“Diva” is a word used rather freely these days to describe those whose talents are matched or exceeded by their tendency to maximize the drama in every situation. But the term originated in the world of opera as shorthand for divina, or “goddess”—a label reserved for the greatest of female singers. It was in this original sense that the term was first applied to the great soprano Maria Callas, one of the most popular and important figures in opera in the postwar era. But if any performer in modern opera history embodied the label “diva” in all of its senses, it was Callas. One of the biggest opera celebrities of all time, Maria Callas—”La Divina” to her fans—died on this day in 1977 at the age of 53.
Born in New York City in 1923 and raised there until her she was 14, Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou returned with her mother and siblings to her mother’s native Athens in 1937, where she spent the war years studying music and performing professionally to support her family. Though she was a sensation in Europe by the time the war ended, Callas did not find immediate success after making her way back to America in the late 1940s. Significantly overweight since childhood, Callas effected a dramatic physical transformation in her early 30s that fundamentally altered the trajectory of her career. She dropped more than 70 pounds over the course of three years in the mid-1950s, becoming, in the words of Time magazine, “Svelte, successful…a diva more widely hated by her colleagues and more wildly acclaimed by her public than any other living singer.”
The reputation to which Time referred was earned through years of backstage battles with costars and Callas’ habit of grabbing solo curtain calls at every opportunity. A public spat with a rival soprano at La Scala in Milan turned parts of the Italian audience against her, but Callas not only endured their hissing during her performances, but acknowledged her detractors from the stage, staring them down dramatically with arms raised triumphantly during multiple curtain calls after one bravura performance.
Callas finally conquered America in the late 1950s, becoming not only opera’s biggest live draw, but also its most successful recording artist since Enrico Caruso. Though critics generally agree that Callas’ voice became weaker as a result of her rapid weight loss in the 1950s, it was always her dramatic stage presence and intense emotionality, rather than her voice per se, that helped her connect so strongly with audiences.