Ariana Huffington - Maria Callas (part I)


Maria's fighting instinct beginning to assert itself, but it was still her mother who was the force driving her on. Evangelia’s head may have been in the clouds about her daughter’s prospects, and her heart nowhere in evidence, but her feet were solidly on the ground. The conclusion she reached in the last days of 1936 was that, if Maria was to have the teachers and training she would need for the career Evangelia dreamed of, they would have to return to Greece. There, with her family’s musical connections and without her husband’s constant objections, she could dedicate herself even more thoroughly to the polishing of the treasure she was convinced she held in her hands. However logical the arguments in favor of leaving for Greece, the arguments against the move were equally compelling. In the end it was not logic, but instinct that resolved Evangelia’s dilemma. She had a dream in which her father—the figure who from her childhood had been most irrevocably associated with music—urged her to take her daughter and leave New York for Greece. Jackie was sent ahead, while Evangelia and Maria were packing up their belongings.

George Callas was ambivalent about the move. He had been living increasingly under the shadow of a wife who behaved as though she had produced their daughters without his help. Evangelia, in her unique way, and the three females of the family together, through the years had greatly encouraged his own innate tendency to sink into earnest insignificance. One can imagine George, as he was paying for the fares, heaving a deep sigh of relief at the prospect of temporary release, if not from supporting them, at least from being gradually suffocated by them.

On January 28, 1937, packing was interrupted. At Public School 189 on 188 Street and Amsterdam Avenue, it was graduation day for the eighth-grade class, Maria’s last contact with her school before she set off for what she looked forward to as her Greek adventure. For Maria the balance sheet of the trip showed nothing on the debit side; she was taking few happy memories with her and leaving no good friends behind. Neither in school nor outside it had she discovered anything of the magic of friendship, that peculiar intimacy of private languages and private jokes, of playing together in the morning and sharing dreams in that special twilight hour, when everything seems possible. There seems to have been nobody in Maria’s childhood, whether child or adult, with whom she could share her thoughts, her fears and her hopes.

Maria Callas in Verona 1948

Graduation Day, with its tearful good-byes and its joyful promises to keep in touch, would ordinarily have been agony for an outsider like Maria, but since the program included singing, it was an opportunity to shine. The musical selection for the ceremonies was Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Maria looked clumsy and uncomfortable, but she sang beautifully and was warmly applauded. Then came the signing of autograph books, the eighth-grade graduates vying with each other to see who could produce the most sparkling wish, the wittiest epigram, the most original phrase. Maria, unable to shine at this particular game, took refuge in a two-line commonplace couplet that was revealing of how she felt about herself at the time:

Being no poet, having no fame, Permit me just to sign my name.

And she signed it Mary Anna Callas.

Throughout her life Maria considered herself poorly educated, and felt that this was yet another injury inflicted on her by her mother’s voracious ambition. “I would give anything to know as much as you know,” she told Efi Zaccaria, wife of the famous bass, years later. That graduation ceremony at the beginning of 1937 was the last Maria would ever have to do with formal education.

A few days later, she, her mother and their three canaries boarded the Italian liner Saturnia. Maria spent the first two days being horribly seasick in their cabin and listening to Stephanakos, David and Elmina sing, chirp and burble in unison. After the first two days, however, she joined in with an enthusiasm that matched theirs. And when she wasn’t singing in the cabin, she would sing in the tourist lounge. When the captain of the Saturnia heard her sing Gounod’s “Ave Maria” one evening, he asked her to sing at the church service on Sunday. She refused. A few moments later, Maria received another invitation from him, this time much more to her liking: to sing at a party he was giving for the officers and crew and two Italian contessas from the first class. She accepted eagerly.

On the day of the party her feelings swung back and forth from exhilaration to anxiety. When the time came for her to sit down at the piano to accompany herself, only the exhilaration remained. She took off her glasses, and her black eyes, full of energy and life, completely dominated her face. They distracted attention not only from the adolescent pimples showing under the powder, but from the prim blue dress with the schoolgirl white collar, and even from the excess weight spread over the stool. She sang her two favorites, “La Paloma” and “Ave Maria,” and finished off with the Habanera from Carmen. “Et si je t’aime, prends garde à toi,” sings Carmen, and throws Don José the flower from her hair. Carmen-Maria pulled a carnation from the vase nearest to the piano and tossed it to the captain.

