Vissi d’arte

Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend

by Arianna Stassinopoulos
Simon & Schuster, 383 pp., $15.95

Callas: Les Images d'une Voix

by Sergio Segalini
Editions Van de Velde, Paris, 171 pp., 102 francs

Diva: The Life and Death of Maria Callas

by Steven Linakis
Prentice-Hall, 200 pp., $10.95

Maria Callas: A Tribute

by Pierre-Jean Rémy, translated by Catherine Atthill
St. Martin's, 192 pp., $12.95

The Callas Legacy

by John Ardoin
Scribner's, 224 pp., $3.95

When Maria Callas died unexpectedly in 1977, two portraits were found in her Paris apartment. One was of Elvira de Hidalgo, a leading opera singer who became Callas’s teacher in Athens between 1940 and 1945 and first identified her proclivity for the bel canto repertory, taught her the technique with exemplary thoroughness, and taught her above all how to study. The other portrait was of the legendary diva Maria Malibran, who was among the first to triumph in that repertory during the 1820s and 1830s. These were icons to the professional Callas. There were no pictures of friends, relatives, or lovers.

Though certainly never the sort of person given to sentimental gestures, Callas once took a special flight to Brussels to visit Malibran’s grave. In a way, she ought to have identified more closely with Malibran’s rival Giuditta Pasta, the greatest dramatic singer of her time. It was of Pasta of whom it was said that with three notes she could stir an audience to the depth of its being; it was for Pasta that Bellini wrote the role of Norma, the most important as well as the most frequent of Callas’s roles. But no doubt de Hidalgo spoke less of Pasta than of Malibran—another Spaniard, and a member of the formidable García family of singers and teachers to whom de Hidalgo could trace her artistic lineage.

Moreover, Malibran led what is called a “tempestuous” life, while Pasta’s life was orderly. Malibran broke with her domineering father and had two husbands and two illegitimate children by the time she died at the age of twenty-eight, as the result of incautious exertions following a riding accident. Her behavior on stage was unpredictable, but her appearance was always hypnotic. Pasta was dumpy. It is not surprising that a dozen books have been written about Malibran and only one, it seems, about Pasta.

Malibran biographies are still being written, the most recent of them in 1979:1 a bad omen for the bulging Callas bibliography. A dozen books about Callas had been produced even before her death, and that occasion signaled the preparation of many more. Arianna Stassinopoulos writes what seems to be designed as an official biography, bolstered by new information furnished by friends and associates, and supplemented by a fascinating collection of informal photographs. Sergio Segalini produces a conventional picture book, more comprehensive but less beautiful than the picture section of Callas, by John Ardoin and Gerald Fitzgerald, still the best general book on the subject.2 Steven Linakis, a cousin who fell out with her over her treatment of her mother, offers little more than a hostile memoir of the Callas he scarcely knew in later life. Pierre-Jean Rémy, on the contrary, follows in the well-trod footsteps of her many admirers and enthusiasts.

Rémy also has a special idea about the Callas phenomenon: for him this is to be construed as a myth of woman’s destruction by man. Off stage he sees her victimized by her husband, her agent…

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