Editor: Christine Zerdeva
Translation: Maria Ampelourgou
“I don’t need the money, dear. I work for art. You are born an artist or you are not. And you stay an artist, dear, even if your voice is less of a fireworks. The artist is always there.” – Maria Callas
Thick drizzle had settled comfortably that Autumn morning in Paris. Alas, nothing could possibly set the mood for the sad news that would land like a bombshell later in the day to cast a shadow of gloom over humanity. It’s almost as if the rain knew and was trying to lull everyone to sleep until late, delaying the break of the day and the dreadful news. People were strolling along the streets of a city almost taken out of a Jacques Tati film, and the pouring rain would add to it, transforming the scenery, making it vibrant and theatrical. And what a theatrical morning that was! People gracefully leaping over puddles, almost pirouetting in their attempt to keep their morning routine as uninterrupted by the rain as possible. If only they knew…
It was the 16th of September when, in Rue George Mandel 36, a heart attack would forever silence ‘the Golden Voice’. She was only 53 years old. From rainy Paris to the edge of the world, the news of the death of ‘La Divina’ left everyone feeling numb, hollow. Her feeble heart yielded under the strain of a reality that was causing her so much pain, and it was time to escape.
Maria Cecilia Sophia Anna Kalogeropoulos, who made history as the gentle and unconventional Maria Callas, left this world that day, but her legend lives on. It’s been 38 years since her death, and if she was alive today she would be a sweet, 90-year-old, classy lady with so many memories that she would probably be overwhelmed. It seems that death knocks on the legends’ door early, so their splendour stands the test of time and they stay forever alive in the collective memory.
Maria Callas has been, without a doubt, an incredible persona. Apart from having an incredible personality, she was the first woman to expose the international star system for what is was: a hollow industry of creating, promoting and exploiting stars. The same system that rejected her during her early career for not meeting its beauty standards, and after glorifying her for her voice when she was already established, it was still provokingly focusing more on her personal life, like her relationship with Aristotle Onassis and her conventional married life with Giovanni Battista Meneghini. Ruthless people, obsessed with digging up gossip that would often distress her. Maria was one of a kind, though. Few artists can unfold, develop and shape their art into something as magical, which is what makes her timeless.
Maria Callas has been the most important coloratura soprano of all times. Her voice would stretch an octave higher than that of a regular soprano. The range and magnitude of her voice, coupled with her immeasurable acting talent and her passion and devotion for her art is what made her internationally acclaimed and granted her a special place at everyone’s heart. Everything she achieved was down to her talent, hard work and acting potential. It is only her transformation from a gifted but rather graceless little girl to a classy diva that she owes to the “magician of cinema”, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who saw the spark and believed in her with all his heart.
Maria left a lasting impression to anyone she met; that magic aura about her, the passion in every movement and facial expression, even the feeblest of them. Then again, it could be that hypnotic, magnetic gaze. Wherever she was performing, from the largest opera houses in the world to that small square in Lefkada that she cherished due to her partner, she would awe the crowd with her magical voice.
I never had the chance to see her live, unfortunately. However, I like to observe her in her recorded videos and pretend I was there in that very same moment with her, as a sort of little game I like to play.
I lie down comfortably, close my eyes and try to listen… I am shaken by her performance and I keep picturing myself in the crowd, wondering how it’d feel to be part of that glamorous world. Her voice flowing like a wild stream, majestically enchanting even the most demanding of hearers. Delicate sounds evoking the senses, creating powerful imagery and you’d find yourself right in the middle, in awe, overwhelmed by this sense of completeness. The sounds would give essence to a kind of love that can pierce one’s soul. It’s why I feel that this deadly silence that preceded every performance aimed at preparing those who were lucky enough to experience that moment. Then she comes on stage and I am startled by her beautiful voice, which would charm and elicit unprecedented emotions. The experience is unique, it makes you feel as if you were part of it, you can feel the beauty of that moment. Shivers of calm and peacefulness run through your body the way that stentorian voice pours forth, and you bathe in the light of her greatness. And finally…the moment of catharsis strikes you once the performance reaches its peak. That’s a feeling you get to experience on very particular occasions in life…like while watching a Greek tragedy.
Then she would be gone like a breeze behind the velvet red curtain, dragging her steps on the stage, and you could almost sense her presence disappear, feel her scent lingering. All of these feelings add up to an emotional crescendo and it’s when her grandeur entrances you completely. They say good dreams last a little and stay with you for a while, and exciting journeys stay forever in your mind in the form of happy memories. These breath-taking performances, though, need to be captured forever in your conscience and emerge again like an antidote to dullness and monotony.
Only the burst of the applause and the cheering would bring you back to reality in this ritual of ‘glorifying’ the Casta Diva, hoping she would come back to stage for a bit more magic. An applause that comes from the heart, as an inner urge to somehow connect to the artist after that staggering performance. Maria would go beyond the limit of what is physically possible, and her natural gift and know-how would show in operas like “Norma”, “Media” or “Adrienne Lecouvreur”, which she would sing with such ease and splendour.
The ‘myth’ of Maria Callas is a like a puzzle of different elements from her tempestuous professional and personal life, and her multifaceted and contrasting personality. These are still under examination and are often a source of inspiration for discussions, films, books and talks. I have chosen not to focus on her personal life, glory or moments of sorrow. These have all been written and revisited. I would only wish that I had the chance to meet that glorious woman, chat to her, listen and feel her presence. I learned from her soul power and inner charisma what is important to fight for and how to become a real Diva. Not everyone is meant to be big in life, but by means of will-power, patience and courage, we can achieve greatness for ourselves. I am still trying to put all the pieces together and finally get insight into her temperament. I can’t hide my admiration for this woman. She was glorified and hurt by life all the same, but she stood with dignity all the way through the indecency of the times she lived in. ‘Our’ Maria went down in history, not only as a ‘phenomenon’, but also as a persona that evoked incredible emotions.
In order to get more insight into what it means to perform on stage, let’s put it the way she did. Maria stressed how it is necessary that the audience are aware of the effort, hard work and love going to every bit of word and vowel sound, let alone movements and acting which are inextricably linked to every role. I seem to think this was her outlook on life as well; intensity and passion. After all, to experience such mind-blowing romances, she must have had a lot of both. Life is a performance in its own right; the way we render it is what makes each of us one of a kind.
Marsan, Polubios. Maria Callas: The Greek Period. Athens: Gnosi, 1983.
Nikolaides, Vassilis. Oi Metamorfoseis mias technis (translation: The transformations of a form of art). Athens: Bastas/Plessas, 1995.