The captain was delighted with her voice and thrilled by her sense of drama. He kissed the carnation, and when he was thanking her later, he gave her a bouquet—her first one—and a doll, which, almost incredibly, was also her first. Her mother had always taken pride in the absence of such frivolity in her daughters’ lives. “My daughters never looked at dolls,” she wrote later, “but they read, and at night they would play the piano until eleven o’clock, when I would send them to bed.” So at the age of thirteen, Maria packed her first doll in her suitcase, took it to Athens and kept it with her all the time she was there.

Captain, officers and crew were on the quay to wish Maria good luck when the Saturnia docked at Patras. The train journey from Patras to Athens was a revelation for Maria. It was a day out of time, an interlude between her hard-pressed life in New York and the absolute regimentation of the twenty years that were to follow. This beautiful March day, Maria’s first full day in Greece, was in effect the last day before she was to shut off everything that did not directly touch on her work. It would be a long time before Maria would once again be open, receptive and unconcerned enough to respond to the world around her with the intensity and sensitivity of that day. She was enchanted by the blue of the sea, the white of the clouds and the mauve of the anemones under the silver-gray olive trees. “My blood is pure Greek. . . . I feel totally Greek,” she was to say again and again. Her first contact with Greece had awakened powerful feelings, and her spirit seemed to expand, to grow lighter and less anxious. At lunch on the train Maria hummed to herself as she wolfed down the stuffed vine leaves and the overcooked lamb. Throughout lunch she took her eyes from the window only long enough to aim her fork into the food, and then, until the next bite, she lost herself once again in the Greece unfolding before her.

I Puritani (1951)

Evangelia was in her element. Well aware of the approving glances of her fellow passengers, she basked in their admiration. She was wearing a closely fitted gray suit and a black felt hat with a long brown feather, and she felt more elegant and more assured than she remembered feeling for years. The hat, bought after numerous shopping expeditions for the express purpose of impressing her family, had to have half its brown feather cut off a few days later, after it had nearly put out the eye of an Athenian bus driver. But for the moment the stylish length of the feather only attracted more attention to the elegant lady in gray and her awkward young companion.
It was night when they arrived in Athens. They were met at the station by Evangelia’s three sisters, her three brothers and Jackie. Maria’s grandmother, who was ill in bed, was waiting for them at her house beyond the Acropolis where Evangelia and her daughters were to stay for a month before moving to their own house. Uncles and aunts, cousins, uncles’ colleagues and aunts’ friends, neighbors and strangers who cared to stop and listen, however briefly, knew by now that the thirteen-year-old Maria, her voice and her career were the reason the family had packed up and arrived in Greece. Tales of prizes Maria had won, vocal feats Maria had accomplished and audiences Maria had conquered were being busily told and retold, and expectations stood precariously high.

Evangelia aimed to mobilize not only all her relatives, but everyone she could lay her hands on, in the cause of her daughter’s career. The day after she arrived in Athens Maria’s life became that of an auditioning machine, producing songs on demand for anyone whom her mother could persuade to sit down and listen. It is little wonder that she contracted such a distaste for singing socially on demand that when, during that celebrated first cruise on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht Christina, Winston Churchill pleaded with her to do him the honor of singing something, she astounded everyone present by coldly replying that she would not.

Evangelia had pinned all her hopes on her family’s help. But the family was not impressed. For a start, singing was relegated to a very low rung on the social ladder unless it was obviously successful. So they cautioned prudence, they rebuked immoderate ambition, they scorned quixotic dreams. Good voices and musical talent were no news to them. After all, didn’t Aunt Sophia play the guitar beautifully? And how about Aunt Pipitsa on the mandolin? And Uncle Filon and Uncle Efthimios, what voices they had! Uncle Efthimios was the encouraging exception: “Don’t push her too fast. She’s only a little girl,” he kept telling his sister. “She’s in a new country with a new family. Let her get used to us. Then I’ll arrange an audition for her.”

