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Classical 101

New Book Explores The Inner Life Of A Diva

Houston Rogers
Wikimedia Commons

Soprano Maria Callas died in 1977. In the nearly forty-five years since, a plethora of books, videos, movies and articles have been published covering every aspect of the diva’s life. Callas gave her last operatic performance in 1965 but remains a top seller among classical artists.

Clearly, the lady continues to fascinate.

Now comes Prima Donna: The Psychology of Maria Callas by Paul Wink. Wink holds a Ph.D. in personality psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and is currently professor of psychology at Wellesley College.

A book that discusses but does not focus on music—or gossip—is a change in the examinations of Callas’s life. Wink’s book examines the diva’s inner life and the external forces that led to a blazing career in opera, a loud crash and burn…and a sad and lonely finale.

Maria Callas was born in New York in 1923 to Greek immigrants. George and Evangelia (“Litza”) Litza Kalogeropoulos were unhappily married. They were parents of a daughter, Yacinthy and a son Vasily, who died at age three. A year later Anna Maria Sophia was born. Litza was so heartbroken at not bearing a second son that she refused to look at her baby daughter for several days.

The mother-daughter relationship did not improve. Litza took her daughters home to Athens, escaping a philandering husband. Maria studied at the Athens Conservatory, while World War II led to massive starvation. It seems that Litza had no problem encouraging her beautiful daughter Yacinthy to consort with German and Italian occupiers. That, with Maria’s singing entertaining the occupying forces, led to donations of food. Mama Callas, herself an attractive woman, was less a mother than a pimp.

Callas eventually married Giovanni Battista Meneghini. He was nearly thirty years her senior, physically unattractive and wealthy. He financed her career and without question helped transform a fat, unloved young woman with an unwieldy voice into the glamorous Maria Callas.

From 1949-1959 her life was study, rehearsal, performances, wild applause mixed with abuse from audiences, and work. Maria thrived. Her ego needed the applause and her psyche reveled in the controversy (and often anger) her singing engendered. She burned out. By 1959, her voice was a shadow of its former self. She managed to continue singing, on a vastly limited scale, until 1965.

Dr. Wink discusses the Callas career through the context of eating disorders, narcissism, modeling, the nature of love, periods of attachment, and a fierce hatred of her own mother. The two women never met after 1950, though Callas lived another twenty-seven years. Litza died in 1984.

Wink discusses “Maria’s tendency to associate being a woman with weakness and the need for protection.” This made her ripe to embrace the elderly—and rich—Meneghini, then turn to the older and far wealthier Aristotle Onassis. “Callas (had a) fatalism and anger in living in an unjust world. In her view, she was always the victim. “

Prima Donna Book Cover
Oxford University Press

You don’t get over the feeling of exploitation by a mother who was little more than a collaborator in World War II Athens.

Wink continues “A the height of her career, Maria did not need a strong source of vitality and well-being from an intimate relationship—most of her narcissistic needs were being met by adoring opera fans. But things changed radically when she met Onassis. He not only captured her imagination and fulfilled her sexually, thus strengthening their bond and their merged unity, but he also filled the void caused by her diminished number of opera performances by a mirroring that was no longer accessible.”

Callas was a fat unloved girl who became beautiful. She had a voice willed into shape by her own hard work and Meneghini’s emotional and financial support. There was the lifeline of a sexually fulfilling relationship with another man—vastly wealthy—when her voice was gone. When Onassis abandoned Callas to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, Maria found herself with no voice, no career and no relationship. “I really had only one thing against Onassis,” Callas noted. “It was impossible for me to come to terms his insatiable desire for conquering everything.”

Is she describing herself?

Mary Garden (1874-1964) was a world-class soprano who Debussy chose to create the role of Melisande. She was no slouch herself in the diva department. At age eighty Garden heard Callas sing Norma in Chicago. “She’s magnificent,” said the older lady. “Brilliant. But she does everything by guts and instinct. That’s very dangerous. She’ll never last.”

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.