Greek-American opera diva Maria Callas had a volatile relationship with the Athens intellectual establishment. But this was never more evident than during her 1957 comeback concert in the Theater of Herod Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis.
In 1957, Callas was invited by the Constantine Karamanlis government to appear in the third Athens Festival, giving two recitals at the ancient open-air theater, on the 1st and 5th of August. She arrived at Athens International airport on the 29th of July, accompanied by her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini.
Callas appeared to be exuberant to be back in Greece after eleven years. She had left Athens as an unknown young soprano and was returning an international star. Little did she know the local political scene, or how it would affect her recitals.
Athens had a rather stable Conservative government at the time. Still, the opposition, led by Georgios Papandreou and Sophocles Venizelos (the son of Greece’s greatest political leader, Eleftherios Venizelos), used the event to score points with the government.
Controversy over Callas’ fee by the opposition press
Daily newspapers Ta Nea and To Vima, owned by publisher Dimitris Lambrakis, attacked the government using Callas’s steep (at the time) performance fee of $9000 for the two recitals as an excuse.
The Athens Summer Festival, which had only recently been founded, badly needed tourism and, naturally, relied heavenly on Callas’ concerts. The leaders of the opposition, Papandreou and Venizelos, refused to be present at the premiere, as a sign of their disapproval of Callas’ “scandalous” fee.
The opposition newspapers incited their readers to boycott the performances. On its front page, Ta Nea newsdaily had an article by chronicler and future play-writer Dimitris Psathas.
“This column must honestly confess that it feels ashamed because it has been repeatedly preoccupied with this repulsive prominent lady, who came to grab the dollars of our poverty,” he wrote.
Callas’ stay at Athens’ Grande Bretagne hotel besieged
Athens’ top hotel, the Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square, where she was staying was besieged by a mob consisting of Greek and foreign press, opera singers, musicians, fans and a heavy police presence because of bomb threats that had reached the hotel.
Shocked by the huge crowd, Callas was locked in her suite crying, “Send them all away,” refusing to appear at the festival opening. At 7:30 in the evening of August 1, shortly before the start of the recital, it all fell apart.
With information arriving about demonstrators, and more threatening letters and phone calls reaching the hotel, the Athens Festival Committee announced that “because of a sudden illness, Mme. Callas’ performance would be postponed.”
However, she kept her date with her second scheduled Athens performance on August 5, despite the continuing attacks against her from the opposition press during the intervening weekend.
To Vima columnist Pavlos Palaiologou went as far as to write that Callas was “unworthy” of her nation and her family, using all the information he could find about Callas’ relations with her mother (admittedly not the best), based on vulgar gossip.
“My God!”, the columnist exclaimed, “My national pride has been insulted.” Continuing his hateful tirade, he added, “Only one road is now available for Callas, and it leads straight to the airport.”
Athens Radio message damage control
The day after that, in an attempt at damage control, Maria Callas sent an audio recording to the Greek National Radio station (EIR). In it, she apologized for her missed performance, claiming that her voice had died at the hotel. It could be true, or perhaps it was just an excuse for her apparent breakdown the day before.
“I wanted to appeal to the Greek people, with whom we have spent hard times together (during the Nazi occupation of 1941 – 1944),” she said. “Due to Athens’ dry weather, which I am unaccustomed to, being decades abroad, my voice turned hoarse yesterday and I couldn’t be there at the Festival launch.
“I could have sung, perhaps, but with the state of my voice, I wouldn’t be any good,” she continued. “I want to be at my best when I sing for you, Athens crowd, because you love me so much and I love you too.
“In Italy and in the rest of my world performances I like to give my best, but for you, I want to give so much more than my best,” she explained. “I don’t know exactly what your expectations are, or if I will be able to meet them, but I really want to sing for you.”
Then she complained about the hostile reception she had experienced, saying: “I came here just to sing for you, but I was disheartened by the way some people have involved my name with politics. I have nothing to do with politics – all artists shouldn’t meddle with politics, artists belong to the whole world.
“I belong to the whole Greek people,” she said with great emotion. “I may be married to an Italian man, I may have received accolades from all over the world, but my blood is Greek and nobody can deny that.”
Then she proceeded to give her thanks to members of her family and a number of her colleagues in Greece, who stood by her side during the opposition’s attacks. “All I want to do now, is be in shape on Monday (the day of my second scheduled concert) to sing for you with all my heart,” she concluded.
Callas’ 1960 second coming in Athens
Despite her inauspicious 1957 reception, Callas bravely returned to Athens for three appearances in August of 1960. She gave performances of Bellini’s opera “Norma” at the ancient theater of Epidaurus. They were an absolute triumph.
In order to avoid the 1957 compensation debacle, she agreed to have her $15,000 fee for the three performances be donated to a scholarship fund to finance the education and training of Greek singers abroad. To this fund, the National Opera would later add an additional sum.
That is the tumultuous story of Maria Callas’ comeback concert in Athens in the summer of 1957. A story filled with uncalled-for drama and heightened emotions — just like the entire life story of the great diva herself.