October 30, 2012
Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography by Anne Edwards
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2003.
“[Callas’] tumultuous life could be the subject of an opera” – Booklist
This book, written by Anne Edwards, is a biography about Maria Callas, the one and only great opera diva in the twentieth century. As the quote shown above goes (from one review of this book), tumultuous is perhaps the most-suited adjective to describe Maria Callas’ dramatic life, both professionally and personally.
The book starts in a chronological order with the very beginning of Callas’ life, in fact, way before her life, her parents’ lives, when Callas was still in her mother Litza’s womb and her whole family went on board a ship immigrating to the United States from Greece. During the age of fourteen, the whole family, this time without Callas’ father, was back to Greece due to Litza’s insistence of having Callas trained her voice and developed her singing career in Europe. In the words of Edwards, Litza would use every means she could in order to get Callas the best opportunity to study and perform. She even sacrificed her elder daughter Jackie to stay as a mistress in order to support the family to do so.
Maria’s love of singing was being compromised by the overbearing pushiness of her mother. Yet she never rebelled, keeping her resentment locked inside her as she allowed Litza to parade her from one office to another and to sing whenever called upon to do so.
Was Maria traumatized by her mother’s ambition for her? Later in her life she claimed this to be so. But she was also energized by her mother’s ambition and believed this was a way to win approval. (p.19)
Through the many years of struggle in life and vocal study under the control and manipulation of her mother, Callas developed a mildly successful career in Greece, Yet it was not until she insisted on going back to the United States to further her career in her accord that she eventually became a sensation in the modern history of opera performance. Throughout the development of her brilliant career, Callas was most famous for her interpretation of the leading roles in Aida, La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Medea, Norma, Tosca and Turandot, to name a few. As a perfectionist in her art, Callas displayed her best possible in every performance and production, even if it meant for her to endure her physical and emotional pain. She would be the first to attend and the last to leave in every single rehearsal, even the orchestral one, and went through every step on stage in great details. She always tried to put out her best performance. It was the role she always wanted to portray at her best, even if that meant to sacrifice the vocal quality.
“It is not enough to have a beautiful voice,’ she once said. ‘What does that mean? When you interpret a role, you have to have a thousand colours to portray happiness, joy, sorrow, fear. How can you do this with only a beautiful voice? Even if you sing harshly sometimes, as I have frequently done, it is a necessity of expression.” (p.94)
From the stunningly graceful and gorgeous image that Callas had cast on most readers’ and music lovers’ eyes, it was most shocking to find that the diva had once, for many years indeed, struggled with her weight problem at the early stage of her career. She was immensely overweight for many years, until one day she saw Audrey Hepburn in a movie at the age of thirty, after then she lost sixty-eight pounds in eleven months’ time (p.115)
Callas’ career began to soar after her new glorious image had been established. Almost all the major opera houses in the world she had sung in frequently with spectacular success. Nevertheless, her personal life in terms of family and love relationship with haunted her and affected her tremendously, mostly in the negative sense. Her relationship with her mother was growing to be a hostile and distant one, and with her husband Battista, one built on lies and distrust (putting her money into his personal account and giving it away to support his own family without Callas’ notice). Another phase of Callas began when she started a dramatic love affair with the Greek shipping tycoon Onassis, “the other Greek” (Onassis referred himself and Callas to be “the two most famous Greeks in the world” (p.158)), was full of upheavals, passion, and destruction. Edwards’ description of Onassis’ personality is not a pleasant one:
Many rich men collected valuable art or fine antiques. Onassis acquired exceptional people to bolster his image and his self-esteem. Maria was his new obsession. (p.191)
