Maria Callas, the most famous opera singer of the second
half of the 20th century, continues to exert a fascination. Critical consensus is that Callas fused a technically
flawed voice with an extraordinary stage presence to create something
unique. More than forty years after her
death, Callas’s recordings continue to be best-sellers, and her life has
inspired dozens of biographies. Prima
Donna: The Psychology of Maria Callas appears in Oxford University Press’s
Inner Lives series, which consists of psychobiographies of artists that make
use of current psychological theory and research. The focus of author Paul Wink, a psychology
professor at Wellesley College, is adult development and narcissism.
The facts of Callas’s life are well known. She is born in
New York City to an ill-matched Greek immigrant couple. Her father is barely able to keep a roof over
their heads. Her mother Litza struggles
to get over the death of an infant son, requiring hospitalization for a suicide
attempt. As the story goes, Litza cannot bring herself to look at her new
daughter for the first four days of her life.
Litza, who imagines herself in a lofty social class, disdains their
neighbors, and thus Maria is discouraged from playing with other children. When Maria is discovered to have talent, Litza
As Litza’s marriage deteriorates, she brings Maria back to
Greece. With the onset of World War II,
they endure hardships. Yet, improbably,
the overweight and awkward Maria shows a streak of brilliance. She is the hardest working student at the
conservatory, quickly outpacing her peers.
On Maria’s first day in Italy, where she gets her first big break, she
meets a businessman who is more than twice her age. Within weeks they are a couple. For a time, she allows Litza to share in her
success, even buying her a fur coat. But
soon, in response to a request for money, she tells her mother to “jump out of
the window or drown yourself” (p. 78), and then never speaks to her again.
Maria loses weight and transforms into the operatic
counterpart to Audrey Hepburn. She
enjoys one operatic triumph after another. Nevertheless, she becomes as famous
for her bellicose and imperious behavior as for her singing. She kicks a colleague in the shin after a
performance so she can take a solo bow. She is publicly fired from the
Metropolitan Opera. She incurs scandal
by suddenly canceling a performance at which the president of Italy is present.
When the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis courts her, Callas
unceremoniously rids herself of her husband.
Soon, her technical flaws catch up with her, and her career dwindles
away. Meanwhile, Onassis goes for a
bigger trophy: Jacqueline Kennedy, and Callas is humiliated in the press. Voiceless, she exiles herself to Paris with
her two poodles, develops an addiction to sleeping pills, and dies a decade
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