Part one of four
By the end of 1956, Greek-American opera soprano Maria Meneghini Callas had several offers on her desk from well-known publishing houses, all competing to publish her memoirs. She turned down all the offers.
Now she was faced with the problem that many inaccuracies or, much worse, untruths about her person and her career were spreading.
Although convinced that she was still too young to write her memoirs, she decided to inform the public about her life: Instead of accepting one of the offers by the publishing houses, she decided to dictate her memoirs to her friend Anita Pensotti, a journalist.
As a woman who never liked to talk about herself, she rejected the concept of memoir writing.
However, the dictated memoir did not find its way onto bookshelves until 2019.
Director and photographer Tom Volf (he made the film “Maria by Callas“) discovered, edited and translated the text from the original Italian into French and published it in 2019, along with a collection of letters to and from Maria Callas.
Her memoir begins with the uncertainty of whether she was born on December second or fourth, 1923. However, it is certain that she was born in New York as Maria Anna Cecilia Sophia Kalogeropoulos. She grew up in New York. Her father changed their Greek surname, which was difficult to pronounce in English, to “Callas“ – her name in America was thus Mary Callas.
At the end of 1936 she returned to Greece, where both her parents came from, together with her mother and her sister – without her father. From now on, her name was Maria Kalogeropoulos. At least for the time being.
Reading the memoir, it quickly becomes clear that the future soprano’s childhood was already determined by the desire to become a successful singer. Despite the attitude of the time, according to which it was considered unworthy in some social classes to strive for a stage career, the young Maria received support from her parents.
At the age of 14, Maria Callas made her stage debut in a student performance at the conservatory she attended, winning the first prize. Although Maria was actually still too young, the Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, who was teaching at the conservatory at the time, insisted that the young Maria Callas be accepted. At that time, as Jürgen Kesting writes in his Maria Callas-biography, she was considered to be a mezzo-soprano and only intensive training made it possible for the high and low notes of her voice to develop.
The singing lessons were free of charge for Maria, Hidalgo considered it her duty to shape the young Maria vocally and also character-wise.
What to do with your hands when singing?
Elvira de Hidalgo tells how the young music student Maria Callas showed up for lessons in the morning and only went home in the evening, after assisting in the singing lessons of other students. In this way, she acquired a large operatic repertoire early on which would be helpful for her later. Also, de Hidalgo insisted that Maria Callas learn Italian, because in her opinion, sooner or later Maria would end up in Italy anyway. Hidalgo was right.
Consequently, Maria, who had no money for Italian lessons, befriended three medical students who had studied in Italy. By talking to these students, she learned the language in which many of her later starring roles were written – within three months.
Maria considered the question of what to do with her hands while singing to be a difficulty at that time. Later, in the seventies, when she taught a master class at the Juilliard School, she advised her students to move their hands as infrequently as possible. This advice was meant to increase the intensity of each hand movement.
During the occupation of Greece by the German Empire in the early 1940s, the was engaged at the Athens Opera. Critics praised her “dramatic instinct, intensity and interpretive imagination“. She was given roles in “Tiefland“ by Eugen d’Albert and in “Fidelio“ by Ludwig van Beethoven. But when first the occupation of Greece and then World War II came to an end, circumstances threatened to become even bleaker than they already were.
At the age of 21, Maria decided to return by ferry to the United States of America, where she would meet her father again.
However, she also hoped that a trip to America would give her a jump start in her career … (to be continued)
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Volf, Tom: Maria Callas – Lettres & Mémoires, Editions Albin Michel, 2019 & Kesting, Jürgen: Maria Callas, List Taschenbuch, 9th ed. 2018