He [Onassis] could destroy a woman by his disregard for her. Every woman Ari ever took as a lover was brutalized in this fashion. He showered his women with gifts and disposed of them like the empty boxes in which they had been delivered. (Author’s quote from Onassis’ wife Tina) (p.209)
There was a suggestion that Callas might have an illegitimate son of Onassis, as provided by Edwards with the source coming from Nicholas Gage (the writer of Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis (2001)) (p.226-7). As a matter of fact, Callas was pregnant at the age of forty-one but received an abortion procedure under the persuasion of Onassis, as indicated in later chapter (p.264-6). However strong the bond had been during the nine years of the “historic love” between the two Greeks, Onassis chose to marry Jackie Kennedy and that brought about major blow to Callas’ health and mind. From then onwards, Callas was never in good shape anymore. Her voice was also vanishing. With Onassis coming back and forth secretly after his marriage with Kennedy, Callas did not get better. As a prima donna who was loved fervently by the world of music fans and had such a magnificent career, she always felt so alone. “She has repeatedly felt betrayed-by her mother, by her husband, by Onassis whom she still could not stop loving, by the world of opera, her agents, managers, and the crowds who cheered her one day and hissed her another.” (p.308) Towards the end of her life, she became retreated into isolation and seldom met another person except her maid and butler. Her close friend of last years, Vasso Devetzi, turned out to only eye on her fortune, stole it from her family, maid and butler (whom Callas had treated as friends and drawn an unsigned will to leave all her fortune to them), and split it up with Battista after her death. The glorious lie of Callas ended with little glamour.
Chapter / Layout
In this book of slightly over three hundred pages, there are twenty-six short chapters, which can be divided into three main parts: the first seven chapters are clearly entitled with timeline, indicating Callas’ early years of vocal training and career; chapters eight to sixteen describes Callas’ life with her husband Battista, also the greatest time of her career; the last main section includes chapters seventeen to twenty-three, the greatest (and most disastrous) love affair of Callas’ life, alongside with the deterioration in her health and career. The last few chapters (chapters twenty-four to twenty six) can be regarded as a postlude to Callas’ life, the separation from Onassis, the not-so-successful movie production Medea and her last tour, all proceeding to more declination in health and eventually death with heart failure (with possible suspicion of overconsumption of pills). In short, the chapter titles show the readers a general idea of the contents that follow. Yet the biggest flaw of the book is whenever there is a quote in the passage, especially the important ones (by Callas and her close acquaintances), Edwards simply does not cite the source, which seems to be an odd approach since she does provide a detailed bibliography at the end of the book. Clearly, she has done as extensive research into the subject before venturing all the information into a book. Readers would wonder why such quote exists, when and where this quote comes from exactly, and if such quote stands true or is pure fabrication. For instance,
‘When the [time] article appeared,’ Jackie recalled, ‘it was a bombshell… [Mother] portrayed Maria as an ungrateful harridan who had abandoned her poor devoted mother to a life of misery… it made abundantly clear that she was the one who had discovered Maria’s talent and who had single-handedly nurtured it. It was Mother’s sacrifices during the war that had kept us fed and in music lessons, and it was only when she was no longer needed that she had been so cruelly cast aside.’ (p.142)
She [Callas] was beyond distraught. ‘ After nine years, not a child, not a family, not a friend,’ she sobbed many years later to John Ardoin, whom she much respected. ‘That’s very little, you know. And you say, “God, why? Why should these things happened… how could anyone be so cruel?… how can a man [Onassis] be so dishonest? So, I don’t know, so crazy? Poor man…”’ (p.289)
Here we know at least it might have come from Maria, but there is still no citation, which would be most useful should one be interested to look into the original source of such quote.
Portrait of Maria Callas
Edwards’ attitude towards Callas is most favorable if not totally flawless. Highly dramatic, outspoken, head strong, extremely emotional to sometimes hysterical, Callas was always in control when it came to the perfection for her operatic performances. To her, singing always came first, even when there were tremendous difficulties and obstacles to overcome.
