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Once upon a time, there was a nearsighted girl who could sing like no other. Her name was Maria Callas. She came from troubled beginnings but grew up to become the most famous soprano in opera. Soon, she traveled the world, known simply as La Divina, the divine one, and moved audiences wherever she went.
Our Lady J is a musician and writer known for her visionary gospel stylings and powerhouse pianist skills. In 2013, she released her first studio album, “Picture Of A Man,” to critical acclaim and since then has delivered her new testament of post-religious gospel music to sold-out crowds around the world. OUT Magazine has named Our Lady J as one of their “Out 100,” and the Huffington Post honors her on their list of “transgender icons.” She is now a writer on Jill Soloway’s ground-breaking television show, “Transparent” and Ryan Murphy’s TV series “Pose.”
Once upon a time, there was a nearsighted girl who had a phenomenal voice. Her name was Maria.
Maria was born to an unhappy home. Her parents had moved to New York City from Greece just a few months before she was born. But her mother never wanted to leave her homeland. And, when she found out that her new baby was a girl? She didn’t want her either. Maria’s mother had longed for a boy who could replace her beloved son who had died. So Maria was a disappointment even before she could open her eyes.
Maria’s parents fought constantly– about money, about life in New York, and about their unrealized dreams. Her mother shouted. Her father slammed doors. And Maria didn’t get much love from her big sister either. Jackie was six years older. She was slimmer and more beautiful, and Maria was sure her mother liked her more.
So…Maria found comfort in music.
Her family had a gramophone. And her mother had a collection of opera records.
Maria listened to opera incessantly. She’d get swept away into the enchanting world of the music. And by the age of 5, she began to sing along.
Maria didn’t know what the words were— after all, she couldn’t speak Italian– but, on an emotional level she understood what they meant. Through singing, Maria could feel what she couldn’t share with her family: La Traviata taught her about love, from Tosca she learned despair, and Turandot showed her the power of a trusting heart.
And as she started to sing, something unusual happened… Her mother stopped and looked at her– in her dark eyes…as if for the first time.
She became convinced that Maria had something the world should hear.
And, she also realized that this awkward little girl’s voice could be the answer to her problems.
I’m OUR LADY J. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the extraordinary women that inspire us.
This week: Maria Callas.
<END THEME MUSIC>
NEW YORK CITY
At 7 years old, Maria started taking piano lessons four times a week. It was an expense that her mother insisted was worth it, even after the 1929 stock market crash left the family struggling for money.
One concession she did make was to no longer buy records. Instead, every week she’d take Maria and Jackie on the subway to the New York Public Library. There, she hoped to educate her girls in classic literature– something she never quite learned herself– but it was in the vast record collection where Maria got her true education.
When Maria would emerge from the subway and see the library stairs, she knew she was going to a sacred place. There, she listened to opera for hours. Sometimes she
would borrow a record from the library. Riding home on the crowded subway, where other kids held their mothers’ hands, Maria hugged the record, guarding it with her life…
When she was 10 years old, Maria performed in front of an audience for the first time– though she didn’t know it.
Maria was singing La Paloma and playing the piano in their apartment on 192nd street. As would happen throughout her life, Maria was utterly lost in the music. So she didn’t realize that a crowd had gathered outside the window. The people hung on every note and, when Maria finished, a rousing applause floated up from the street.
It was its own sort of music to her mother’s ears.
She realized people might actually pay money to hear this girl sing!
Soon, Maria’s mom became focused on turning her into a masterful opera singer, and the joy of singing became a job.
To Maria, her mother’s attention was both loving and demanding.
For the next couple of years, Maria was put in a variety of singing competitions which earned some money. But when she was 13, Maria’s mother made plans to return to Greece and get her daughter into the Athens Conservatory.
SAILING TO GREECE
In 1937, Maria and her mother boarded the luxurious Italian ocean liner, Saturnia, and left New York for Greece.
Maria was excited to go to her parents’ homeland. The crystal blue water, the white buildings, the olive trees had all filled her imagination. As for leaving New York? Since Maria had no friends, she didn’t feel the kind of loss that another 13-year-old girl might feel.
