The Unknown Callas: The Greek Years

Opera Book 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, runs 672 pages in its portrayal of Callas's life in Athens circa 1937-1945. 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 on the English translation with Timothy Cullen.

"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 Greek National Opera contract in 1940, when she was seventeen years old. This was soon after she, her sister Jackie and her mother Litsa had returned to Greece from Astoria, Queens, where the family had emigrated in 1923. Litsa, fleeing a bad marriage, was so desperate to return to Greece that she failed to heed the war warnings being sounded in Europe.

In many of the other books about her, Callas complained about her unhappy childhood and blamed Litsa for treating her like "an ugly duckling." She also accused her mother of giving her an inferiority complex which she fought to overcome by pouring all her energy into singing. Diomidis, however, dismisses that notion and insists that Callas was a driven person even as a child. She knew she had a beautiful voice and was willing to do whatever it took to become a professional singer.

After being turned down by the Athens Conservatory because she was untrained in musical theory, the fourteen-year-old Callas was awarded a voice scholarship by the National Conservatory; she 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 remarked upon with admiration, mixed with a certain bewilderment," Diomidis writes.

The author also explores in depth the impact Litsa and Jackie's love affairs had on Callas. To stave off poverty, both women took on "protectors," men who could provide them with food and shelter as well as emotional and sexual satisfaction. Though she claimed to find such behavior reprehensible, Callas later followed suit, taking on various lovers (including an Italian army captain during the occupation) who kept her in style.

Much of THE UNKNOWN CALLAS deals with Callas's vocal studies, stage appearances (she made her debut at fifteen), problems with authority, early triumphs and failures with the National Opera. From being a member of the chorus (and part-time office worker), Callas worked her way up to small parts, such as Beatrice in "Bocaccio." A fellow cast-member gave a description of her performance: "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 registers, which appealed to you without 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 came easily for the pugnacious, insolent, neurotic Callas, who had to battle family, jealous colleagues, a sometimes wobbly technique, and a slew of personal demons to become a famous opera singer.

Her battle is brought to vivid, pulsating life in Diomidis' mammoth, exhaustively-researched, ground-breaking biography.

(Amadeus Press)