She was engulfed by fame. Privacy was no longer a commodity she could claim. She was alone as she had never been alone before… At night she would close the door and be by herself… work was her placebo and her incentive. She could overcome almost anything when she was working, any hurt, discomfort, disappointment but not loneliness. (p.148)
Author’s first name reference to Callas, “Maria”, seems odd at times. It might be used to create a sense of close association to the character more than convenience. Readers could tell swiftly from the very beginning that the author was very fond of Callas, by using very admirable words and taking side on her, thus negative towards Litza, who appeared to be a manipulating and controlling mother, squeezing money and fame out of her daughter. “Litza has also given damaging and misleading interviews to the press at the time, followed by several appalling dunning letters, demanding she help finance her sister’s [Jackie] singing career and keep Litza in a style that behoved the mother of a famous and rich diva.” (p.142)
There is simply too much emphasis on early family background, her mother and sister, even though one can justify that it is essential to understand a person through her family situation which influence can never be played down and ignored completely. In addition, the influence, or scar, can stay forever and shape the person’s life in many ways. There are many details, even medical and most personal. “Maria was suffering from stomach pains and an inability to evacuate. Severe haemorrhoids were diagnosed and an operation recommended.” (p.176) “… their [Onassis and Callas’] physical union had first occurred in London in the charming mews house off Eaton Square that they used for their rendezvous.” (p.198)
About Onassis, there is a lot of background information about him, his business and family situation etc. This is after all a biography about Callas, not about Onassis. Nonetheless, the background stories of less well-known operas, the details of opera rehearsals and performances are proved to be quote useful in order to provide a complete image of Callas. All these show that the author is very knowledgeable about operas, not only the plots but also the details. For instance, she points out the different production practice in La Traviata that the Metropolitan Opera performed in three acts while most European opera companies in four acts as written by Verdi. (p.133)
The title of this book says it all: “An Intimate Biography”. The writing style is very sentimental and melodramatic, sometimes on the verge of getting saucy and gossipy, like that in a Hollywood star magazine. The tone is very black-and-white, one can only be an angel or a devil. Edwards becomes too attached to the character Callas, defending her and not being objective enough. Readers can easily form an image of her based on the judgment by the author casting on the character, even before they can see her from an impartial point of view.
The writing is in such great details to the point it is too much to bear at times. However, the many short chapters are good for casual reading and quick reference. Illustrations are undeniably great sources to complete the readers’ impression of Callas, from family pictures, to early overweight image, to the metamorphosis to new gorgeous Callas, and the love and loss photos of the diva, Battista and Onassis. Unfortunately they are all in black-and-white, which do not do justice to the celebrated look of the classic beauty. This is not a scholarly book for professionals or musicians, it is more like a storybook or even a tabloid magazine for music lovers to learn about the fascinating life of Callas.
If one is to look into the biography literature about Callas, there are some written in similar semi-persuasive and passionate style like that in Edwards’ as well, such as “Maria Callas: Sacred Monster by Stelios Galatopoulos” (1998), “Maria: Callas Remembered by Nadia Stancioff” (1987), and as mentioned before (about Callas’ “secret son”), “Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis by Nicholas Gage” (2001). There are nevertheless more historically accurate biographies that focus on certain periods or aspects of Callas’ life and career, such as The Unknown Callas: The Greek Years by Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidi (2001) which subject is “Callas’ [then Mary Kaloyeropoulou] student years in Athens in the years of 1937 to 1945”, as well as “Callas at Julliard: The Master Classes by John Ardoin” (1998), the invaluable lessons given to a selected group of twenty-five singers during the twelve-week period’s master class series held at Julliard School of Music between October 1971 and March 1972.
“Many of the stories written about Maria were not true, some were exaggerated, others were fact, but the more sensational stories, real or fiction were the only ones that seemed to get printed.” (p.139) Same statement can be made towards this book. The conclusion to the whole book is short, only one paragraph, like some third-rate television drama series that presents the ending hastily just to put the viewers’ lives out of their misery. If one ever starts with Edwards’ book on Maria Callas, they should read beyond this book to get a better and unbiased picture of the diva.