Prima Donna: The Psychology of Maria Callas

Wink, Paul

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Feb-05-2021


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.  


The overall thesis of the author is that Callas had a narcissistic disorder whose origins may be traced to a lack of parental empathy, including her mother’s authoritarianism and her father’s inadequacy.  This narcissism was manifested in both grandiose and vulnerable aspects.  The grandiosity resulted in a sense of entitlement, contempt for others, and rage in response to any perceived slight.  The vulnerability resulted in a sense of feeling perennially exploited for her talent and unappreciated for her innate qualities.   The lack of integration or split between these two aspects led to a tendency to see the world in black and white terms.  It necessitated the use of others to prop up Callas’s fragility and deal with her unmet emotional needs.  

The above psychological framework sheds light on seemingly contradictory elements of Callas’s life.  It explains, for example, how she could so suddenly latch onto her husband (it was said she was so dependent on him that if he went out to buy a newspaper “it would take ages to calm her down again” [p. 137]), and then, just as suddenly, dispose of him.  It explains why she felt more alive than ever when with her powerful and charismatic lover, and how, once abandoned, became utterly deflated and never bounced back.  

The author also applies this framework to an understanding of his subject’s artistic ability.  He concludes that the narcissism that proved maladaptive in relationships fueled Callas’s relentless work ethic and pursuit of excellence.  It led, as well, to an uncanny ability to merge with operatic characters that heightened the effectiveness of her performances.  

Prima Donna does not purport to be a comprehensive biography.  The emphasis of this book is Maria Callas’s psychology. Her admirers might fear that something ineffable about her magical gift has been reduced here to psychopathology.  On the other hand, the author’s conclusions are logical, well thought out and clear.  This is a useful contribution to exploring the unconscious conflicts that underlie art, and to our appreciation of a performer with enduring appeal. 


Oxford University Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count


Secondary Source