Maria Callas’s Illness
Thirty-seven years after her death, Maria Callas (1923-1977) continues to fascinate. Her last recordings were made fifty years ago, and she remains among EMI’s top sellers to this day. She is better known today as the long time mistress of Aristotle Onassis, who left her for Mrs.Kennedy. Books have proliferated, pre-Onassis, during Onassis, post-Onassis. One of the most intriguing is study of her youth in Athens, during World War II and the Greek Civil War. Maria Callas The Unknown Years by Nicholas Petsalis-Diomedes explains Callas’s hatred of her own mother. Mama Callas was not above pimping her daughters to German soldiers in return for food.
This is Callas in 1949:
Nicolas Gage’s book Greek Fire broke the story of Callas’s son by Onassis, a baby named Omero who lived for a few hours only, back in 1960. Her voice by then had shrunk in range and breadth. Formidable performances were still ahead, but by 1965 Callas had left the stage, at the age of 42. It’s accepted by many that her sudden death at the age of 53 was a suicide. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Now comes a report that the diva did not die of a broken heart shortly after the death of Aristotle Onassis. She had briefly returned to singing. There a disastrous world tour with tenor Giuseppe DiStefano. He crooned or shouted, she gave more than a few flashes of the great Callas, but not enough to encourage her to continue. Interestingly, in the last scrap we have of her voice, singing Beethoven’s Ah Perfido! a few months before she died, she sounds like her old powerful self.
Here she is in 1973 High notes okay, middle of the voice gone.
It is now reported that Callas suffered from dermatomyosistis, “a rare disease that affects muscles and tissues”. So are the findings of Professors Franco Fussi and Nico Paolini at the University of Bologna. “The disease was very rare at the time…Dermatomyosistis developed very slowly, and leads to atrophy of certain muscles and tissues. It’s possible to affect the muscles of the larynx, neck and pharynx and the muscles of respiration.”
Callas visited Dr. Marco Giacovazzo in Rome in 1975. She had been treated with cortisone and anti-inflamatory drugs. Her voice during the 1973-74 tour is shot, but as noted there’s significant improvement by 1976. Would proper medical care have enabled a return to her career? We’ll never know.