Music: The Prima Donna

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 7)

Once, her enemies began to heckle as she got to the high notes of her second aria in Traviata. Callas tore off her shawl, stepped to the front of the stage, glared directly at her tormentors. With reckless ferocity, she lit into one of opera's most perilous arias. If she had made a mistake, it would have been fatal. Instead, she sang with immaculate and unearthly beauty. Five times she was called back by the deliriously happy audience, five times she stood, stony and arrogant, before turning away. On the sixth call, she relented, bowed to everybody except the hecklers. Then she faced them, suddenly flung up her arms in a gesture of spitting contempt. Says she, with savage satisfaction: "As long as I hear them stirring and hissing like snakes out there, I know I'm on top. If I heard nothing from my enemies, I'd know I was slipping. I'd know they're not afraid of me any more."

La Callas asks nothing better. "I hate to be pitied, and I never pitied anyone," she says.

Shrieking Leap. The woman Milan critics now call Goddess Callas was born Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos at dawn on Dec. 3, 1923 in Manhattan's Flower Hospital, four months after her parents arrived from Athens. In Greece her father had been a successful pharmacist. But in the U.S. he drifted from job to job. The family moved from one cheap apartment to another, the parents always squabbling, often on the verge of breaking up. Maria remembers her childhood with bitterness: "My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted." Forced to wear heavy spectacles for her myopic eyes, little Maria avoided schoolmates, ate compulsively (sometimes a whole pound of cheese at breakfast). "I hated school, I hated everybody. I got fatter and fatter." But when she was eight, she took up music. She saved money to buy opera librettos, and sang at school. Her mother drove her on, arranged for voice lessons. Maria began to win radio amateur contests. She made an important discovery: "When I sang, I was really loved."

When she was 14, her mother took the girls for a visit to Athens. They were caught there by the beginning of World War II. But Maria was undeterred. She won a scholarship at the old National Conservatory, where for the next four years she arrived early, left late, learned a libretto in a week (usual time: two months). She sang for Italian and German soldiers, who gave her bags of sugar and macaroni to help feed her family. She weighed 200 Ibs. "She never flirted. Nobody courted her. She was awkward and ashamed," says her teacher. "She had a real inferiority complex except about one thing: her voice."

One day in 1942, a leading singer in Athens' National Opera Company became ill. Maria was invited to take over the role of Tosca on 24 hours' notice. Backstage before the show, she overheard a male voice saying: "That fat bitch will never carry it off." With a shriek of rage, she leaped at the speaker, tore his shirt and bloodied his nose. Maria sang that night with a puffy eye. But she got raves from Athens critics.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7