Maria’s Mystery

Gabriele Annan

  • Maria: Beyond the Callas Legend by Arianna Stassinopoulos
    Weidenfeld, 329 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77544 8

Maria Callas died almost exactly three years ago. Two months later Arianna Stassinopoulos was commissioned to write her biography. She was half-way through when she made the discovery that there were two Callases: La Callas, the diva of the legend, and Maria, the living suffering woman ‘beyond’. ‘And just as she was in danger of disappearing into a shimmer of ordinariness – of insecurities, of snobbery, of fears, of common humanity – I rediscovered her without illusions in all her real rather than her public greatness … It is this passion for life, for her art and for something unknown beyond both, that was compelling her and driving her forever on.’ Miss Stassinopoulos worked hard at her research and unearthed three particularly enlightening sources. The first was Callas’s correspondence with her godfather, Leonidas Lantzounis, a Greek doctor living in New York. Callas wrote to him over a period of thirty years with astonishing frankness, especially about her notoriously hostile feelings towards her mother and sister. Secondly, there were transcripts of conversations between Callas and the American music critic John Ardoin; and thirdly, the desolate tapes she made all alone in the last years of her life.

Miss Stassinopoulos jogs doggedly through every step in Callas’s career, an exhausting business in view of the singer’s shuttlecock existence: one can’t blame her for collapsing gratefully into beckoning clichés. But she does convey the frenzied tempo and something of the passion ‘driving her forever on’ – though sometimes it is difficult in the uniformly hectic atmosphere to distinguish between the passion and the engagement schedule; the two, of course, are not unconnected.

The book is very clearly structured and Miss Stassinopoulos sticks to her plan of showing La Callas and Maria in conflict. They do not have the stage to themselves, though. A third figure, a sort of chorus, offers explanation, advice, lecturettes, sermons, and speculation on what might or ought to have been. This rather censorious and opinionated presence, part agony columnist and part governess, is Miss Stassinopoulos herself. A good governess is her charge’s champion as well as mentor, and Miss Stassinopoulos is a bonny fighter for hers, stoutly defending her against unjust opinions. Mercifully, she does not go in for elaborate psycho-babble, but gives a plain and sufficiently convincing conventional psychological explanation for Maria’s turbulent and unhappy nature. Callas’s mother considered that she had married beneath her and resented it. She tried to compensate for her frustration by driving her two daughters to find fame or distinguished husbands – preferably both. Maria was plain, fat and clumsy; moreover, she was not the desired son. So the elder prettier sister became the favourite. Maria felt unloved, and compensated for it by overeating. She developed an aggressive personality which was a shield for her sense of inferiority, but which also sprang from a desire to get even with the world, a desire which was certainly part of the mixture that fuelled her colossal, driving ambition. Her mother’s ambition, though, became a justified grievance: Maria was 13 when she removed her from New York, where she had been born just after the family’s arrival, and took her back to Athens to have her trained as a singer. She never sent her to school again.

From then on Maria’s life divides into two equal parts: the first twenty years from 1937-1957 were devoted to art; the next twenty to being a woman. ‘It was as if she had said to herself: “First you must become the great Maria Callas. Then you can become a woman.” ’ True, she had married Battista Meneghini in 1949 when she was 25 and he 54, but it was for emotional, financial and social security, not for love. Callas was a good hater, and so is her biographer. She hates Meneghini: ‘ill-nature was about the only thing that saved Battista from total insipidity,’ she says, and gleefully shows him slipping on banana skins whenever she can. She accuses him of fanning the flames of Maria’s paranoia and encouraging her parsimony by his own meanness. He became her business manager as well as her husband, and their combined touchiness and rapacity made Callas even more unpopular among her colleagues. Their hostility sprang in part from jealousy, but her palpable hostility increased it. ‘I’m not interested in money, but it must be more than anyone else gets,’ she said to the Vienna State Opera after her husband had doubled the agreed fee. Vienna cancelled the contract.