While finding people to listen to her daughter, Evangelia was also busy moving from her mother’s home to a furnished house nearby. At the beginning of September 1937, Efthimios, through his contacts with the Royal Theater, arranged an audition for his niece with Maria Trivella, who taught at the National Conservatory in Athens. On the day of the audition Maria was panic-stricken—the same kind of feeling that would grip her almost invariably before she went onstage. “Before I sing I know nothing, don’t remember the part, don’t know where I start. It is panic, not knowing one thing before you go onstage.” The morning before the audition, Maria’s panic was compounded by her mother’s terror. Evangelia’s hands were trembling as she helped Maria into her white organdy dress and brushed her bangs. Still more anxiety surrounded the arrival of Maria’s grandmother and two of her aunts who, together with Jackie, Uncle Efthimios and, of course, her mother were to accompany Maria to the audition.

Once she started singing, Maria was free of her own and her family’s fears. “This is talent!” exclaimed Maria Trivella, and promptly agreed to take Maria as a pupil for both singing and French. She did much more than that; to help Maria get a scholarship from the conservatory, she conspired with Evangelia to falsify her age. The authorities, happily accepting that Maria was sixteen and not thirteen, agreed to pay for all her music lessons.

Maria Trivella was not just Maria’s first teacher, she was like a surrogate mother. From now on, Evangelia’s role as the driving force behind Maria was secondary. Maria was becoming increasingly self-propelled, though at no time in her life was she to be self-sufficient. Always she needed at her side someone who believed in her, encouraged and sustained her. It had to be someone sufficiently convinced of her gift and greatness to reflect them back to her; and she went on feeding off the faith that she herself had inspired. Maria’s professional life could be loosely divided into separate periods, each named after its chief sustaining figure: the Trivella period, the de Hidalgo period, the Serafin period, the Meneghini period, the Visconti period, the Zeffirelli period and the di Stefano period.

The Trivella period was the dream period. The more confident of her talent Maria grew, the more she dreamed of where it could lead. She had never worked so hard. Very often she had her meals in Trivella’s studio; when she was at home, her mother would bring them to her room and she would go on working with her plate on her lap. There were no distractions in her life, and all her energies were poured, in one uninterrupted flow, into her voice and her singing. She was so utterly obsessed by her career that at times she seemed totally oblivious to everything else. She never wondered then, and for many years never had to ask herself, what was driving her on. All she knew was that she had a passionate need to set herself apart by being admired and singled out, and in the early years it was this struggle to succeed that dominated her life. It obtruded even on the peace of her occasional days of rest, and prevented her from feeling pleasure and pride in herself by making her focus all the time on what remained to be conquered.

In those years in Athens she gave the impression of concentrated willpower and, at times, chilly resolution, which was hardly likely to endear her to her fellow students at the conservatory. “Her earnestness was oppressive,” said one of them, looking back on that time. As for Maria, her need to shine and to outshine meant that she based her relationship to the other students on the same illusion on which she was later to base her professional life. Convinced that when others came forward, she herself went back, she fancied herself locked in combat with the world, continually afraid of seeing her own success overshadowed by the success of others.

It was as if she had joined forces with her mother in pushing aside the needs of the deprived child in her in favor of the nascent prima donna. Yet the needs of the child for love, and for space in which to grow, were not extinguished. Suppressed, they festered and turned instead into bitterness and anger. And the more they were suppressed, the longer the shadow they cast. It was as if the accumulation of resentment and anger had become a quality of her being, to be seen in her eyes and heard in her breathing.

Later on, at the height of her transformation, she acquired a certain calmness, a certain silence—accessories of the regal dignity which she strove to project right to the end of her life. As a close friend of hers put it, however: “When I was near Maria, her appearance may have been of calm and silence, but if I sat near her quietly, without talking, I never felt calm or silence coming from her. Deep down the turmoil was hidden. On the surface everything was quiet; underneath I felt the volcano getting ready to explode at any moment.”

