7 October 2016 at 5.44pm | 9 Comments
Greek-American soprano Maria Callas was one of the most talented prima donnas the world has ever seen – but despite her artistic achievements she faced relentless scrutiny about her personal life and was dogged by journalists at every turn.
Headlines and memoirs weave together a sketchy outline of her longstanding affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The billionaire was said to have relentlessly pursued the singer, reportedly sending buckets of red roses to stage door before performances, surreptitiously signed ‘the other Greek’.
Callas first performed Bellini's Norma at the Royal Opera House in 1952 – a performance described in the press as resulting in a ‘tumultuous ovation’. She returned to the Covent Garden in 1957 to reprise the role, her appearance much altered, after her much-remarked weight loss.
The role of Norma became the part she performed more than any other, touring the finest opera houses across the world until her last full performance of the part at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 1965. Her final known performance of the work was during a masterclass at Juilliard in 1971, six years before her early death at the age 53.
‘Norma resembles me in a certain way. She seems very strong, very ferocious at times’, Callas said. ‘Actually, she is not – even though she roars like a lion.’
They married five years later on the Greek island of Skorpios and Callas retreated from public view to her apartment in Paris. But this was far from the end of the affair – months later, Onassis was photographed dining out with the soprano and a tabloid frenzy ensued.
In a twist of fate, Jaqueline Kennedy or ‘Jackie O’ as she would later become, had long been an admirer of Callas. The singer initially caught her attention when she performed in a concert for her husband’s birthday in 1962.
‘We would do everything to make it perfect for you’, she implored. ‘It would really be a great moment of history for this great house.’
‘I thank you for having thought of me,’ replied Callas, ‘especially as being an American, I would feel deeply honoured to sing at the White House.’ But the singer was locked in a tight recording schedule and so was forced to decline. They were unaware of course how their later life would become intimately intertwined.
In November 1973, Callas briefly discussed Onassis. Speaking on CBS’s '60 Minutes' she revealed, ‘I think we understand each other as nobody does.’
‘We had a wonderful life. I don’t regret any bit of it. But I do regret when I stopped singing,’ she answered.
The interview marked her return to the stage after an eight year career break embarked upon in 1965. Despite her many artistic accomplishments, the focus of interviews fixated on the Onassis and what Callas made of his new marriage to the former first lady.
‘We loved each other maybe too much. Men usually want to completely domineer a woman and I want to be dominated by my own accord.’
Despite relentless attempts by journalists, we will never know the truth of the Callas/Onassis affair. It is a story that speculation has transformed into a modern myth, much like the operas that Callas starred in, a tale of two lovers – doomed and unforgettable.
Norma runs until 8 October 2016. Tickets are now sold out, but there are encore cinema screenings taking place until 25 November 2016.
The production is a co-production with Opéra national de Paris and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE and The Tsukanov Family Foundation.