The 100 years from the birth of Maria Callas is being celebrated this year, not only in Greece, but in many countries around the world. The celebrations are a tribute to the person Maria Callas, the most famous soprano the world has ever seen.
Maria Callas was born in New York, America, to Greek parents on December 2, 1923, and named Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos. She arrived in Athens with her mother Evangelia and her sister Yakinthi (known as ‘Jackie’) on March 6, 1937, at the age of 13. Under her mother’s stern guidance, Maria would spend eight years in the demanding study of her art during the difficult years of war and deprivation as Greece was under Nazi occupation followed by a civil war.
However, it was in Italy that she would begin her international career, in Verona in the opera La Gioconda. Other well-known performances such as ‘Medea’, ‘Tosca’, ‘Parsifal’ and ‘La Traviata’ followed. There she met Giovanni Meneghini, a wealthy Italian industrialist whom she married in 1949. He assumed control of her career until 1959, when the marriage dissolved. At that time, she had met Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate. The affair received much publicity as she was not only recognized internationally for her singing, but she was also a part of the high society of that period. Unfortunately, the relationship never led to marriage.
The difference in the 100-year celebrations of her birth was made when Dimitris Pyromallis donated his collection of Maria Callas to the Greek National Opera at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in southern Athens. The exhibition has been called, UNBOXING CALLAS and showcases the life of the great Diva.
Born on the island of Zakynthos in 1958, Dimitris Pyromallis met Maria Callas at the age of 4 when she was on a visit there with the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. She took him in her arms and pinched his rosy cheeks. It is a scene that he has never forgotten, making him a lifelong fan of La Divina, meaning ‘divine’ or ‘heavenly’.
After completing his military service at the age of 20, he set out to get to know the artist who had made such an impression on him and began to slowly collect anything he could find that was related to her work. He contacted collector’s clubs all over Europe as well as the antique sellers at the Athens’ Monastiraki flea market. He met people who worked with Maria Callas and spent time talking to them about their experience. He would spend hours listening to her music and has memorized many of her arias without ever having studied music. He also knew about her habit of beginning her day in her Paris home with a sparse breakfast of coffee and orange juice, sitting at the kitchen table with her personal assistant and her butler.
The Dimitris Pyromallis collection consists of over 4,000 vinyl records, 6,000 CDs, dozens of books, magazines, clippings from newspapers, stamps honouring the great Greek opera singer, medals, rare photographs in both printed and digital form as well as personal items such as necklaces, a silver powder case, and a bottle of scent. The collection was set out tidily in his two-room apartment in glass cases, drawers, tables, and walls. It was not strewn on the floor or piled on chairs. He decided to donate his collection to the Greek Opera House so that others could also appreciate the art of one of the most famous opera singers of the 20th century. As he says, “I wanted to collect her art. I was less interested in her personal objects – though I have some of those too – and more in what she expressed, in her most enduring quality.”
Although his collection in now with the Greek National Opera, Pyromallis’ home is still dedicated to Maria Callas. He has a framed photograph of the opera singer next to a vase of flowers arranged on a small table, some memorabilia in the display cases and other mementos here and there.
Besides the Maria Callas exhibition at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, a brand-new Maria Callas Museum, housed in a three-storey neoclassical building in Mitropoleos Street, opposite the Athens Cathedral, was inaugurated in October of this year by the City of Athens.
Maria Callas spent her last years living largely in isolation in Paris and died of a heart attack at age 53 on September 16, 1977. On Sunday, June 3, 1979, her ashes were spread off the island of Skorpios, in the Ionian Sea, where her love affair with Aristotle Onasis had bloomed. It was a return to her homeland as she would always say that “First and foremost, I belong to the Greek people”. Although she had married an Italian and had received accolades from all over the world, “my blood is Greek, and nobody can change that”.
Angelina Jolie plays the role of Maria Callas in the film ‘Maria’, based on the turbulent, exciting, but tragic story of the legendary opera singer and her final days in Paris before her death.