Maria Callas: Sacred Monster

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9781857028263: Maria Callas: Sacred Monster
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Stelios Galatopoulos first met Maria Callas as a fan, at a performance of "La Giocononda" in 1947. Aged 24, she was still a large woman, hiding the gaunt dramatic figure she was to become. Galatopoulos was there at her debut at Covent Garden in 1952, and by 1957 had become a friend. By 1959, Callas's first marriage had broken down and her affair with Onassis began. Until her retirement in 1965 the performances were few. Her friendship with the author grew during this period and they became very close by 1977, the year of her shockingly early death. Early that year Galatopoulos had asked her if she planned to write an autobiography. She replied "My memoirs are in the music I interpret...don't you think I am too young to write my memoirs. I am not eighty yet, you know." In 1998 she would have been 75, and this text is possibly the closest we shall get to her autobiography.

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Review:

Maria Callas is a biographer's dream. Born into poverty, she turned herself from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, and in the process became the most celebrated diva of the 20th century. She breathed life, drama, and passion into an art form that had hitherto remained the preserve of an intellectual elite, and was single-handedly responsible for turning opera from an arts-page sideshow to front-page news. Her bust-ups with the New York Met and her disastrous love life--culminating in a tragic obsession with Aristotle Onassis--were as enthralling as her voice, and there was a depressing inevitability about her mysterious, early death in 1977 at the age of 54.

It's hardly surprising, then, that there have been any number of books written about Callas. Most have been little more than well-researched clippings jobs. Callas spent nearly 30 years in the public eye, and there is any amount of material about her on public record. What separates Stelios Galatopoulos from the rest of her biographers is the wealth of previously unpublished material from which he draws. He is stronger than most on Callas's early years--particularly the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War--which is a period many writers try to ignore, as Callas was accused by many Greek patriots of having been a traitor to her country by continuing to perform for the Nazis in the Athens opera house. Galatopoulos is quick to absolve her of any charges of collaboration. This is probably a correct assessment, though he falls short of labeling Callas and her mother as the ruthless careerists and opportunists they undoubtedly were.

Herein lie both the strength and weakness of the book. Galatopoulos was a close personal friend of Callas; as such he was privy to her most private thoughts and he offers us some fascinating new insights into her husband, Giovanni Meneghini; her lover Aristotle Onassis; and her mother. What he doesn't always do, though, is maintain a critical eye. Whenever he deals with anything controversial, he is happy to give Callas the benefit of the doubt. But all this is really a minor quibble. Overall, Galatopoulos does a superb job in re-creating the opera world of the 1940s through to the 1970s and he excels in his assessment of Callas's artistic achievements. Maria Callas: Sacred Monster may not be the final word on the diva, but it's as close as it comes. --John Crace

About the Author:

Stelios Galatopoulos has contributed to many music journals, including Music and Musicians, Records and Recordings, and Lirica nel Mondo (Italy). He has written for all the major recording companies and has contributed program notes for many opera and concert performances. His books include Italian Opera (1971) and two previous studies of Callas, Callas La Divina (1963) and Callas: Prima Donna Assoluta (1976). He has recently completed a life of Bellini.

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