With the little girl in her kept quiet by ever-increasing quantities of food, Maria could, relatively undistracted, dedicate herself to the realization of the artistic greatness she sensed was hers, and the pursuit of the golden chalice of fame and success that she knew must follow. Madame Trivella was her main teacher and guide during these first two years, but she was not the only one. George Karakandas taught her acting at the conservatory and David supplemented her singing lessons at home. George Karakandas was paid; David wasn’t. George Karakandas was a well-respected and established teacher; David was totally unknown. But in later years, Maria would say that she owed more to David than she owed to most of her conservatory teachers. She would spend hours watching fascinated while David, perched in his cage, almost burst his feathered throat singing. She would put her fingers on her throat and watch David’s quiver, and every few moments she would break into amazed cries of “How does he do it?” She felt he had a secret she could snatch from him. So she kept singing with him, trying to control her voice as he controlled his song, until exhausted she had to stop while David sang merrily on. Maria had lost her race with David, but one morning she found her revenge when, soaring through an aria from Lucia, she saw Elmina suddenly tumble from her perch to the floor of the cage. Elmina, Maria’s first casualty, had fainted, apparently unable to withstand the power of the young girl’s vocalizing. After the fainting scene had been repeated twice more while Maria was singing, Madame Evangelia, tired of pouring cognac and water down Elmina’s beak, resolved that Maria would never again sing one note until Elmina had first been banished to the most isolated room in the house.

All this vocalizing, the hard work and sleepless nights were rewarded when, a few days before her fifteenth birthday, Maria made her stage debut singing Santuzza in a student production of Cavalleria Rusticana. She had determined that she would win the first prize in opera at the conservatory, and she knew that the decision rested on her performance in Cavalleria. Her fighting instinct had been fully aroused. With typical exaggeration, she told her mother that if she did not get the first prize, she would give up the stage. She did win, and the applause and the success continued to ring in her ears. They were the first taste of what, magnified and magnified again, was to become a regular occurrence, though never a routine experience.

“I work: therefore I am,” she told Kenneth Harris in an interview for The Observer thirty years later. “What do you do if you do not work?” In Athens just before the Second World War, Maria was not only happiest when she worked, she virtually existed only when she worked. She knew that when she was not working she was least happy, least secure and most prone to start comparing herself with Jackie. Jackie, at twenty-two, slim, tall, flattered and admired, had also acquired a highly eligible escort—Milton Embiricos, son of a very rich and well-established shipping family. In the summer of 1939 Jackie and Milton became engaged. Only two months earlier, Mussolini had marched into Albania, and Greece for the first time had a Fascist neighbor. But the rumbles of the gathering storm were ignored in Greece as elsewhere; there were no thoughts of war in the family party celebrating the engagement with a trip to Corfu on Milton’s yacht Hélène. Milton put them up at the Grand Hotel and showered all sorts of luxuries on them. Evangelia was in heaven. Maria was in despair. Jackie was lost to her, ecstatically happy and about to be taken away. And as if this was not enough, Maria, a fat and awkward fifteen-year-old, felt ignored and out of place. She could not wait for that “special” holiday to come to an end. She looked at her sister’s social life as one standing on a cold pavement looks through the window at pleasant firelit intimacies. She felt lonely and was frightened by her own loneliness.

At this low point, Elvira de Hidalgo moved into the center of her life, and for the next five years Maria was to be the most important person in de Hidalgo’s life, and de Hidalgo the most important person in Maria’s. De Hidalgo, Spanish, lively and well rounded, came straight from the world of Maria’s dreams, from the world of the Met, La Scala and Covent Garden. In love with Greece, she had recently joined the teaching staff of Athens’ leading conservatory, the Odeon Athenon. It was meant to be for a season; it turned out to be for years. To confuse coincidence with cause is always a risk, but there is no doubt that had Elvira de Hidalgo not been trapped in Greece by the outbreak of the Second World War, Maria’s career would have been drastically different. It was Evangelia who, her ear always to the musical ground, heard of de Hidalgo’s arrival and determined that Maria should audition for her. The result was that Evangelia provided Maria simultaneously with the best teacher and the best mother she would ever have.

