The Callas Myth
By Olivia GiovettiDecember 21, 2023
On the roof of the prison, she finds her lover and coaches him on how to fake his death for the sham firing squad. With her experience in theater, she knows how to do it convincingly. The shots are fired, and she’s impressed by his performance, perhaps even a little jealous. The firing squad clears out, and he’s still on the ground. She tells him to get up, but he doesn’t respond. She nears him and sees blood. The performance, she realizes to her horror, was reality. The baron’s forces return, closing in on her, and she realizes she has nowhere else to go. She leaps from the parapet. She and the baron will meet before God.
You’d be forgiven for conflating the woman Maria Callas was with the women she played. Her psychological and emotional depth of performance made her a mesmerizing figure onstage. Offstage, she evolved from Mary to Maria to La Divina: the impeccably chic, fiery-eyed diva for whom a walk down a foggy Milanese boulevard was no less a performance than the one she would give onstage at La Scala. She would gladly stab her enemies—or at the very least cut them out of her life (the road map of Callas’s life was lit by the bridges she burned). She would also willingly fling herself off a parapet for those she loved—as evidenced when she stopped singing almost entirely to accommodate her ill-fated love affair with Aristotle Onassis.
There were shades of verisimilitude in all of this, but the Greek American Callas was also no stranger to myth. “Maybe I should write my autobiography, set the record straight,” she said. “I’m the only one who’s lived it.” Instead, Callas (who would have turned 100 this month) died at the age of 53. A deluge of biographies and memoirs followed in her wake, including several by members of her own family, such as her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini (completed by Renzo Allegri following Meneghini’s own death in 1981), her sister-in-law Pia Meneghini, and her own sister Jackie. Before her death, Callas’s mother, Evangelia, published My Daughter Maria Callas (1960). Beyond her immediate family, former accompanists, impresarios, assistants, and co-stars also committed their years in Callas’s orbit to print.
These memories have helped to shape and calcify the Callas myth: she was a man-eater, an ice queen who treated people as disposable, a tigress with a temper to match. As one poster for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 adaptation of Medea (Callas’s only film credit) summed it up in 1971: “It’s a movie about a woman who beheads her brother, stabs her children and sends her lover’s wife up in flames. For Maria Callas, it’s a natural.”
But even Medea, as we know, is easily misread. A woman exiled in a patriarchal society, Medea’s revenge is the ultimate test of her moral imperative. It is difficult to blame the oppressed for rebelling against their oppressor.
“I still have no clear idea why Maria has turned against me,” Evangelia Callas writes in My Daughter. “In my heart I still love her, and I am proud of the career she has made for herself and her present glory. Am I also foolish to feel pride for myself because I was able to help her?”
Posed three-quarters of the way through the book, this question comes off as rhetorical, the lament of a modern-day opera character. Callas’s mother was “charmed” into marrying George Kalogeropoulos, a philandering, low-born pharmacist, before sacrificing everything for her two daughters. No sooner had one of those daughters become Maria Callas than Evangelia was cast aside, a casualty of her daughter’s “prima donna disease.”
Yet even Evangelia’s retelling of Maria’s birth hints at the dysfunction she was born into. In her version, the Kalogeropouloses (they later rechristened themselves “Callas” in the United States) leave their native Greece in 1923, shortly after the death of their three-year-old son, Vasily. Evangelia is not thrilled about leaving home, especially with a husband who does nothing but fuck around and find out. But she is pregnant again, and convinced it will be a son to replace the one she lost. When she gives birth to a girl instead (a date that she gives as December 4 but that was, in reality, December 2), she turns her head away from the newborn, refusing to touch her for four days.
When both of her daughters are teenagers, Evangelia moves them back to Greece in what she claims is an effort to further Maria’s musical education—though Jackie would later contend in her own memoir, Sisters: A Revealing Portrait of the World’s Most Famous Diva (1969), that her mother was “as much concerned about getting away from George as she had been about helping either of her daughters.” Unfortunately, Axis forces reach Greece soon thereafter. Evangelia describes hiding Allied fighters in a spare bedroom of her apartment, with Maria fending off a raid of Italian soldiers by sitting down at the piano and singing Tosca. (“At the time they looked like two scared females rather than heroines of the resistance, but then Mother’s stories about the war always seemed to outrun the reality,” Jackie would later write in her memoir.) “God had given Maria a golden voice; it was my duty, as her mother, to help her,” Evangelia writes. “But would Maria let me do this?”
My Daughter is filled with scenes of Evangelia, backstage at the opera house in Athens, fanning Maria with a towel as if she were a prizefighter, while also helping her to land more performances during the occupation, including concerts for soldiers that paid in food (a scarce resource in war-torn Athens). “In those days she demanded much of me, and I was happy to give her what she wanted,” Evangelia recalls beatifically, while also dropping hints as subtle as ACME anvils of the fallout that was to come. “[Y]ou should go out more with your own friends,” her maid in Athens tells her. “Your daughters will give you little help.” Years later, in New York, she stands on the dock as Maria departs on a ship to Verona, Italy, where she is scheduled to make her debut at the city’s vaunted Arena. Eddie Bagarozy, a would-be impresario who took financial (and possibly sexual) advantage of Maria at the onset of her career, echoes this sentiment: “From now on,” he tells Evangelia as the ship pulls out of sight, “we cannot count on Maria.”
