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Maria Callas Biography

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Maria Callas (Greek: ????? ??????) (December 3, 1923 – September 16, 1977) was an American-born Greek soprano and perhaps the best-known opera singer of the post-World War II period. She combined an impeccable bel canto technique with great dramatic gifts, making her the most famous opera singer of the era. An extremely versatile singer, her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria, to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini, to Verdi, Puccini, and in her early career, the music dramas of Wagner.

She was born Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos (Greek: ????? ???? ????? ??????? ??????????????) to Greek parents in New York City, on 2nd December, 1923. At the age of 13 in 1937, she moved with her mother Evangelia to Athens, Greece.

There has been a great deal of ongoing controversy about Callas' vocal decline and its cause. Some have said that the heavy roles sung in her early years damaged her voice. Giulietta Simionatto stated that she told Callas that she felt that the early heavy roles led to a weakness in the diaphragm and the subsequent difficulty in controlling the upper register. Others such as Louise Caselotti, who worked with Callas prior to her Italian debut, stated that she felt that it was not the heavy roles that hurt the voice, but the lighter ones. Some have said that the heavy use of the chest voice led to problems with the high notes. And there are those who argue that the weight loss itself brought changes in Callas' body which made it progressively more difficult for her to support her heavy voice properly.

Commercial and pirated recordings of Callas from the late 1940's to 1953--the period during which she sang the heaviest dramatic soprano roles--show no decline in the luxurious fabric of the voice, no decrease in volume, and no unsteadiness or shrinkage in the upper register. To the contrary, there is an improvement in the beauty and steadiness of the voice during this time. Recordings done in 1954--immediately after her 80-pound weight loss--and later demonstrate a voice which was suddenly lighter and thinner in timbre, smaller in volume and power, and with an increasing tendency towards stridency in the upper notes. The highest notes in the voice also did not have the same ease and freedom of 1953 or before. It is also at this time that occasional unsteady top notes first begin to appear. These changes gradually worsened during the 1950's, but it must be noted, however, that the slimming of her voice did not affect her scenic portrayals, and – at least not until the sixties – degrade the overall quality of her singing. For her performance of Norma in London 1957 (her first performance at Covent Garden after the weight loss), critics would even claim her voice had changed for the better, as it now supposedly had become a far more precise instrument, with a new, effectual note. It is probably the year 1955 (or even 1957) that is by many critics and opera-lovers being remembered as the greatest year of Callas, and many of her most outstanding live-recordings (that is, sung to critical acclaim) are from the period 1954 – 1957 (Anna Bolena of 1957 or Norma, Traviata, La sonnambula and Lucia di Lammermoor of 1955 to name a few). Even as late as 1959, she could still deliver vocally astounding performances.

Phyllis Curtin stated that videos of Callas in the late 1950's and early 60's reveal a posture that betrays breath-support problems. Renee Fleming stated a similar opinion in the October 2005 issue of Opera News: "I have a theory about what caused her vocal decline, but it’s more from watching her sing than from listening. I really think it was her weight loss that was so dramatic and so quick. It’s not the weight loss per se . . . . But if one uses the weight for support, and then it’s suddenly gone and one doesn’t develop another musculature for support, it can be very hard on the voice. And you can’t estimate the toll that emotional turmoil will take as well. I was told, by somebody who knew her well, that the way Callas held her arms to her solar plexus [allowed her] to push and create some kind of support. If she were a soubrette, it would never have been an issue. But she was singing the most difficult repertoire, the stuff that requires the most stamina, the most strength."

In the October 2006 issue of Opera News, dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt, who lost over 100 pounds after gastric bypass surgery, expressed similar thoughts concerning her own voice and body: “Much of what I did with my weight was very natural, vocally. Now I’ve got a different body — there’s not as much of me around. My diaphragm function, the way my throat feels, is not compromised in any way. But I do have to think about it more now. I have to remind myself to keep my ribs open. I have to remind myself, if my breath starts to stack. When I took a breath before, the weight would kick in and give it that extra Whhoomf! Now it doesn’t do that. If I don’t remember to get rid of the old air and re-engage the muscles, the breath starts stacking, and that’s when you can’t get your phrase, you crack high notes.”

In an interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge published in the December 1982 issue of Opera News, Bonynge stated: "But before she slimmed down, I mean this was such a colossal voice. It just poured out of her, the way Flagstad's did. . . Callas had a huge voice. When she and Stignani sang Norma, at the bottom of the range you could barely tell who was who. . . .Oh it was colossal. And she took the big sound right up to the top."

All recordings are in mono unless otherwise indicated. Live performances are typically available on multiple labels: see the complete discography and list of currently available recordings for further information.
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