Maria Callas

Maria Callas

The Greek years

In the two centuries of independence, Greece built bridges with the world through many prominent personalities who have left their mark on the international stage. Among them, Maria Callas, who laid the foundations of her musical genius in Greece and from Greece she began her incredible journey to conquer the world.
She was thirteen years old when she first saw Greek soil from the deck of the ship that brought her to her country of origin. Maria Kalogeropoulou, nervous and anxious to meet her future, landed at the port of Patras in March of 1937. Her few pieces of luggage included two canaries, a doll, and her first bouquet. It was given to her by the ship's captain when she sang La Paloma and Habanera aboard the ship on the previous night. Eight years later, on the ship that would take her back to New York, she would refuse the invitation to sing. She wasn't a girl that sang on ships anymore. She was a prima donna who knew exactly what she wanted and how she would get it.

"I lived for art"

Maria Callas' years in Greece were difficult, ridden with deprivations, family problems, emotional ups and downs, wars, worries. But they were also the years that laid the groundwork for a career that would rock the world one day. It was in Greece, where she decoded her first roles, submitted her voice to the teachings of her instructors, discovered the properties and difficulties of her voice. It was here that she went onstage for the first time and saw her name printed on a billboard. But it was also in Greece where she cried bitter tears, became angry, persistent, and enduring. She would work with the score again and again until she collapsed from exhaustion. When she returned to America in September of 1945, she was already an accomplished artist. She had discovered the secrets of her performing idiosyncrasy, knew the breaths, the extent and rare metal of her voice, and learned to turn her flaws into assets. Also, it was here that she tore up her first contract in front of the dumbfounded director of the Opera House, simply because she did not agree with him.

Her first musical luggage consisted of seven leading roles in fifty-six performances, ten minor roles, participation in nine choirs and fourteen concerts, five individual recitals, as Nikos Petsalis-Diomedes mentions in the biography "The Unknown Callas." (Kastaniotis editions). "I consider and name as my first career the one in Athens, during the war. It is the one that provided me with experience because that's where I practiced and got my stage experiences," she acknowledged in New York in 1967. But Callas' Greek years are one more thing: It is the end of innocence, and the entrance into a life pursued to its highest extremes. A time when the youthful illusions of greatness become a sacred purpose and her steely determination is forged into a mixture of cold mental distillation and over-conscious devotion that possesses the rare individual that strives to tread where no one else has treaded before.
Her beloved teacher, Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, who taught her at the Athens Conservatory, was instrumental in shaping her vocal technique. "The great teacher foresees your development. De Hidalgo realized I'd sing Bellini and Donizetti better, and she pushed me towards them," Callas would say years later. And the teacher who introduced her to bel-canto remembers: "She had an angel's voice. She could sing a whole melody with a single exhalation and had a natural inclination towards the dramatic tones. She only had to comprehend it, get used to lightness, fine detail." Callas herself, stricter with her voice than anyone else, in 1957 described very colorfully: "The tonality of my voice was dark, black, when I think of it, a viscous oil comes to mind." She memorized entire operas in a matter of hours, did her exercises while riding buses, studied endless hours how to strike the perfect note, erase "bridges", achieve a homogenous sound, clear the articulation, strengthen the diaphragm, catch refinement, softness, variations. For her, no exercise is useless vocalisms; they are "fantastic fragments of melodies, drawings of strange and unclassified music". For her, nothing is more important than the voice. This voice, for which EMI director Walter Legge said: "Its tone developed because of the anatomy of her palate, which was not like the Norman arch of normal mouths, but pointy like a Gothic arch."
The struggle for absolute dominance continued without interruption even after, for many, the "short golden age". Did anyone think that the value of this unique voice was only its well-executed notes and impeccable technique? I wonder if this trembling in the high-notes, tamed in Athens, but present again in the mid-1950s, depreciated the essence of the uniqueness of her music?
Or is it AS Terrence McNally,author of the famous 'Master Class', wrote, "Listening to Callas as an Immortal of the Golden Age is like you've never heard her true voice. Its limitations have no bearing on her interpretive genius and innate gifts." It is true, she did not care to hold back; she wasn't interested in protecting or holding reserves. In the years that followed, she performed, almost simultaneously, roles with varied vocal demands, Elvira and Brunhilde, Amina and Norma, Violetta and Aida, Armida and Isolde, Gilda and Tosca, Turandot and Carmen, Fiorella and Medea. She was tired, she was hurting, she pushed her voice. It was her prerogative, and she paid for it.
Ever since she was a little girl in New York, she dreamt of singing without barriers, like a bird. She would put her finger on the neck of her canary to feel the pulse in his tiny throat. One night while they were walking on Piraeus street, de Hidalgo comforted her: "Don't cry, Mary, we're going to rip out the tremolo, don't be afraid." She replied: "I am not afraid; I am crying because I am angry."
When Maria Kalogeropoulou enrolled in the National Conservatory, to be accepted, she falsely declared that she was sixteen years old. No one suspected anything because Callas never really lived as a child. She was born to replace her dead brother Basil who died prematurely and was raised in a toxic environment dominated by her parents' terrible quarrels and her oppressive mother. Very early on, she developed mature survival mechanisms. She learned to pursue her goal, not to trust people or look back easily. She also learned to take the best everyone could give her. She took a lot from Greece. Especially her first taste of independence, the confidence that she can cope in challenging situations and the power not cave under the terrible envy of her colleagues. The "Callas phenomenon" was perfected along the way, especially in Italy, with great conductors, teachers, mentors, and directors. But that first moment, at seventeen, in Beatrice's green velvet dress, with the Lyric Theater's audience on its feet, cheering, was Greek. The international soprano Maria Callas, as Polyvios Marsan said, is the uninterrupted continuance of the lyrical protagonist Maria Kalogeropoulou.

"God, how am I going to sing tonight? What do they want from me? How can I be better than yesterday and better than I would ever like to be? It's a terrible gift, one I cannot escape from. It is how I was born."