Shortly thereafter, Evangelia suggests that her daughter visit a dying Italian colonel who is also in Verona, and who had befriended their family during the war while he was stationed in Athens. She is shocked that Maria refuses, and counts this colonel in a list of people she claims her daughter rejected during her career after they offered her some form of support.
Despite being quietly outraged by her estranged mother’s book, Maria Callas avoided commenting on it publicly—a moment of restraint that counteracted her temperamental reputation, and also prevented My Daughter Maria Callas from becoming a succès de scandale. It is, however, an odd look to openly admit to befriending Nazi officers as well as high-ranking members of Mussolini’s army while in occupied Greece. “Those who had to work with the occupying power did what they had to do, the basic task no more, and no one blamed them. But overt friendliness was considered wrong,” Jackie later recalled in Sisters. “Everyone knew this without anything needing to be said—everyone, that is, except Evangelia Callas.”
Maria did obliquely address, and in some cases preempt, her mother’s picture of her early life as an idyllic childhood full of prodigious success and unwavering support. She likened her mother’s opportunism with Axis soldiers (including the suggestion that Maria date one of these admirers) to prostitution, and lamented her lack of a “normal” childhood. “It’s cruelty, I think,” Callas told one interviewer of her early years spent at lessons and in competitions. “[T]here must be a law against it. Children should not be given this responsibility. They don’t last long. Children should have a wonderful childhood. I had not had it. I wish I could have.”
“I do not believe I am guilty of presumption if I say that I am the only person in the world who truly knew her,” writes Giovanni Battista Meneghini in My Wife Maria Callas (1981), which opens with the 23-year-old Maria Callas meeting the 51-year-old Meneghini during her debut in Verona and continues through the end of their 10-year marriage, when Callas left Meneghini for shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. As with Evangelia, Meneghini’s relationship with Callas was one that, in his telling, was characterized by him doing everything to further her career before being abruptly cut out of her life when she was able to “trade up.”
Callas arrived in Verona in the summer of 1947 on a Russian cargo ship, clutching a cardboard suitcase held together with string. She had made a good career start in Greece, but returning to New York, she had not found the same reception. Insecure, broke, and alone in a foreign city for the first time in her life, she happened to be seated next to Meneghini—a brick manufacturer who had tried his hand at managing the careers of several other operatic ingenues in the past, to no success.
Meneghini offered a similar business proposal to Callas: he would manage her career for six months, handling her bookings, lessons, living conditions, wardrobe, and everything else; all she had to do was focus on her voice. If things worked out, they could continue from there. A romantic relationship became collateral to this professional support, with Meneghini claiming, “I discovered myself to be in love to a degree I could never have imagined possible.” When his brothers objected to the match, a dispute that at one point involved at least 60 stakeholders, Meneghini said, “Take everything. I’m staying with Maria.” He adds in My Wife: “The woman who revolutionized opera was also responsible for the rending apart and destruction of the Meneghini family.”
Callas decided to take Meneghini up on his offer and stayed in Verona. If initially she was not as infatuated with him as he contends (“I don’t think I love him,” she supposedly told the wife of a colleague in Verona. “But he wants me to stay here, he wants me to marry him”), that soon changed. However, the future Mr. Callas’s central thesis—that the couple lived “in the most beautiful, perfect intimacy,” a time that was “Maria’s happiest period”—is severely one-sided. Callas’s letters show tender devotion, tinged perhaps with some neurosis: “Come, I live only for you,” she wrote him shortly after their marriage in 1949. “And you, do you miss me? Who knows!” Meneghini seems to demonstrate his love for Callas, at least to the reader, by managing her career, although he was often considered more of a nuisance than an asset in that department (he once irritated Metropolitan Opera director Rudolf Bing so much that Bing paid Callas’s stratospheric fee in five-dollar bills). This also seemed to irk Callas: “Sometimes you too are in love with Callas the artist, and lose sight of the person,” she once wrote him. “Your letter was very beautiful, so sweet, but I wanted to find more ‘Battista and Maria’ in it, and less ‘Meneghini and Callas.’”
The book culminates with the holiday the Meneghinis took in the summer of 1959 on Onassis’s yacht. Enjoying the break in her busy schedule, Callas, then 35, mentioned her desire to retire from singing—a job she had held for nearly three decades—and enjoy her leisure time; perhaps finally she could have the baby she’d longed for. “You can’t retire,” Meneghini informed her. “[Y]ou can’t afford to.” All of her money, it turned out, had either been spent by her husband or was tied up in long-term investments. She was, effectively, cash-poor. “So my eyes were opened to a husband who was a pimp,” Callas told music critic (and her eventual biographer) John Ardoin.
