Part two of four
Part one here
Arriving in New York and staying with her father, who lived there, little promising happened at first: more than once she recited for other opera singers and directors, who always told her that she still needed to work on her voice.
Maria soon suspected that she would have little chance of launching a career in New York.
Nevertheless, she met Giovanni Zenatello in 1947, who was the artistic director of the Verona Opera Festival. The opera festival in the Arena di Verona was first held in 1913, to mark the 100th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth. Many opera singers celebrated their first success in the northern Italian city and so did Maria Callas.
Arena di Verona
The audition to which Zenatello had invited Callas for him was “a revelation and not just an audition“, according to Jürgen Kesting in his Callas biography. Zenatello was looking for a soprano for the role of Gioconda in the opera of the same name by Amilcare Ponchielli.
Thus it was certain: Maria Callas’ career was to begin in Italy, just as Elvira de Hidalgo had prophesied. In her memoirs, Maria emphasises the great importance that the city of Verona was to bear in her life: It was there that she met her future husband in 1947, enjoyed her first success in Italy, and met the opera soprano Renata Tebaldi, with whom – although portrayed differently by the press in the fifties – she had a deep friendship.
At the end of June 1947, with little money in her pocket, she arrived in Verona, where she was to perform Gioconda for the first time on August 3.
But even after this engagement, the hoped-for offers initially failed to materialise.
Until Tullio Serafin, an Italien conductor who is said to have set Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi on their path, made her an offer to sing in “Tristan und Isolde“ by Richard Wagner.
She accepted and signed a contract with the Teatro La Fenice in Venice that included “Tristan und Isolde“ and “Turandot“ by Giacomo Puccini. It was also at the Teatro La Fenice that Maria became friends with Renata Tebaldi.
Two roles at the same time
In January 1949 Maria Callas was busy singing “Die Walküre“ by Richard Wagner in Venice when it was brought to her attention that the soprano Margherita Carosio, who was to sing in “I Puritani“ by Vincenzo Bellini, was ill with the flu. Tullio Serafin suggested to take over this role – in addition to her role in the “Walküre“.
What followed was a test of endurance: “Die Walküre“ and “I Puritani“ are two operas written in completely different vocal registers and, according to Tom Volf, few sopranos manage to sing both operas in the course of their careers. Callas sang both operas within two weeks.
She made her first studio recording on March 7, 1949, and the record made at that time has recently been reissued in a remastered version.
Shortly before Maria Callas embarked on a South American tour in mid-1949, she married the brickyard owner Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she had met in Verona. Although she received much acclaim by the public during this tour, she always longed for her husband, whom she had to leave the day after the wedding because of the tour that was about to begin.
Herbert von Karajan
After completing her South American tour, new doors opened for her: on December 7, 1951, she opened her first Scala season in the role of Duchess Elena in Giuseppe Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani“. Further engagements at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan followed, including “La Gioconda“ and “Lady Macbeth“ – by the end of 1952 she had secured her status as prima donna.
In January 1954, Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan staged and conducted a new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor“, in which Maria Callas took on the role of Lucia. This production was so successful that the Scala ensemble appeared in Berlin in 1955 and in Vienna in 1956.
On November 17, 1955, Maria sang her third performance of “Madama Butterfly“ (Giacomo Puccini) at the Chicago Lyric Opera. After being rewarded with extraordinary applause from the audience, she returned to her dressing room where U.S. Marshal Stanley Pringle and Deputy Sheriff Dan Smith were waiting for her: Together they handed the prima donna a fee suit from her former manager Eddie Bagarozy. The “handover“ was done by slipping the suit into the kimono that served as her costume during the opera performance. Coincidentally, an Associated Press photographer was also present and took a picture of the utterly enraged Callas yelling after Marshal Pringle. This picture went around the world, permanently damaging the reputation of the prima donna and laying the foundation for many other private affairs of Callas that were to become scandals.
According to Jürgen Kesting, it is still debated today whether the action was a staging of the “Anti-Callas front“ in Chicago.
But this was not to remain the last scandal of her unprecedented career …
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Maria Callas – Lettres & Mémoires, Editions Albin Michel, 2019; Kesting, Jürgen: Maria Callas, List Taschenbuch, 9th ed. 2018 & Csampai, Atilla: Maria Callas: Gesichter eines Mediums, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag 1993.