Besides, maybe life in Greece would be better…
One day, the captain of the ship heard Maria singing Ave Maria. He asked her to sing for a private party for first class passengers.
The night of the party, Maria was gripped with the twin emotions that would become all too familiar to her throughout her career. Hope and dread. She was thrilled by the prospect of singing for an audience– of bringing forth the magic she felt when she sang. At the same time, she was panicked that she’d forget the words and that she couldn’t fulfill what was expected of her.
That night, in front of the ship’s captain and his elegant guests, Maria sat down at the piano. She took off her glasses and began to get lost in the music.
She started with La Paloma…went on to Ave Maria and…
…she ended with Habanera– an aria from Carmen.
Because Maria was nearsighted, without her glasses she couldn’t see the faces of her audience. But she could feel that they were with her. Captivated. And so, as she reached a crescendo in the final aria, she plucked a carnation from the vase on the piano and tossed it to the captain with a flourish.
The party-goers– in their tuxes and gowns– went wild!
Maria was more than a mesmerizing voice. She was a natural performer. <END CARMEN>
In Greece, Maria’s mother wasted no time. Not yet ready for the older –more reputable- – Athens Conservatory, Maria auditioned for a teacher with the Greek National Conservatory. The teacher was taken with this little bespectacled girl with pimples and a passionate voice. She helped Maria’s mom convince the school that she was actually 16 years old instead of 13. And her formal studies began.
Quickly, Maria’s life was all music…all the time.
Before Athens, the drive and ambition to be a world-class opera singer came from her mother– now… it was coming from inside of Maria.
She was a fanatical, uncompromising student. At home, she rarely got up from the piano — determined to perfect the latest aria she was learning.
But she was also terribly anxious and insecure. She had a bad habit of biting her nails when she wasn’t singing. She didn’t carry herself with the sort of confidence that an opera singer needed to command attention. Maria still compared herself to her sister. She felt clumsy and avoided eye contact. She was shy around strangers.
All things that her biggest mentor would soon address..
<INSERT NORMA “Casta Diva” OPERA CUE HERE — starts with 1:24 of music which can be a bed and then swell to her vocals after this section>
By 1940, the Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo was teaching at the Athens Conservatory and Maria changed schools to become her student. De Hidalgo saw in this young girl a raw, passionate talent and an untapped intellect who understood music at a deep level.
De Hidalgo had the ‘bel canto’ technique — a lyrical style of singing that was quite technical –which she taught Maria.
Every day, she would go to Elvira de Hidalgo’s studio first thing in the morning and stay til 8 at night. Maria would sit in on all the other students’ lessons, learning as much from watching others as from singing herself. In that studio, she learned to “play” her voice much as she learned to play the keys of a piano.
Soon, her mind was filled day and night with the runs, the rhythms, and the phrasing of the bel canto operas.
<INSERT NORMA OPERA CUE HERE — starts with 1:24 of music which can be a bed and then swell to her vocals after this section>
With de Hidalgo, Maria also learned to embody the characters in the operas. She learned how to carry herself, how to dress, how to believe in herself as the hero of the story at the heart of the music.
She stopped biting her nails and started using her long hands to draw the audience in. She held her chest, she stretched out her arms…
She had transformed from a clumsy, ugly duckling to a graceful, audacious swan who commanded the audience’s attention the moment she took the stage.
<SWELL VOICE HERE from NORMA>
LA DIVINA IS BORN
In 1947, Maria Callas performed in Italy for the first time and with that, fans christened her La Divina. The divine one.
It was a name that stuck.
But the love wasn’t immediate or universal.
In Italy, the birthplace of opera, fans are as passionate about opera singers as they are about soccer teams. And for purists, Callas didn’t fit. Her vocal style was about the emotional truth of the music. She strived for precision and beauty, but her voice didn’t have that classical tone that was the norm. She was a shock to traditionalists.
Maria saw herself as a vessel for the music and the feelings in the operatic story. If you went along for the ride with her, you could be carried away. But you had to be willing.
