The Divine Maria Callas

 by Phyllis Chesler (December 2018)

I have happily been going to the Paris since the late 1950s when it was known for its foreign films aka serious cinema. Here, (and uptown, at the Thalia), is where I first saw Bergman, Fellini, Almodovar, Zeffirelli, Merchant and Ivory, the incomparable Deepa Mehta, and every movie that starred Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith. I was among the first on line for the New Year’s Day showing of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.


Volf has assembled footage of performances, concerts, interviews, paparazzi, fans, and of her private life. Callas was a musical genius, a great artiste, but in her day she was as famous, as branded, as the non-musical Kim Kardashian is today. She may have been the first opera star to become internationally known. This documentary is a redemptive corrective to the pathography by playwright Terrence McNally which presents Callas as pathetic, a failed woman, unable to persuade the love of her life to marry her, alone and without children.


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Opera, or the Undoing of Woman? Is opera dangerous because it both glorifies and de-sensitizes us to women’s daily destruction? Are opera’s women “only” severed, singing heads, witnesses to historical oppression, unable to escape it onstage—at least, not until we have done so in real life?



At the beginning of her career, the legendary Maria Callas weighed over 200 pounds. For years, some critics scorned her as “the prima donna with an elephant’s legs.” In early photos, she is lusciously fleshy, moist, large. Her weight is what renders her most human, ordinary; unlike her utterly disciplined voice and acting technique, this is an excess which she cannot contain. Then, in one year, Callas loses at least 60 pounds, then more until, at 117 pounds, she becomes almost half her original size. Now she resembles the Duchess of Windsor, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy Onassis: severely elegant women who move, not as priestesses on the operatic stage, but as status symbols or screen idols, clinging to the arms of monied men.


But Callas remained “too large” in other ways. Her “light” soprano voice dared all vocal registers and roles: the spinto, lyric, dramatic, coloratura and mezzo-soprano. Ardoin is right: It’s as if Callas has “not three but three hundred voices in one.” Callas sang Verdi and Wagner, Puccini, Donizzeti and Bellini, Mozart and Bizet—and nearly everyone else.




They are real: Opera fans never forget them, and return to them, season after season, from one century to the next. This is the power that art has over both life and death.


Act One: Maria is the younger of two sisters. She believes she is unlovable; she is also a child prodigy. Maria begins studying opera at the age of seven. She drops out of school after the eighth grade and, driven both by her talent and by an ambitious, devouring mother, devotes herself to studying music, full-time. Callas: “I [had] unlimited faith in the divine protection that would not fail me.” Maria sings in Athens when she is 15. In 1947, at 24, she sings in Verona where, both friendless and impoverished, she meets her husband-to-be, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who sees her as the vulnerable genius that she is. Battista is 28 years her senior—but he is a man who has money, and who wishes nothing more than to nurture his wife’s career. Battista puts himself second, his wife’s career first. It takes Maria about 15 years to “suddenly” conquer the opera world. In her words: It is a “tiger” she rides, one she can “never dismount.”


Medea, sings concerts for a while, but then retreats from the world. She dies in Paris, alone, amidst her mementos.


She is 53 years old.




In my view, her tragedy was not only being humiliated by Onassis’s unexpected marriage to Jackie Kennedy (which Callas learns about from newspaper headlines).



May she Rest In Peace. Perhaps she has regained her voice and is performing for the Lord even as I write . . .



Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D, is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies. She is the author of seventeen books, including the 20th century landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972); Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986); and Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M (1988). Her 21st century work includes The New Anti-Semitism (2003), The Death of Feminism (2005) and An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and, in 2016, Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews 2003-2015. Her work has been translated into many European languages and into Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Hebrew. Since the Intifada of 2000, Dr. Chesler has focused on anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel; the psychology of terrorism; the nature of propaganda and the importance of the cognitive war against fact and reason; honor-based violence and the rights of women, dissidents, and gays in the Islamic world. Dr. Chesler has published four studies about honor killings, and penned a position paper on why the West should ban the burqa; these studies have all appeared in Middle East Quarterly. She has submitted affidavits on behalf of Muslim and ex-Muslim women who are seeking asylum or citizenship based on their credible belief that their families will honor kill them. Her articles are available at her website:

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