Women in History: Maria Callas, The 20th Century Opera Icon

Often regarded as the most influential opera singers of the 20th century, Maria Callas’s emblematic voice is still a point of reference for artists, and lovers of opera today. Karbatin revisits her career.

Early Life

Maria Anna Sophie Cecilia Kalogeropoulos was born into a family of New York immigrants from Greece in 1923. Her family, seeking a better life in a distant land, thought a new name was needed to better fit into the American culture, changing the last name to Callas.

Her youth years in America was not easy. In fact, Maria Callas herself often described them as being very challenging and sad. In part, this was due to a problematic relationship with her mother. Maria’s mum fought constantly with her daughter and obliged her to perform since a very young age. Callas later recalled: “I was made to sing when I was only five, and I hated it.”. The mother-daughter relationship was publicly documented through Maria’s life and a constant challenge in her later career.

Source: Classic FM

When Maria was a teenager, her mum – due to increasing resentment towards her husband’s absences – decided to return to Athens with her two daughters. In Greece, Maria started focusing on singing as a professional opportunity and soon, started making appearance in her first concerts. After two years of studying, Callas undertook the part of Santuzza in a student production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana at the Greek National Opera, and in the fall of the same year, she enrolled at the Athens Conservatoire in Elvira de Hidalgo’s class.


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Career Success 

In 1945, after returning moving back to the US to stay with her father, Callas made a round of auditions which unfortunately didn’t turn into any great opportunity. A couple of years later, she decided to follow the advice of her teacher Miss. Hidalgo: she moved to Italy.

In December 1951, after touring opera halls all over Italy for some years, she was making her debut in the opening night of one of the most prestigious theaters in the world. Maria was the main attraction at La Scala in “I vespri siciliani” by Giuseppe Verdi.

Immediately,Callas became a motive of great interest of important critics of the time. During the 50’s, many praised her, a few disliked her, but everyone knew she was the main representative of Opera around the globe. Maria Callas affirmed herself as the most successful Opera singer in the world. Among her admirers, Sir Rudolf Bing said: ‘once one heard and saw Maria Callas—one can’t really distinguish it—in a part, it was very hard to enjoy any other artist, no matter how great, afterward, because she imbued every part she sang and acted with such incredible personality and life. One move of her hand was more than another artist could do in a whole act.’


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The relationship with La Scala stayed very strong for over a decade, constituting the foundation for her international career. However, her fame and success in the ’50s brought her in tour all over the world. Callas was the star at the Metropolitan in New York, at Covent Garden in London and in many other incredible theaters, where her great vocal extension and ability to adapt to completely different opera style made her nickname “La Divina” even more truthful.

Photo: Paolo Pasolini

Late Years

Through the ’60s, she reduced her stage performances due to a vocal quality decline. Her last stage performance in a big opera house was in 1965, marking her withdraw from the spotlight.

Her distinguishing qualities are an inspiration to many singers and performers, Patti Smith is one of the many: “I study her; I mean of course I can’t sing like that, but she has taught me a lot about discovering how to deliver the inner narrative of a song. Because I listen to her songs–I don’t speak Italian or I don’t speak whatever language she’s singing–but I understand what she’s conveying through her emotional interpretation”.

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In the 16th of September, 1977 Maria Callas died of a heart attack, at the young age of 53. Today, 96 years after her birth, her extraordinary voice and acting continue to enchant people all over the world.

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