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Ask the author: Lyndsy Spence on Maria Callas


Maria Callas is one of opera’s greatest talents, and yet so much of her life is lost when we focus solely on Callas the artist and ignore Maria the woman. We spoke to Lyndsy Spence, author of Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas, about Maria’s legacy…

What drew you to Maria’s story?

I have been a fan of Maria Callas for over 15 years and I had read everything written about her. As a young girl, I never felt like I knew Maria, the woman, from reading her story. She was always overshadowed by Callas the ‘diva’ and the company she kept. My instincts always told me there was more to Maria than what we knew. So, as I grew older and made a career as a biographer, I thought it was time to delve into her true story. Maria’s story.

What surprised you most during the research process?

I was surprised that all of my instincts were correct. During the research process, I would have certain feelings about her life and then find the documents to support it. That felt supernatural but Maria herself said she was completely instinctive! We’re similar in that way. My astrologer friend joked that I’m a ‘clairvoyant biographer’ who’s hung up on solid facts. I never speculate and I question everything. But I think I was surprised by how ordinary she could be behind the scenes: she’s so relatable in that she loved gossiping, watching soaps, reading horoscopes, and playing with her dogs. That’s the Maria I love.

What’s one misconception of Maria you’d like to correct?

There were several but namely that she was a diva in the derogatory sense of the word. She was not. She was a total professional and like-minded colleagues loved working with her and respected her. I’d like to correct the misconceptions that her husband, Battista Meneghini, made her career and without him she’d be nothing. There’s another misconception that she lived entirely for Aristotle Onassis and that she lost her voice because of him. That does a disservice to not only Maria, the woman, but Callas, the artist. Callas’s voice was a force of nature and a mere mortal such as Onassis could not destroy it. On a similar note, she did not die of a broken heart. The idea that her life was as big as an opera really disrespects Maria because during her lifetime very few took her suffering seriously, they believed it was all part of the prima donna act. In fact, she attempted to share her story and wanted to be understood, but many could not see past the vision they had created of her. Can you imagine how claustrophobic that was and how lonely she felt?

Almost 50 years since her death, do you think the way we treat celebrities like Maria has changed?

I don’t think so, the media and public love to take an exceptionally gifted person, build them up only to tear them down. With Maria, she was being gaslit by her husband and he leaked things to the press without her knowing. So, although she tried to have a private life away from the limelight, those who were supposed to protect her really let her down. The same with her mother and sister, and others, they all exploited her. She continues to be exploited to this day and I felt like I had to fight to protect her. However, I think there is a good platform to discuss certain injustices, particularly when it comes to women from all walks of life, and that is why Maria’s story is so relevant. People might not be able to relate to the exceptional talent of Callas but they’ll find common ground with Maria.

How would you like Maria to be remembered?

As a human being.

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