Miss Stassinopoulos patiently explains the run-up to each of the famous cancellations (usually from Callas’s side), walk-outs, rows and lawsuits, and she has found ‘valid, often tragic reasons for [Maria’s] behaviour’. The most tragic and fatal fracas came during the Scala’s season at the 1957 Edinburgh Festival: Callas cancelled her fifth and final performance in La Sonnambula. She was very near a physical breakdown, and her doctor had told her to cancel Edinburgh altogether; moreover, only four performances were in her contract – the fifth had been jumped on her by her enemy, the Scala’s manager, and she had no intention of saving his face by missing a ball which was being given in Venice in her honour. The paperazzi of the world press photographed her dancing at it while her fans in Edinburgh queued in vain. Everyone could see her betraying her public for the jet set. It was the turning-point – turning down – in her life: the devil and his grandmother had come into it.

The grandmother was Elsa Maxwell who gave the ball. She wanted Callas for a jewel in her hostess’s crown, and Callas was ripe for seduction. She wanted a change. She had never had any leisure or fun. Her health was deteriorating: she suffered from nervous exhaustion, insomnia, agonising sinus trouble and vastly swollen legs – humiliating as well as painful. Her voice was unquestionably not what it had been, and she was losing her confidence in it. While she was still received with tumultuous applause wherever she appeared, the hissers and booers in the audience were multiplying. ‘Maria had sung 22 Sonnambulas ... 52 Traviatas, 41 Lucias and 73 Normas; and she had in the decade since 1947 created another 28 stage roles. She had not been to as many great balls.’

So she entered café society, a perpetual Walpurgisnacht of dancing harpies and witches. The devil was there too, of course. True to form, he laid the riches of the world at his intended victim’s feet. He was also devilish attractive. Even Miss Stassinopoulos seems bowled over: Onassis ‘looked like a Greek peasant and yet in his dinner jacket he radiated a natural elegance many would have envied.’ At this point the story begins to become almost unbearably painful. Maria, her fame at its height but her voice in decline, fell in love for the first time in her life. She neglected her career, but went on appearing, fortified with pills and injections, every performance an agony of nerves for her and a cliffhanger for the audience. Would her voice give out or wouldn’t it? Would she appear or cancel? She charged about like a bull with the bandilleras multiplying in his sides, but with a long way still to go to the kill. Her last performance on the opera stage was at a gala in London in 1965 where she sang Tosca for one performance only, having cancelled the other three. Onassis began by giving her a big rush, and his wife discreetly divorced him. By the time Maria’s marriage was annulled he was sneering at her and humiliating her in public. The proud and vengeful tigress hung on helplessly while he wooed and won Mrs Kennedy. He was Delilah to Maria’s Samson, and her mill was the disastrous concert tour she undertook in 1973 with poor passé Di Stefano as her partner and lover and octogenarian Ivor Newton at the piano (he didn’t stay the course): they were her fellow slaves. After that, she was alone in her Paris flat with her dogs (‘only my dogs are faithful to me’ – even that cliché), watching Westerns on the telly until she died of a heart attack in 1977.

Miss Stassinopoulos has succeeded in presenting a consistent and convincing picture of her heroine – and a disturbing one. In spite of all her efforts to defend and excuse Maria, she comes out as a horrible though pitiable woman, living – her professional colleagues excepted – among horrible people: first in the money-grubbing, squabbling, anxiously respectable milieu of the lace-curtain bourgeoisie; then among the more spectacularly dreadful beautiful people. Trying to understand a person – especially a great artist – can be impertinent, however benevolent the intention, and being understood can be diminishing. ‘You would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak.’ Miss Stassinopoulos does not succeed in plucking out Callas’s mystery. Significantly, the people who appreciated and even managed to like her are nearly all artists: Minotis, Visconti, Zeffirelli, Pasolini, Giulini, Votto, Gobbi, Sylvia Sass. They admired her dedication, her hard work, her talent, but especially the mysterious grandeur and nobility of her art. Giulini said:

Maria is really a very simple woman of humble background. Alceste, however, is a great Queen, a figure of classic nobility. Yet Callas transmitted all Alceste’s royal stature. To my mind, it is useless to search for an explanation. It is a kind of genius.

And the critic Peter Heyworth wrote of her Medea in the theatre at Epidaurus: ‘Maria Callas is much nearer to ancient Greece than to revolutionary France. While Cherubini trundles out his clichés, she storms the heights with Euripides.’ Miss Stassinopoulos keeps reminding us of Callas’s greatness, but can give no idea of it. Crammed with many lurid and a few squalid incidents, her story is harrowing but vulgar, the scenario for a strong weepie. Joan Crawford would have jumped at it.