Maria by Horst P. Horst

The audition was their first encounter. The aria Maria had chosen to sing was from Weber’s Oberon: “Ocean! Thou mighty monster.” While Maria was awaiting her turn, de Hidalgo kept looking at that awkward creature in the corner staring at her crushed sandals and biting her nails. “The very idea of that girl wanting to become a singer,” she thought then, and said later, “was laughable.” But seconds after Maria started singing, de Hidalgo closed her eyes. What she heard was “violent cascades of sound, full of drama and emotion”; what she saw was a vision not only of what that voice could become, but of what that singer, that young woman, could become. Maria was admitted to Athens’ leading conservatory tuition-free as de Hidalgo’s personal student.

From the moment Maria arrived for her first ten o’clock class, de Hidalgo began the long, hard and often painful process of uncovering all Maria’s remarkable capacities, not only the obvious musical gifts but the intelligence, the passion, the will and the audacity that were to add up to her uniqueness. As for Maria, with de Hidalgo’s guidance she constantly surprised herself. She discovered and began to use musical muscles and dramatic strengths she never knew she had. Until de Hidalgo came into her life, Maria’s range was so narrow that many teachers at the conservatory were convinced that she was not a soprano but a mezzo. Now she started developing her high notes and discovering her low chest notes. It was absorbing, at times exhilarating. “I was like the athlete,” she said years later, “who enjoys using and developing his muscles, like the youth who runs and jumps, enjoying and growing at the same time, like the girl who dances, enjoying the dance for its own sake, and learning to dance at the same time.”

Maria arrived at the Conservatory at ten every morning and, apart from a short break for lunch, she worked with de Hidalgo until eight at night. “It would have been inconceivable to stay at home,” she said; “I wouldn’t know what to do there.” But it was not only that she wouldn’t know what to do there. If home is the place where love is, then “home” had never really been home for Maria. It had been “there,” and her close relationship with de Hidalgo made it easier to be away from “there” for longer and longer periods.

In Maria’s eyes, however, Elvira was more than a mother; with her magical knowledge of whole new worlds of music, with her gifts of singing and with the aura of stage glories around her, she was more like a fairy godmother. The existence of a fairy godmother made it easier for Maria to begin in her mind to turn her mother into the wicked stepmother. This childhood tendency of seeing people and things in terms of clear opposites, of “good” or “bad,” was to stay with Maria long after her childhood. Experience, and her relationship with Onassis, softened the tendency, but it seemed as though nothing could ever eradicate it. People who were “good,” even “very, very good,” like her great mentor, Tullio Serafin, for example, suddenly became “bad,” and either they later turned “good” again, or once classified “bad,” remained “bad” forever. Elvira de Hidalgo has the distinction of being the only person in Maria’s life who remained above such fluctuations of fortune for nearly forty years. Her picture, apart from that of the great nineteenth-century soprano, Maria Malibran, was the only one in Maria’s flat when she died.

De Hidalgo’s clear sense of the extraordinary destiny ahead of her pupil began to communicate itself to Maria, who felt more and more that she had been singled out for a very special purpose. De Hidalgo awakened in her a realization of the greatness and grandeur of their art. She also gave the ugly duckling her first vision of the swan she was to become. It seemed immeasurably distant from what she now was, but de Hidalgo did more: she bridged the gap between the vision and the reality, not only with her teaching but with her understanding, her encouragement and her love. She taught Maria how to dress, how to walk across a stage and how to walk across a street, how to stand and yet pulsate with movement, and how to move and yet stand tall inside herself. She also introduced Maria to the miraculous possibilities of those two hands and arms that had until then been hanging awkwardly from her shoulders. And Maria began to create miracles with them.

Perhaps the greatest treasure de Hidalgo gave Maria, in the competitive world of opera, was a vast repertoire of tragic, romantic heroines. She gave her Norma, Elvira, Gioconda. In turn Maria would give them as revelations to an unsuspecting musical world. She had learned many of these operas by heart long before she could have sung them properly. Elvira lent her the full scores that she could not afford to buy, and Maria, in order to give them back as soon as possible, would memorize them. Riding on top of the bus, walking in the street, eating, dressing, Maria would be rehearsing, her mind full of runs, roulades, trills, cadenzas—the whole panoply of bel canto embellishments.

