To Maria Callas, with love: A tribute to the greatest of all women

September 16, 2012


Thirty-five years ago, Maria Callas passed away in Paris, at the age of fifty-three. Only fifty-three short years, during which the little girl, born in New York to Greek immigrants who yearned so much for a son, fought for recognition and excellence. Fifty-three years, and a timeless legacy.

The way I see Maria's legacy is like looking at the genealogy in Wagner's Ring: there are the "mortals", most opera singers, with a few shining stars among them; with their controversies, their differences and their admirers, and then, there's Maria, a completely different dimension. To think of her as yet another "opera singer" is obsolete: she is, just like a work of Wagner's, so much more. She is above singing, above acting, above music. She is a priestess of the complete, full work of art in its very essence. With her obsession for detail, her sacrificing of vocal prowess and added embellishments to strengthen the drama, she becomes the very link, the intermediary between the (deceased) composer and the work, as it happens on stage, or as generations hear it.

But I don't think this near-godliness is what led me, like so many others, to love Maria Callas, almost to the point of feeling a personal connection to her. I think it is love. Yes, love, the hardest notion to define and to find (and for the unluckiest of us, to maintain). Love was what Maria was denied at her birth, by a toxic mother who wished, almost to obsession, for a son; Evangelia Callas only came to appreciate her daughter when the latter showed real talent for singing; when she finally enjoyed the fame the mother always dreamed of and never had; and when her daughter became wealthy, which goes without saying. Estranged from her mother, whom she never saw after 1950, love was something Maria yearned for, in her passionless marriage, from the audience that she could so easily disappoint with a high note that wouldn't come out, or, oh scandal, a cancellation. Love was something she got a glimpse from during her affair with Aristotle Onassis, which came to a cruel end when the latter married Jackie Kennedy.
Love was something all the heroines she brought to life had in common: from Butterfly, abandoned by her husband and in denial until the very last moment, waiting for him to come back, to Lucia, who swore herself to Edgardo, and becomes mad after she is forced into an arranged marriage; La Traviata, who gives up on the man she loves because his father won't have his son be with a demi-mondaine, and dies, consumed by unhappiness and illness; the jealous Tosca, who kills to remain faithful to her lover; Norma, Medea, so many more.
Love was what she spent her final days mourning, after Onassis, with whom she was reconciled, died. She had a glimpse of hope, only to see it vanish. Her voice was heard for the last time in Japan, in 1974. And then, she became a ghost, alone in her Parisian apartment, listening to her old recordings, to her past glorious days. Alone, and loveless.

Was death a salvation to her? Did she put an end to her days? This is not the point. The point is that this woman existed, as one realizes when they hear this voice, extinct 35 years ago but thankfully immortalized. This beauty, this transcendent passion that takes possession of you,  as if Maria, like an apparition of the Saint she was named after, makes you discover an inner complexity you did not know you had in you.

To Maria Callas, with love,


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