Part four of four
However much Callas had grown fond of Onassis, she did not allow other people to interfere in her professional affairs. Until mid-1965, Maria Callas continued to give opera performances, albeit much less in number – despite Onassis’ advice to make films. In late 1960, she even returned to La Scala in Milan in the opera Poliuto (Gaetano Donizetti), though she did not sing the lead role.
A year later, in December 1961, she appeared on stage for the last time at La Scala in a production of Medea – this time again in the leading role. The day before the premiere of this production, she sent a letter to Grace Kelly complaining of health problems. She also wished that Grace’s children Albert (now Albert II, Prince of Monaco) and Caroline could hear her sing one day.
Princess Grace de Monaco
Despite the friendship that united Gracia Patricia of Monaco and Maria Callas, Callas never had an opera engagement in Monaco. Nevertheless, the operatic soprano often let herself be seen with her lover Onassis on public occasions in Monaco.
Grace said in a January 1966 interview with Playboy, “I think she [Maria Callas] is a very great artist, and as a person I find her to be a nice, warm, and very honest, forthright person. She says what she thinks and what she feels, which is a quality I admire very much.“
Germany tour & recordings
On March 12, 1962, Callas gave the first concert of her German tour in Munich. By the end of March, the tour also took her to Hamburg, Essen and Bonn. However, these were concerts and not opera performances as she was used to: step by step Maria Callas reduced the number of her appearances at opera houses, not least because of the press scandals at the end of the fifties.
However, it was in Callas’ interest to take advantage of modern methods of storing music and immortalize herself with it: in 1964, a complete recording of the opera Carmen (Georges Bizet) was made under the direction of Georges Prêtre. However, that was not Callas’ only recording that year: over the course of 1964, Callas recorded numerous arias and duets that have survived to this day.
The recordings have since been digitally restored and are regularly reissued. Thus, Callas’ work lives on far beyond her death.
Farewell to Norma
The reason why Maria continued to work a lot even after her breakthrough lies in her training with Elvira de Hidalgo: Callas kept in constant contact with her teacher and assured her in 1965 that she was always working and practicing. Despite all the work and effort Maria put into her art, her strength was sapped by the mid-sixties: during the last Norma performance of her career on May 29, 1965 at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, she lost consciousness during the intermission between the second and the third act. The performance had to be stopped.
But unlike in January 1958, when she also had to abandon a performance of Norma, this time there was no scandal. The Paris audience applauded and paid respect to Callas.
Nevertheless, for Callas this was a farewell to her “hobbyhorse” Norma, as she christened the opera with which she had had so much success. She has sung the role of Norma more than 90 times in eight different countries during her career.
Shortly after this devastating event, on June 4, 1965, she wrote a letter to Elvira de Hidalgo: in it, she laments her weariness of always working on her voice anew. The letter is testimony to a deep state of despair; she was dissatisfied with herself for not having persevered to the end.
Almost exactly one month later, on July 5, 1965, Maria Callas appeared on an opera stage for the last time. In the presence of Queen Elizabeth II of England, Callas performed Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London.
It is true that in the following years, when she was no longer seen on an opera stage, Callas became less important: it was no longer possible to see her live. However, this circumstance ensured a high demand for her recordings, which continue to exert an unbroken influence on the world of opera to this day.
Medea and Juilliard School
In 1969, Maria Callas took the lead role in the film Medea, an adaptation of the ancient Greek myth by Euripides. The Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini directed the film.
In the end, Maria did follow Onassis’ advice: ten years earlier, he had advised her to embrace the power of cinema. And that is exactly what she did. She was hailed by film critics, but rejected by movie audiences, who by now were used to action movies like James Bond.
Between October 1971 and March 1972, Maria Callas taught a master class at the Juilliard School. Twenty-five opera singers, covering all vocal ranges from bass to soprano, were selected to be taught by Maria Callas twice a week. For twelve weeks, Callas passed on to young students of opera singing what she had learned in her career and introduced her approach to the art of opera singing.
The soprano urged her students to always look at the score for what the composer of the opera had intended: there one would find not only how to sing, but also, between the lines, how to behave on stage.
Shortly after her intermezzo at the Juilliard School, Callas’ “farewell tour” began: together with the Italian tenor Guiseppe Di Stefano, she toured Western European cities between October and December 1973 and then, from February 1974, the USA, Japan and Korea.
On November 11, 1974, Maria Callas performed on stage for the last time in her life in Sapporo, a northern Japanese city.
Here you can see a recording of Maria Callas performing O mio babbino caro in Tokyo a month before her last performance:
Maria Callas died in Paris on September 16, 1977. At her funeral a few days later, Princess Gracia Patricia of Monaco walked at the head of the funeral procession.
What remains to the world is the artistic legacy of a singing puma: a lone warrior who made an old tradition – that of bel canto – modern again: this was done through hard work, wisdom and perseverance.
A puma in the wild, wanting to protect its territory, would not do it any other way to reach its destination.
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Volf, Tom: Maria Callas – Lettres & Mémoires, Editions Albin Michel, 2019; Kesting, Jürgen: Maria Callas, List Taschenbuch, 9th ed. 2018; Csampai, Atilla: Maria Callas: Faces of a Medium, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag 1993 & Ardoin, John: Callas at Juilliard, Alfred A. Knopf 1987