Callas centenary inspires the next generation to find the real Maria

Films, shows and a new museum seek to capture the charisma of the great soprano

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent





Anyone not yet familiar with Maria Callas, the face, the sound and the story of the opera singer, will soon be humming the tunes. A stirring chorus of films, live shows, exhibitions, even a new museum and a hologram show, are all vying to mark the centenary of the great soprano’s birth with the loudest fanfare. Angelina Jolie is shooting Maria, a biopic from Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight, in which she plays the performer they once called La Divina, while in Greece, Callas’s homeland, a new museum devoted to the singer has just opened in Athens after 20 years of planning. The next few weeks will also see the international publication of Diva, a new book about Callas written by British author Daisy Goodwin, and in Milan, the scene of many of the singer’s noted stage triumphs, a display of her portraits opened on Thursday at the Gallerie d’Italia. “Even someone who has never heard of Callas, if they look her up online singing the second act of Tosca, they will see she was extraordinary, and not just for her singing but the way she plays the role,” said Goodwin. “Like Edith Piaf or Judy Garland, she endures because, while her voice is not syrupy, in it you can hear poignancy and meaning.” Goodwin, who wrote the fictionalised 2016 book about Queen Victoria that altered popular assumptions about the young monarch and became the basis of a successful television series, is now determined to distinguish Callas the talent from the Callas of the newspaper headlines. “She had enormous artistic courage and if you watch her being interviewed, you can see how unfiltered she was, letting her emotions show,” said the author. “I decided to write a novel because I wanted to get away from all that’s been written about her in biographies and look at what it took to be a singer at that level. I tried to feel my way into her head.” The star, who died in 1977 at 53, had a long affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who eventually married Jacqueline Kennedy. But, more significantly in Goodwin’s view, Callas is also credited with breathing new life into a staid operatic tradition. Although her name became a byword for the jet-set lifestyle and her dramatic personal life fed gossip columns, Goodwin argues these trappings should not overshadow her artistic reputation. “Amazingly, Callas is still Warner Classics’ best-selling artist,” said Goodwin. “And the reason she’s still such an icon is that, while she is a genius of course, she transformed opera. After her, there was no more what they used to call ‘park and bark’, where a singer would come on stage and simply stand still. She was a great actress and because of her voice she revived a whole repertoire of bel canto operas such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena , each full of songs that it had been thought were too difficult.” At London’s Royal Opera House, a recent exhibition marked the achievements of the “Covent Garden icon”, who notably starred there in Aida in 1953 and La Traviata in 1958, and this weekend Callas fans in the capital have been treated to the final performance of an opera created in tribute to Callas by the artist Marina Abramović at the Coliseum. Goodwin spoke to Abramović, 76, after watching her portrayal of the singer in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas . “I told her she was a mesmerising embodiment of Callas and she said, ‘Well, we both have a big nose, we both have bad mothers and we are both Sagittarians’.” Goodwin suggests Jolie’s task in the same role on screen will be to convey Callas, rather than look like her: “I don’t think prosthetics would have been a great idea, but the two women do have a different kind of beauty. Callas had the sort of striking features that could be seen by the audience at the back of the stalls.” The current V& A exhibition, Diva, features a display of costumes worn by Callas from her Covent Garden roles as Norma in 1952 and the acclaimed 1964 Tosca directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Goodwin also embraces the contentious word “diva”, which Callas did not shy away from. The singer is quoted as saying: “I will always be as difficult as necessary to achieve the best.” The word diva has heroic connotations for Goodwin, rather than simply describing a star who makes a fuss if the wrong bottled water is provided in her dressing room. Even Callas’s controversial weight loss was a demonstrative move, she argues. “Callas was famous before she transformed herself into a woman who also looked the part,” said Goodwin. “She had to play the consumptive Violetta in La Traviata and it seems it is true she decided she wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and so starved herself. Lots of people say that was the end of her voice, but I think she just sung too much in her 20s, performing everything from Wagner to Bellini; an extraordinary feat. For me, her short career is the real tragedy, not so much her love life.” As a young, confident 23-year-old, Callas had turned down the offer of smaller roles at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera, warning the audition panel that one day soon they would beg her to return. “And they did,” said Goodwin.