For de Hidalgo, bel canto was much more than “beautiful singing.” Many years later, echoing her teacher, Maria defined it as “a specific training of the voice, the development of a technique for making full use of it as a player of the violin or the flute is trained to make full use of his instrument.” It involved a precision, discipline and sense of authority that came surprisingly easily to the sixteen-year-old conservatory student. This relentless groundwork was at the heart of the professionalism and perfectionism that marked Maria’s whole career. Through the long days and nights of working with de Hidalgo, it was this meticulous technical training of her voice that was the teacher’s first priority and that gradually became the pupil’s obsession. Long before Maria’s heart was filled with brokenhearted queens and tragic priestesses, her mind was full of all the ways she could turn her voice into a perfectly agile instrument, ready to lend reality to all the technical feats she was perfecting with her mind. It was part of her instinctive greatness as an artist that, however fascinated she may have been by florid embellishments and athletic feats, she used them but was never used by them.

At times Maria talked of her voice as though it was a Siamese twin, a physical appendage with a life of its own. Often she treated her voice almost as a semihostile, intractable force outside herself. “The voice was answering tonight,” she would say, or “The voice was not obeying tonight.” It was to be a long, continuing struggle.

While Maria was perfecting her roulades, Greece had begun preparing for war. After the fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war in the summer of 1940, the tension had been mounting. It was no longer possible to ignore the fact that Greece’s involvement in the war was only months, perhaps even days, away. The prime minister, General Joannes Metaxas, began speaking publicly of the national danger and quietly, but determinedly, Greece mobilized. On October 28 it began. The Italian minister presented Metaxas with Mussolini’s ultimatum: allow Italian troops to take up strategic positions on Greek territory or war would follow. Metaxas rejected it instantly with no more than a laconic “No.” Italian troops immediately crossed the border, but were promptly driven back, and the Greek army even found itself occupying about a quarter of Albania.

So when, late in November, Maria made her professional stage debut at the National Lyric Theater, Athens was celebrating and Maria was singing and dancing in a barrel in Suppé’s operetta Boccaccio. Her part was not the kind triumphs are made of, but if not a triumph, it was a solid success. She was applauded, praised, appreciated, for the first time recognized as an established, professional singer. She was finally acting out her mother’s fantasies, except that by now they had become her own. She was exultant, and so was Greece. The period that followed the repulsing of the Italian forces was full of elation and what proved to be a short-lived optimism.

As for Maria, she was to have triumphs that made singing in a barrel at the Lyric Theater of Athens little more than a practical joke, but then her delight was never directly related to external success. Indeed the triumphs, won at greater and greater cost, brought her less and less joy. “I’m never satisfied,” she said thirty years after she had leapfrogged her way out of the Lyric Theater, beaming with happiness. “I am personally incapable of enjoying what I have done well because I see so magnified the things I could have done better.”

But on that November night in 1940, the first of hundreds of first nights, she allowed herself to savor her success. Her whole family was there applauding, yet after the performance it was to de Hidalgo that she ran for reassurance that it had gone well. Yes, it had gone well, very well, smiled Elvira, and all the sleepless nights and the nerves and the panics were instantly washed away. The more withdrawn she became from her mother and Jackie, the more devotion she felt for de Hidalgo; and the closer she felt to her, the more detached and, gradually, the more angry she felt with her own family. All this time she had been driving herself on with huge quantities of food and nervous energy spurred by ambition. Going out, flirting, making friends, formed no part of her life. It was not until much later that she learned about romance and the sudden leapings of the heart—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

Her adolescent urges, however thoroughly suppressed in the daily grind of study and music making, were making themselves felt. Without being aware of it, she was finding it harder to stifle her resentment toward her mother—resentment for all Evangelia had not been, for all the love she had denied Maria and for all the love she had unconditionally poured on Jackie. Jackie had by now learned to take her mother’s special ministrations completely for granted and to be, if not spoiled, outrageously favored. The result was that Maria seemed to be almost constantly in a state of combustion. She had learned to invest her emotions and wild impulses in her work, but she found it increasingly difficult to do so at home. She felt more isolated than ever, and aloofness became her only shield.


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