REVIEW by Willard Manus

Maria Callas was a formidable talent and woman--and now a formidable book has been written about her.

THE UNKNOWN CALLAS: THE GREEK YEARS, a biography by Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidis (Amadeus Press), runs 672 pages in its coverage of Callas's life in Athens from 1937 to 1945. First published in Greece in 1998, the book won that country's National Biography Award in 1999. The author, an historian who lives in Athens, worked closely with Timothy Cullen on the English translation.

"May I remind you that I had an eight-year career in Greece during World War II," Callas once told a New York Times interviewer. "That's when I really got most of my experience." Born Marianna Kaloyeropoulos, Callas signed her first contract with the Greek National Opera in 1940, when she was 17 years old. This was soon after she (and her sister Jackie) and her mother Litsa, a domineering figure, had returned to Greece from Astoria, Queens where the Kaloyeropoulos family had emigrated in 1923. Litsa, fleeing a bad marriage, was so desperate to get back to Athens that she failed to heed the war warnings being sounded in Europe.

In other books and articles about her, Callas complained about her unhappy childhood and blamed Litsa for having treated her like 'an ugly little duckling.' She also accused Litsa of giving her an inferiority complex which she made up for by pouring her energies into singing. Diomidis, however, downplays Callas' interpretation of things and takes the view that Callas was a driven person even when young. She knew she had a beautiful voice and was willing to do whatever it took to become a successful opera singer.

After being turned down by the Athens Conservatory because she was untrained in musical theory, the 14-year-old Callas received a voice scholarship from the National Conservatory and also studied privately with Maria Trivella. "Her zeal, her determination to make her mark and reach the top, was the thing about her that everyone who knew her then remarked on with admiration, mixed with a certain bewilderment," Diomidis states.

The author also explores in detail the impact of Litsa and Jackie's love affairs on the impressionable and then-priggish Callas. To stave off poverty, both women took on "protectors," men who would provide them with food and shelter as well as emotional and physical satisfaction. Though she found this behavior reprehensible, Callas later went the same route, taking on lovers (including an Italian army captain during the occupation) and a rich husband who could keep her in style.

The bulk of The Unknown Callas concerns itself with Callas's vocal studies, first stage appearances (she made her debut at 15), problems with authority, early triumphs and failures with the National Opera (which was formed in 1939). From being a member of the chorus (and part-time office worker), Callas began singing small parts, such as Beatrice in Bocacccio, Later, a fellow-singer described her performance thusly: "We heard this rich voice, hysterical and terrifically alive, that swept you off your feet. We were amazed. It was an erratic sort of voice, quite different in the upper and lower register, which appealed to you without your knowing why, a voice that was pleasing and irritating at the same time."

A triumph in Tosca followed and that in turn led to a production of Fidelio which the author calls "the making of a diva." None of this was easy for the pugnacious, oft-insolent, neurotic Callas, who had to battle family, jealous colleagues, a sometimes wobbly technique and her own personal demons to become a world-famous opera singer. That battle is brought to vivid life in Diomidis' mammoth, painstakingly-researched, ground-breaking book.

Those wishing to listen to, not read about, Maria Callas should pick up copies of her peerless and unforgettable EMI recordings. On the 2-CD MARIA CALLAS, THE VOICE OF THE CENTURY, for example, you will find Callas singing works from such composers as Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Catalani, Giordano, Gluck, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Delibes,
Saint-Saens and Bizet, among others. Callas delivers the vocal goods on such arias as "Caro nomo" (Rigoletto), "Mimi's farewell" (La Boheme), "Lamour" (Carmen) and "Casta Diva" (Norma), to name but a few.

From the exquisite to the sublime: Callas singing TOSCA, with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, Giuseppe DiStefano as Cavaradossi and Angelo Mercuriali as Spoletta. Recorded in cooperation with La Scala (under the baton of Victor de Sabata), this CD is a digitally remastered version of the 1953 mono original. Bel canto singing does not get much better, unless it's by Callas again on LA TRAVIATA in a live 1958 recording at the National Theatre in Lisobon, Portugal. Starring with Callas are Alfredo Kraus and Mario Sereni, the 2 CD package was also remastered from the original mono recording.

Callas is Callas whether in mono, mono add or stereo: the diva of the 20th century.