On January 2, 1958, celebrated soprano Maria Callas walks off after the first act of a gala performance of Bellini’s Norma in Rome, claiming illness. The president of Italy and most of Rome’s high society were in the audience, and Callas, known for her volatile temperament, was sharply criticized. It was a characteristic move for the Greek-American diva, who packed as much drama into her personal life as she did on the stage.
Born in New York City in 1923 to Greek immigrants, Callas demonstrated her talent for singing at an early age. When she was 13, she went to Athens to study under the noted soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. Her first major operatic role came in 1947, when she appeared in La Gioconda in Verona. Acclaimed for a powerful soprano voice that lent itself to the difficult coloratura roles, she was soon appearing in opera houses around the world. Her talents made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works by Bellini and others that had not been performed for decades. In 1954, the “Divine Callas” made her American debut in Chicago in the title role of Norma, a performance she repeated before a record audience at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
Callas’ stormy personal life was closely watched and exaggerated by the press, as were her professional walkouts and tiffs with rivals. She divorced her husband of many years after becoming involved with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, but he later left her when he fell in love with the widowed Jackie Kennedy. In the 1970s, Callas’ career rapidly declined, and she died in 1977 from unknown causes at the age of 53.