One person who was not so willing, was the manager of Teatro Alla Scala in Milan– the most prestigious opera house in the world. He refused to put her on stage– preferring instead the singer Renata Tebaldi. A soprano whose voice was perfect in the most classical sense. Compared to Callas, Tebaldi’s voice was warm and reassuring.
<TEBALDI MUSIC (alt: a Callas song…)>
The media and the opera world often pitted the Tebaldi and Callas against each other. Maria didn’t like the comparison, and made no mystery of it.
“It is like comparing champagne with cognac. No, with Coca-Cola”, she once said.
In some ways, she didn’t see herself in the same class as Tebaldi. Maria could sing mighty, dramatic declarations on a Wednesday and switch to cheery romantic arias on Thursday. No other soprano alive at the time was doing that!
So why compare her to anyone!
DEBUT AT EL TEATRO ALLA SCALA
Maria Callas began to travel the world, and she found fans everywhere. People would stand in line for days– even camp out on sidewalks– to buy tickets just to sit in the upper reaches of the balcony if they got the chance to see La Divina.
Members of the orchestra who usually stay seated would rise in applause at the end of a Callas performance.
Finally, after she had proven herself in other great cities, Maria was offered the opportunity to debut on the stage at La Scala. It was an honor, because Milan regards opera as a religion– where opening night of the opera season was a sacred event. It was December 1951. Two thousand people filled the magnificent theater. The anticipation was palpable.
When Maria Callas came out on stage, it was her greatest challenge to stay present and confident. That night she sang Verdi’s opera “I vespri siciliani .
<INSERT Verdi‘s I vespri siciliani o>
…The audience hung on every note and every word. Her voice carried them away to a place full of passion, rage, joy, and love. She was everything this city of opera lovers could have hoped for.
And by the end, the people inside La Scala jumped to their feet, clapping and shouting. They showered the stage with roses.
The following year she returned to La Scala to open the opera season once again, this time playing Lady Macbeth. It was a role that was well suited to her harsh, choked, dark voice.
From that moment on, she was the reigning queen of La Scala.
Still, Maria Callas had her critics. There were those who hated the way her voice might wobble at certain registers. When she didn’t hold a note as long as expected, they were harsh. It was not uncommon for people to stand in line for tickets just so they could boo her.
And while her fans threw roses, her critics would throw things too.
One night, when she was performing La Traviata in Milan, a thump on the stage was heard.
Someone had thrown a bunch of radishes at the feet of Maria Callas. La Divina did not hesitate. She picked them up, held them out to the audience, and took the most dramatic bow.
Callas said that she didn’t argue with her critics. After all, she was probably her own worst critic. She said that there were two sides to her– the creator and the critic– and one side demanded greatly of the other.
Maybe too much.
By the mid-1960’s, Maria was losing her love of performing. Her relentless perfectionism was sucking all of the joy out of it.
Maria could practice one phrase of a song over and over and over again for an hour and if it wasn’t better than the last time she sang it, she’d practice some more.
She would say that “the art is to give what’s most difficult with the greatest ease. That’s great art.”
By 1965, the ease was gone and so was the art.
The voice would not obey her any longer…
RETURN TO GREECE- FINAL SCENE
But in 1961 Maria Callas returned to perform one last time in her beloved Greece…
It was in the ancient outdoor amphitheatre Epidaurus, where Callas would play the title role of Medea in the opera based on a Greek tragedy about a wife who seeks revenge on her unfaithful husband.
It was a fierce role with power and range. Perfect for Maria.
Even though she was born in New York City and spent much of her career in Italy, she was still greeted as their own hero.
The dress rehearsals were opened to villagers in the immediate area. And from early in the morning, the flow of traffic from Athens to Epidaurus was altered to allow for more cars to get to the ancient amphitheatre before nightfall.
Thousands of people crammed into the ancient amphitheater’s worn stone seats, and many more gathered on nearby hillsides or climbed up trees surrounding the venue.
Everyone wanted the chance to hear the awkward little girl who grew into La Divina, with the powerful voice that captivated the world.