Remembering Maria Callas, 40 Years After Her Death

Sep 13, 2017

Soprano Maria Callas—controversial, temperamental, with a voice described alternately as "dazzling" and "catastrophic"—remains an enigma whose recordings continue to be bestsellers 60 years after they were released.

Callas died unexpectedly at her home in Paris on Sept. 16, 1977, at the age of 53.

The decline in her professional life dovetailed with the beginning of her nine-year romantic relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who abandoned Callas to marry Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968.

Callas tried to pick up the pieces. She made a non-singing film, Medea, with Pier Paolo Pasolini. She taught classes at The Juilliard School in New York. She went on a concert tour in the early 1970s. She had little voice and a nervous stage presence. She knew she no longer had "it."

I saw her 1974 concert in Boston. I describe that incredible night elsewhere on this blog.

Callas' great years were the decade of the 1950s. Post-1960, her performances were sporadic. Even after 1957, her voice could be chancy. Her last operatic performances were in 1965, for Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London.

I wanted to talk to people who saw Callas perform in her prime.

Kurt Youngman was 16 when he went to work at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as a "super," an on-stage extra. When not on the stage himself, he was able to watch performances from the wings. He was with Callas when she sang Bellini's I Puritani and Verdi's Il trovatore in Chicago in 1955:

By 1957, Callas had ended her relationship with the Metropolitan Opera and its general manager Rudolf Bing. It was while she was in Dallas singing Medea that Bing fired the diva from the Met. "CALLAS IN DALLAS!" the headlines screamed. "BING FIRES CALLAS!"

Ronald Seeliger heard Callas at The Dallas Opera in La traviata​, and as the title character in Luigi Cherubini's Medea. Cherubini's opera was a signature role for Callas, and her only North American appearances in this opera were in Dallas in 1957 and 1958.

Callas is the subject of over 20 books. Warner Classics is re-issuing her recordings, both from the studio and live performances, in gorgeously re-mastered sound, housed in deluxe box sets.

She's the subject of Franco Zeffirelli's (awful) movie Callas Forever, with Jeremy Irons and Joan Plowright, and Fanny Ardant as Maria Callas.

I don't mind Jane Seymour's depiction of Callas in the TV mini-series The Fabulous Onassis with Raul Julia.

But the best Callas is the lady herself, in her vocal prime.