The life of American-Greek soprano Maria Callas, called “La Divina” by her legions of fans, reads like the plot of an opera. She was born Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropulu in New York on 2 December 1923, the daughter of Greek immigrants to the US. As a teenager, she returned to Athens, her voice already noted as unusual in its sound, versatility and expressive qualities.


Driven by unwavering commitment, Callas’s career developed in Greece and then in Italy, where she performed in prestigious venues such as La Scala in Milan, rising to become prima donna, the leading woman in an opera. She is credited with reviving interest in the 19th-century bel canto operas of Vincenzo Bellini (Norma), Gaetano Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Gioachino Rossini (The Barber of Seville), and performed under internationally-renowned opera directors Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli. 


In 1949, Callas married Italian industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who appointed himself her manager. In 1953, she underwent radical weight loss, losing thirty-six kilograms. This was for health reasons and to make her more ‘suitable’ for the big roles; however, she became extremely thin, and there was controversy about how she lost weight and its effect on her voice and health.


As Callas’ international career soared, so did her reputation for temperamental behaviour. There were rumours surrounding her fiery personal relationships, her angry walkouts and her rivalry with other opera stars. A 1956 article in Time magazine reported a feud between Callas and her mother, and in 1959 her marriage to Meneghini was annulled, and she embarked on an on-off love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. By the 1970s, Callas’ voice had deteriorated, and she gave her last performance in Paris in 1974. In 1977 she died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-three.