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Shocking Details of Maria Callas’ Life Revealed

Maria Callas
Greek opera singer Maria Callas in 1958. Public Domain

A recent book on Maria Callas reveals shocking details about the tragic private life of one of the greatest opera sopranos of the 20th century.

“Cast A Diva: The Unknown Life of Maria Callas,” by Lyndsy Spence, includes unknown details about Callas’ legendary marriage with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

Through personal letters of Callas, the book reveals shocking tidbits about the diva’s tempestuous relationship with Onassis, who broke her heart when he abandoned her for the widow of Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of assassinated American President John F. Kennedy.

Also included are disturbing anecdotes about Callas’ early life with her verbally abusive mother who forced her to leave Greece to pursue an international singing career, as well as the sad end of her life in near-complete solitude.

Maria Callas’ hatred for her mother

In the letters Callas wrote to her close friends, the soprano spoke of the despicable behavior of her mother during the war.

“Callas hated her mother, who worked as a prostitute during the war, because she tried to pass her to Nazi soldiers,” according to Spence.

The book also reveals that her mother sold stories about the soprano’s life to the press and blackmailed her with them for financial gain.

Once Callas’ mother wrote to her: “Do you know what movie stars of humble origins do once they get rich? In the first month, they spend their money to buy a home for their parents and to spoil them. What do you have to say about that, Maria?”

“If she had been a real mother to me for a long time, I would have loved her,” Callas wrote  in response.

Tragically, Callas received no love from her father either, enduring a very dysfunctional relationship with him to the very end. He once wrote to the acclaimed soprano that he was dying in a hospital for the poor with the aim of extorting money from her when, in fact, he was only slightly ill.

“I am tired of my parents’ selfishness, their indifference towards me. I do not want to have any kind of relationship with them,” she wrote bitterly at one time.

Traumatic relationship with Aristotle Onassis

In a letter written by Callas, which is described in the diary of one of her best friends, the diva reveals the moments of fear she experienced with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis in 1966 when a sexual encounter turned so violent that it endangered her life.

The author claims, based on the diary entries, that Onassis often drugged Callas for sexual acts that today would be characterized as nothing less than rape.

In a letter to her secretary, Callas states: “I would not like him (Onassis) to call me and start torturing me again.”

But even the departure of Onassis from Callas’ life was dramatic, as he left her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the murdered U.S. President John Kennedy.

Maria Callas
Maria Callas and husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini in Venice. Credit: Vanilafeel/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Her marriage was no better

The newly found details from the turbulent life of the great soprano reveal her traumatic relationship with her husband, entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Meneghini.

“My husband continues to fool me, after he stole half of my property, putting all the money in his name since the day we got married. I was a fool to trust him,” Callas wrote, noting that her husband “acts as a millionaire without a penny of his own.”

Most of Callas’ other relationships were equally troublesome, according to Spence. In another letter, the diva describes her relationship with the president of the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

Peter Mennin was married, and when Callas rejected his sexual advances, he turned his entire educational organization against her.

In a letter to her godfather, Callas wrote: “Peter Mennin fell in love with me. So, of course, as I did not feel the same way, he turned against me.”

Vendetta with Italian Soprano Renata Tebaldi

Callas and Renata Tibaldi, both opera divas of the time, had a legendary rivalry between them despite the fact that they sang different repertoires.

Callas concentrated on the heavy dramatic soprano roles and, later in her career, on the bel canto repertoire whereas Tebaldi concentrated on late Verdi and verismo roles.

Urban legend has it that in comparing their voices, Callas described hers as expensive champagne and her rival’s as plain Coca-Cola. Of course, the soprano herself claimed that she never claimed such a thing and instead likened Tempaldi’s voice to a good brandy.

The two artists had denied that there was a rivalry between them, but in the new book,  Callas is portrayed as being annoyed by Tebaldi’s obsession with her.

A letter dating back to 1957 reveals that there was an enormous dislike expressed by the Greek-American community for the Greek soprano, which Callas attributed to a scheme perpetrated by her rival in order to advance her own career.

Serious health problems

The book also sheds light on the health problems afflicted by Callas until her death in 1977 at the young age of 53. Speaking to The Guardian, Spence says:

“I found a neurologist who was treating her before she died. Callas suffered from a neuromuscular disorder, with symptoms first appearing in the 1950s, but doctors then described her as simply ‘crazy.'”

“This also explains how she lost her voice, which effectively ended her career,” Spence explains in a sad denouement of the story of one of the world’s greatest operatic legends.

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