Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis .

Maria Callas

Maria Callas Photo

Aristotle Onassis

Maria Callas, the operadiva who died in 1977, was one of the greatest artists of thetwentieth century. More than any other prima donnaor actress, shebrought to modern audiences the power and electricity ofAncient Greek drama. Opera-goers spoke of being frightened or confusedwhen they first saw her perform.

Callas, also oneof the most beautiful and well-dressed women of the 20th century, wasnot wise or lucky in love. One of her most foolish mistakes was her affairwith Aristotle Onassis, the wealthy playboy and future husband of JackieKennedy. In this latest installment of my ongoing series on famous couples, I consider the myths and rumorsthat still surround their affair.

Song is the noblest,the highest, manifestation of poetry,” Callas said. Among the many facetsof Callas’s genius was her penetrating insight into her craft, which wasso much more than simply song. “Art is the ability to express the life ofemotion,” she said. And, “the art of music is so enormous that it can envelopyou and keep you in a state of almost perpetual anxiety and torture. But it isnot all in vain. It is an honour and great happiness to serve music withhumility and love.”

Callas envelopedaudiences, particularly in her roles as Norma in Bellini’s opera by the samename, Anna Boleyn in Donizetti’s AnnaBolena, Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata and as the title character ofPuccini’s Tosca. Callas’voice alone was not perfect, lacking the evenness or powerful high notesof others. The way she used it as an expressive tool was unparallelled.
 “It is not enough to have a beautiful voice,”Callas said. “What does it mean? When you interpret a role you have to havea thousand colors to portray happiness, joy, sorrow, anger, fear. How cnyou do this with only a beautiful voice? Even if you sing harshlysometimes, as I have done, it is a necessity of expression. You have to do iteven if people will not understand.But in the long run they will, because youmust persuade them of what you are doing.”

Here is Callas on Medea,the legendary character of Ancient Greece who killed her own childrenin an act of revenge against their father, Jason. Speaking in interviewswith Galatopoulos, she said of the role in Cherubini’s opera:
I saw her as fiery,apparently calm but very intense…. Medea is the one non-Greek personage in theopera. She is a barbarian Colchian Princess – the civilized Greeks would notaccept her on equal terms. A Greek Medea invalidates the opera. The killing ofthe children is not merely an act of vengeance but more signifcantly a means ofescape from a world that is foreign to her and in which she can no longer live.For Medea and her race, death is not the end but the beginning of a newlife. Jason inherits a chaotic world in place of riches and power.”
 The Callas story isthe subject of a pile of biographies. It fascinates opera lovers, but alsocelebrity watchers, admirers of feminine beauty and even women who havestruggled with their weight (the beautiful Callas was once fat.) The pileis likely to grow because it’s an interesting life story, especiallywith Callas’s humble beginnings. Callas was born Maria Anna SophieCecilia Kalogeropoulos, the daughter of immigrants from Athens, in 1923 in New York. Her father was a pharmacist whodid not fare as well financially in New York as the couple had hoped and her parents’marriage was stormy and unhappy.
Her mother was ambitiousfor her two daughters and took them to Athensfor musical training.
 There were many years of struggle, especiallyduring the occupation of Greecein World War II. Maria debuted at the Royal Theater in Athens in 1940. She was overweight andsuffering from serious acne at the time.

In 1947, as her careerwas gradually progressing, she married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a fairlydull Italian industrialist and opera lover. He was thirty years her senior andwas intent on devoting himself to her career. Callas, judging from lettersbetween them, appeared to genuinely love him. One has to question her judgment,however, and wonder if she was not also seeking a father figure who couldprovide the comfort and security she needed to pursue her immensetalent. Any woman in her mid-twenties who marries a man thirty yearsolder is either carried away with love or calculation.
The Villa in Sirmione where Callas lived with Giovanni Battista Meneghini between 1950 and 1959.

 Meneghinieventually became her full-time manager. They were happy together for a numberof years, it seems, but he lacked competence and honesty when it cameto her business affairs. She ultimately exploded in rage at hismisdealings. But, of course, Callas exploded in rage at quite a few people. Sheonce punched an opera manager in the stomach with her knee.
Again, a man thirty yearsolder is not much of a lifelong companion for a young woman. All finallyunraveled between Meneghini and Callas when they went on a cruise onOnassis’s yacht in 1959. Among the other guests were Winston Churchill and hiswife, Clementine, as well as Onassis’s wife at the time, Tina, the mother ofhis two children. Onassis, a shipping magnate who was one of the richestmen in the world at the time, swept Callas off her feet and, according to someaccounts, they were lovers by the end of the voyage.
Callas’ s life wouldnever be the same. She became less focused on her career in the years thatfollowed and her voice precipitously deteriorated, events that may or may nothave been affected by her new romantic entanglement. Onassis’ wife, whowas a philanderer herself, filed for divorce and Callas left Meneghini andalso attempted to nullify the marriage in the U.S.;divorce was not permissible in Italy.Callas sang her last operatic role in 1965, but would go on to do moreconcerts.
Callas and Onassis, wholived the life of  high society regulars in Paris, werebesieged by the paparazzi during the seven years they were obviously involved,and speculation of a marriage was rampant. The world was stunned, and some sayso was Callas, when Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy decided to marry in 1968.This was from all appearances a marriage of convenience for both parties.
Here are the myths aboutthe Callas/Onassis affair that then spread and continue to be spread today bybiographers:
  • Callas had gotten pregnant by Onassis and had an abortion.
  • Callas had gotten pregnant by Onassis and secretly gave birth to a baby, who immediately died.
  • Onassis’ marriage to Kennedy was responsible for Callas’ early death at age 54.
None of these rumours hasbeen proven. Each is unbelievable. The writer Nicholas Gage goes so far asto produce a photograph of an infant supposedly delivered by Callas anda birth certificate. Conveniently, there are no names of the parents as isstandard on Italian birth certificates. No one noticed Callas as ever beingpregnant and the idea, put forth by Gage, that she made a doctor do an earlyCaesarean so that no one would know she was pregnant, ispreposterous. Neither Callas or Onassis, given their desire forchildren and their loose conformity to traditional Greek Orthodoxmorality, were likely to consent to an abortion. Also, Callas hadvisited a doctor for her fertility problems with Meneghini.
Callas told Galatopoulosthat she had already ruled out marriage with Onassis by the time Jackie camealong and that they maintained a deep friendship afterward.

 They had, she said,a “passionate friendship.” Too bad it hadn’t stayed that way from thebeginning. One wonders if she would have been so drawn to Onassis if shehad married a man closer to her in age. One thing appears certain, Callas’saffair was insensitive to Onassis’s young children and caused them considerableunhappiness. It was an act of selfishness. It also brought her little happinessin the long run. She openly spoke to Galatopoulos of this, calling it amistake and failure. Onassis was an incorrigible womanizer and she could neveradjust to this. Their friendship, however, she insisted was meant to be. Thetwo were deeply drawn to each other. Onassis ironically was not a great operafan, but was a man of considerable intelligence and charisma.
Callas, in voice and her legendaryroles, was larger than life. In her affair with Onassis, she was as small asreal life. It was ultimately low and sordid. Interestingly .

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