Paul Wink

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Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Biography


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 exploits her.   

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 later, alone.  

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