while Tullio Serafin, who conducted Gioconda in Verona, became her musical mentor.

Her breakthrough took place in January 1949, when, while in Venice to sing in La valchiria, she was cast to sing Elvira in Bellini’s I puritani, replacing at short notice Margherita Carosio.

Maria Callas: The Golden Years

Maria Callas as Tosca

Maria Callas as Tosca

In the next years, Callas’ repertoire expanded to include roles as Bellini’s Amina, Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Leonora (Il trovatore), Violetta (La traviata) and Gilda (Rigoletto). She also sang the title role in uncommon operas as Gluck’s Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride, Donizetti’s Poliuto, Cherubini’s Médée, Spontini’s La vestale, and Rossini’s Armida and Il turco in Italia. Anna Bolena, Medea, Lucia, and above all Violetta, Norma and Tosca are among her best roles.

Although Callas repeated many of these roles in the major opera houses of the world, the theatre with which her name is more often associated is the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Callas made her debut there in 1950, as Aida and she soon became the theatre’s favourite, at a disadvantage of other illustrious colleagues, especially as Renata Tebaldi (who, incidentally, decided to continue her career at the Met precisely after the deterioration of her relation with La Scala). At La Scala, Callas opened six seasons in ten years and several of her most popular recordings were made there. A master of acting as well as singing, she achieved her greatest successes in Luchino Visconti’s productions of La sonnambula, La traviata and Anna Bolena. As the New Grove states, «there was authority in all that she did on the stage and in every phrase that she uttered».

Apart from La Scala, Callas sang also at Covent Garden in London, where she made her debut in 1953, in Chicago’s Civic Opera House (debut: 1954), Berlin, Vienna and New York.

Maria Callas: The Diva and the Press

Maria Callas

Maria Callas during a press conference

One of the most speculated episodes of Callas’ life is her physical metamorphosis in the early Fifties. When it became clear that she was to become an operatic star, Callas decided to lose weight to be both vocally and physically plausible, even though rumour has it that actually she wanted to resemble Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

More likely, and as Giovanna Lomazzi points out in Maria Callas. The Scala Years, this choice was due to her «dedication and complete commitment to her art». Losing weight was part of the process of becoming a diva, but it may have contributed to Callas’ precocious vocal decline.

Maria Callas as Norma

Maria Callas as Norma

At her time, Callas’ new look made a sensation. It is well known that Visconti decided to set his Traviata in the 1870s because the costumes suited Callas’ slim figure and, as conductor Carlo Maria Giulini said, «she became another woman and another world of expression opened to her … In every sense, she had been transformed».

Even though Callas’ name was always on the front page, not all the publicity was favourable to her. Both her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and her love affair with Aristotle Onassis caused a sensation, and she was usually depicted as whimsical and arrogant. Her refuse to continue to sing in Norma in Rome in 1958 (due to illness or to the animosity of the audience) gave rise to a scandal and the same happened few months later, when she quarrelled with Rudolf Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

Callas made her last operatic appearance in London in 1965, as Tosca. She settled in Paris and made only sporadic reappearances in recitals (with Giuseppe Di Stefano), masterclasses, and especially in Pasolini’s Medea.

Maria Callas: Recording Legacy

As Manuela Hoelterhoff wrote in Cinderella & Company, Callas’ «record company has succeeded in making people think she is still alive… It’s a little bit like conversations with the other world». Callas made her first studio recording in 1949 and, in the next fifteen years, she recorded almost all of her most important roles as well as operas that she never performed on stage, as La bohème, Pagliacci, Manon Lescaut and Carmen.


Il pirata, 1959 – Callas, Ego, Ferraro, Rescigno

Lucia di Lammermoor, 1955 – Callas, Di Stefano, Panerai, Karajan

Norma, 1954 – Callas, Filippeschi, Stignani, Serafin

Norma, 1960 – Callas, Corelli, Ludwig, Serafin

Tosca, 1953 – Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi, de Sabata

La traviata, 1955 – Callas, Di Stefano, Bastianini, Giulini

La traviata, 1958 – Callas, Kraus, Sereni, Ghione

La sommabula, 1955 – Callas, Valletti, Modesti, Bernstein

La vestale, 1954 – Callas, Corelli, Stignani, Votto