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  • There's something about Norma: The story behind Maria Callas and her signature role

There's something about Norma: The story behind Maria Callas and her signature role

Despite her considerable artistic achievements, writers and fans have long made links between the heroine of Bellini's opera and Callas' own tumultuous private life.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

7 October 2016 at 5.44pm | 9 Comments

Greek-American soprano Maria Callas was one of the most talented prima donnas the world has ever seen – but despite her artistic achievements she faced relentless scrutiny about her personal life and was dogged by journalists at every turn.

Headlines and memoirs weave together a sketchy outline of her longstanding affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The billionaire was said to have relentlessly pursued the singer, reportedly sending buckets of red roses to stage door before performances, surreptitiously signed ‘the other Greek’.

Callas first performed Bellini's Norma at the Royal Opera House in 1952 – a performance described in the press as resulting in a ‘tumultuous ovation’. She returned to the Covent Garden in 1957 to reprise the role, her appearance much altered, after her much-remarked weight loss.

The role of Norma became the part she performed more than any other, touring the finest opera houses across the world until her last full performance of the part at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 1965. Her final known performance of the work was during a masterclass at Juilliard in 1971, six years before her early death at the age 53.

‘Norma resembles me in a certain way. She seems very strong, very ferocious at times’, Callas said. ‘Actually, she is not – even though she roars like a lion.’

Onassis and Callas never married. Instead, Onassis wed another of the world’s most famous women – Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963.

They married five years later on the Greek island of Skorpios and Callas retreated from public view to her apartment in Paris. But this was far from the end of the affair – months later, Onassis was photographed dining out with the soprano and a tabloid frenzy ensued.

In a twist of fate, Jaqueline Kennedy or ‘Jackie O’ as she would later become, had long been an admirer of Callas. The singer initially caught her attention when she performed in a concert for her husband’s birthday in 1962.

After the performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Jaqueline wrote to Callas inviting her to sing at the Winter State Dinner at The White House.

‘We would do everything to make it perfect for you’, she implored. ‘It would really be a great moment of history for this great house.’

‘I thank you for having thought of me,’ replied Callas, ‘especially as being an American, I would feel deeply honoured to sing at the White House.’ But the singer was locked in a tight recording schedule and so was forced to decline. They were unaware of course how their later life would become intimately intertwined.

In November 1973, Callas briefly discussed Onassis. Speaking on CBS’s '60 Minutes' she revealed, ‘I think we understand each other as nobody does.’

‘We had a wonderful life. I don’t regret any bit of it. But I do regret when I stopped singing,’ she answered.

The interview marked her return to the stage after an eight year career break embarked upon in 1965. Despite her many artistic accomplishments, the focus of interviews fixated on the Onassis and what Callas made of his new marriage to the former first lady.

In April 1974, she told Barbara Walters on 'The Today Show' that she refused to be painted as a victim, saying ‘I left him of my own accord. We agreed to that.'

‘We loved each other maybe too much. Men usually want to completely domineer a woman and I want to be dominated by my own accord.’

Despite relentless attempts by journalists, we will never know the truth of the Callas/Onassis affair. It is a story that speculation has transformed into a modern myth, much like the operas that Callas starred in, a tale of two lovers – doomed and unforgettable.

Norma runs until 8 October 2016. Tickets are now sold out, but there are encore cinema screenings taking place until 25 November 2016.

The production is a co-production with Opéra national de Paris and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE and The Tsukanov Family Foundation.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

7 October 2016 at 5.44pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Àlex Ollé, Christina, Jackie O, Jaqueline Kennedy, Madison Square Garden, Maria Callas, Norma, Onassis, President John F. Kennedy

This article has 9 comments

  1. Peter Williams responded on 7 October 2016 at 8:26pm Reply

    Saucy stuff

  2. Roy Chalmers responded on 10 October 2016 at 2:06pm Reply

    Correction: Her last performance of Norma was in Paris on 29 May 1965. She had to withdraw before the last act due to ill health.

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 10 October 2016 at 2:56pm

      Hi Roy,
      Yes, you are right. Thanks for spotting that. I've corrected the year.
      All best wishes,

  3. Raphael Pisano responded on 10 October 2016 at 2:27pm Reply

    Her last performances as Norma were in Paris in May 1965.
    She was unable to sing the entire opera on May 29th and the show was stopped after Norma/Adalgisa second duet.

  4. Alastair Macaulay responded on 10 October 2016 at 2:41pm Reply

    But (a) Callas had been singing Norma for some years before she sang it at Covent Garden (b) "Sgombra è la sacra selva" is not part of Norma's role.

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 10 October 2016 at 3:05pm

      Hi Alastair,
      Yes, Callas had performed the role many times elsewhere before Covent Garden. According to this performance history, her first performance was in Athens in 1938. You are also correct to point out that Sgombra è la sacra selva is sung by Adalgisa and not the title role. Apologies for any confusion caused.
      All best wishes,

  5. Brian Morgan responded on 10 October 2016 at 7:38pm Reply

    In 1938, Maria Callas sang the "Casta diva" from "Norma," not the entire opera, as the Performance History you mention makes clear.

  6. Rob Furber responded on 13 October 2016 at 6:50pm Reply

    My mother (who was a Callas "super fan" )always said her ability to perform was cut by 30% because Maria's heart was broken by Onassis. But she ALWAYS took the woman's side in everything - except; when women were arguing with her son. i.e ME

    • Talking about mothers...I remember my dad in the late fifties bought us a new “radio-with-stereo pick-up” as a gift to our family. One of my mother’s earliest acquisitions: “Norma"-I remember the first time I heard “Casta Diva” as a young child. Tragically for my father, my sister, and me, my mother drowned on 5 August 1980. She was only a few months older than Callas when she died. I’m sure she would have shared your mother’s views on “The Onassis Affair”. However, my hunch is, great artists like Callas would have little regard for such sentimentality!

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