In Meneghini’s retelling of the ill-fated holiday, however, the pair were on a “love cruise,” during which his wife still behaved like a smitten newlywed. Suddenly, a switch flipped: Callas and Onassis fell in love, and she was transformed into “the succubus of some hellish demon.” It calls to mind a story that he relays earlier in the book without a hint of sympathy for his wife, one that illustrates her “volatile temper.” In Brazil, Callas was alone in her hotel room when a waiter delivered breakfast for her and Meneghini (who had stepped out to get the newspaper). She was “in a dressing gown that was perhaps a little revealing,” which led to the waiter attempting to grope her breasts. Callas then turned into “a wild animal,” pushing the waiter out of the room “with such force that the poor miscreant slammed into the knob of the outer door and gashed his head.” The one who faced potential punishment and, at the very least, police interrogation following this event was not the waiter but Callas. The couple was forced to change hotels. For Meneghini, his wife is either a liability or an asset, but never a person.
The most reliable of the Callas memoirs seems to be Jackie’s (which focuses more on Jackie’s perceptions of the ever-widening rift between herself and her sister), as well as Nadia Stancioff’s Maria Callas Remembered: An Intimate Portrait of the Private Callas (1987). While other accounts—including, at times, Maria’s own—suggest that Jackie was Evangelia’s favorite, Jackie seems baffled by this. She recalls the number of sacrifices she was asked to make as the eldest daughter in order to support her sister’s career. But she rarely seems bitter, or if she does, that bitterness is directed toward their mother, who tried to force Jackie more than once to “do something useful”—i.e., marry a wealthy stranger in order to financially support Maria’s music lessons. Jackie separates her sister from her mother in these moments, recognizing that Maria was a child. Yet her version of her sister is still complicated, full of the nuance that is too much to squeeze into any operatic character. In one of the relationships Evangelia tried to forge between Maria and an Italian officer during the war, Jackie saw the dynamics of their relationship writ small. As Jackie observes,
[a]ll [Maria’s] complexes were there in that one situation: her desire to be loved and her desire to compete with me, her sister. Why? What had I got? […] [M]y life was frozen, held in a vice I couldn’t unlock and yet here was my sister doing herself so much damage out of a senseless envy of what she thought I was.
Jackie’s recollections also factor heavily into Maria Callas Remembered. Unlike many of the other memoirists, Stancioff had the benefit of some distance from her subject: she was not family, having only come to know Maria Callas in the final years of her life, when she was hired as the singer’s press secretary for the filming of Medea. Her book—prompted by Callas telling her, “If I should die before you […] I want you to tell people what I am really like. You know me better than most people”—is a hybrid between memoir and biography, detailing Stancioff’s attempt to understand the full spectrum of her friend’s personality years after her death. At most, the author casts herself as the pragmatic Nick Carraway to Callas’s naive Gatsby, a dynamic that comes through most clearly when, during the filming of Medea, an unambiguously gay Pasolini gives Callas the gift of a ring made out of an ancient bronze coin. “Do you think this means he is in love with me?” Callas excitedly asks Stancioff. “I think I can help him, Nadia.”
“As a rule, the admiration that was lavished on Callas the artist was rarely bestowed on Maria the woman,” writes Stancioff. “Though they didn’t all see her as a goddess, most people conjured a fictitious Callas, only to be disillusioned by the real one whose changing moods and complicated lifestyle frequently colored her behavior.”
Perhaps this is the one truth that can be found in each of the Callas memoirs: she was born into a life full of roles she was expected to fill but ill-suited to play, roles in which she was doomed to fail because they reflected what others wanted her to be versus the person she actually was. She could never be the son her parents wanted, nor could she exist solely as a source of secondhand glory for her mother, whatever the cost. She couldn’t be the sister that Jackie so deeply craved. She couldn’t be the wife that kept her husband’s coffers full and her mouth shut. Absent of this, the people closest to her rewrote and reshaped her story, revised history to suit their needs. What we’re left with is the Diva, the Tigress, an Icarus who flew too close to the sun and therefore needed to be brought back down to earth.
Back down to earth, indeed: on the morning of September 16, 1977, Callas died on the floor of her apartment in Paris, where she lived her final years in near-seclusion. She collapsed from a dizzy spell on her way to the bathroom, and by the time she was lifted into bed, her lips had gone blue. Meneghini was convinced it was a suicide, based on a few lines of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda that Callas had written on a piece of paper, and was incensed when his ex-wife was cremated. “I am the only guardian of the life of Maria Callas,” he fumed. For Jackie, it was her first time seeing her sister’s Paris apartment, where she was brusquely told by a former impresario, “[T]his place doesn’t belong to you and […] it will never belong to you.”
For a time, Maria Callas’s ashes, which she asked to have scattered across the Aegean, even went missing. They had been placed at Père Lachaise Cemetery, but they disappeared, later turning up in a bank vault on the instructions of a friend, pianist Vasso Devetzi, who organized most of Callas’s funeral arrangements. “Isn’t it incredible?” Stancioff concludes when she realizes the missing ashes’ location. “Maria’s fate always ends up in the hands of others.”
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