On October 29, 1956, Maria Callas made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the role of Norma from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera of the same name. It was not foreseen that the aria “Casta Diva” from Norma would find in Maria Callas one of its most famous interpreters: “Norma” was still quite unknown to the audience of the Met and many spectators were only coming to see Callas live for the first time.
As successful as her debut was – even Marlene Dietrich, who reserved a ticket for the Callas debut seven months in advance, wanted to meet her afterwards – the premiere was overshadowed by the incendiary scandalous press coverage of Maria.
On the day of the premiere of “Norma,” Callas decorated the cover of Time magazine, and consequently the magazine devoted the cover story to her. According to Jürgen Kesting, however, this article was not about the soprano’s art, but rather about arousing resentment among readers. A phenomenon that was to accompany Maria from then on throughout her career – newspapers and gossip rags published sales-driving stories at the prima donna’s expense, to which she herself often responded with open letters or enlightening articles.
On stage with a sore throat
In 1958, two scandals broke closed in on the soprano, which put her art in the background. Each time the headlines dealt with the prima donna, it was not about the art of opera, but about the latest “affront” of Callas.
It so happened that on the evening of January 2, 1958, with a sore throat, she made her way to the stage of the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome to sing the role of “Norma” and open the Scala season.
After the first act, however, she left the stage and, because of her fading voice, decided to abandon the performance. Since no replacement for the role of Norma was available at short notice, the event was cancelled.
When the related announcement was made, the audience, which included the Italian president, was deeply outraged.
The world press immediately picked up on the ensuing scandal, and Callas had to be evacuated from the opera house to her hotel through an underground tunnel because of the press hype. In the days that followed, the scandal boiled over to such an extent that all political daily news had to give way to the Callas scandal and the prima donna had to leave Rome on January 9 under police protection.
In an open letter dated January 14, 1958, Maria Callas writes that she sees the scandal as a punishment for her successful years and speaks of a lynching campaign against her.
She also mentions her duty to the composer of the opera, Vincenzo Bellini, which would not have allowed her to continue singing the opera. In her opinion, she had already damaged the image of the opera enough just by singing the first act.
In those days Maria Callas felt abandoned, although she was supported by many friends, colleagues and strangers.
The fact that she found motivation to sing at all again following this press campaign was thanks to her supporters, who showed understanding for Callas’ artistic decision.
Departure from La Scala
A few months after this scandal, the departure from La Scala followed on May 31, 1958: after the 157th Scala performance of her career, she left the Milanese opera theater and, at the end of her last performance of “Il Pirata” (Vincenzo Bellini), was once again rewarded with a ceaseless ovation. This so angered the artistic director of La Scala Antonio Ghiringhelli that he ended the ovation by lowering the Iron Curtain.
In addition, on November 6 of the same year, the director of the Metropolitan Opera Rudolf Bing terminated the contract with Maria Callas.
Nevertheless, the year 1958 ended with a triumph for the prima donna: on December 19, 1958, she celebrated her Paris debut with a concert evening in which she sang, among other things, the aria “Casta Diva” from “Norma”:
The concert was broadcast live all over Western Europe. It made Callas, who until then had been known primarily to opera lovers, famous throughout Europe in one sweep. The entire Parisian high society was in the audience – including the French president and the “tanker king” Aristotle Onassis. From then on, Maria Callas had a close relationship with Aristotle Onassis, which even led to her divorce from her husband Meneghini in a court case that received much attention from the press.
Originally, it was Meneghini who convinced Maria to go on a cruise aboard the Christina, Onassis’ yacht, after Onassis invited her to do so. It was aboard the Christina that Onassis and Callas had their first opportunity to meet.
In 1959, Callas was at odds with all the world’s major opera houses – there was also trouble with the director of the Metropolitan Opera, and Callas’ contract was terminated. Callas’ husband exerted pressure on her to fulfill her remaining contracts and continued to control Callas’ finances, which did not suit her.
Aristotle Onassis, on the other hand, was the friend she always sought during this period, she wrote in her memoir Fragments, written in 1977. He encouraged her to make films and told her she no longer had to be on stage in the exhausting profession of opera soprano….
Simon von Ludwig | More on Maria Callas
«Le maestro Karajan est maître de gouverner son théâtre comme il l’entend, et moi je suis libre d’agir avec la même indépendance.»
— Maria Callas, in an open letter
Picture: Maria Callas with her husband Meneghini (1957), taken from Wikimedia Commons
Main sources: Volf, Tom: Maria Callas – Lettres & Mémoires, Editions Albin Michel, 2019; Kesting, Jürgen: Maria Callas, List Taschenbuch, 9. Aufl. 2018 & Csampai, Atilla: Maria Callas: Gesichter eines Mediums, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag 1993