Once upon a time a prima donna was opera's indispensable lady, an unearthly creature who fed on acclaim, dressed in kudos and walked a path strewn with money, jewels and lovers. For her the real world was only an extension of the unlikely world of opera, a world of passionate hate, tempestuous love and outrageous gesture. The prima donna was larger than life, and a law only to her own towering talent. One composer did not dream of objecting when Maria Malibran (1808-36) regally replaced one whole act he had written with music by another composer. Adelina Patti (1843-1919) traveled in a deluxe private railway car of her own, flanked by husband, dogs, birds and servants. Her fees were stupendous, and one agent protested that she was asking more per month than the President of the U.S. got per year. "Well, then," said Patti stonily, "let him sing."
Today the title has almost lapsed. In the opera house teamwork is the cry. Manhattan's Metropolitan Opera even forbids solo curtain calls. At home the opera star is often no more glamorous than a suburban housewife. In an age of small-scale talent and matching egos, the one diva who truly deserves the proud title of prima donna, with all its overtones of good and evil, is Maria Meneghini Callas.
The Peak. Last week, like a stormy throwback to another century. Maria Callas swept into New York. She arrived, as is proper for prima donnas, in triumph. Raised in Manhattan's upper west side, Maria Callas had left it as a fat, unhappy child of 14. She returned svelte, successful, the wife of an Italian millionaire, a diva more widely hated by her colleagues and more wildly acclaimed by her public than any other living singer. She returned to open the season next week in Bellini's Norma at the Metropolitan-which only eleven years ago just could not seem to find a suitable role for her.
In those years, tawny, big-eyed Maria Callas established herself as undisputed queen of the world's opera. From London to Naples her presence in even the tiredest old operas packed the house. At Milan's La Scala she has, almost singlehanded, increased the season's attendance half again over prewar records. In critical Vienna, 10,000 people clamored for the 2,000 tickets available when she sang Lucia de Lammermoor. In Chicago her presence successfully launched a new opera company in a city which has been death on opera companies for years. Hundreds of ear-hardened operagoers surge around stage doors just for a glimpse of her. Thousands of others have snapped up tens of thousands of the 13 full-length opera recordings that she has made for Italy's Cetra. Britain's E.M.I, (the Angel label in the U.S.).