Maria Callas would have turned 100 today, on the 2nd December, and we remember her with #CallasWeek, one of our special highlights, which will start on Monday 4th December! In the meantime, we are happy to host a contribution from Stella Kourmpana, Head of the Athens Conservatoire Archives, with an article about the importance of the Athens Conservatoire in the formation of Maria Callas as one of the most important, and most beloved, opera singers of all times.
By Stella Kourmpana, Head of the Athens Conservatoire Archives
100 years after her birth, Maria Callas continues to be an absolute myth in Opera, as this unique Greek soprano changed the paradigm of artistic interpretation, altering the way in which opera is performed. Even those who do not listen to this genre of music at least know her name; however, how many are aware that Callas only studied music in Greece, and nowhere else?
The Athens Conservatoire Historical Concert Hall (Athens Conservatoire Archives, Conservatoire Historical Archives).
Anna Maria Sophia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou was actually born in New York, in December 1923, where her parents and her sister had moved four months earlier from the village of Meligalas, in the Peloponnese. Although she wouldn't travel to Greece before the beginning of 1937, the years she spent in Athens (1937-1945) proved to be the most critical of her life. In Athens, she pursued her music studies and took her first professional steps in the opera scene.
In the fall of 1939, after a brief stint at the National Conservatory, Maria Callas - then going by the name of Marianna Kalogeropoulou - enrolled in the advanced solo singing class by Elvira de Hidalgo, the prominent Spanish coloratura soprano, at the Athens Conservatoire. The Athens Conservatoire was the oldest and most significant music educational institution in the capital, and since its establishment in 1871 aimed to provide high-level music education, comparable to that of the other European conservatories. Even the most talented students were required to follow the full curriculum, without exceptions; Callas, in addition to singing lessons (solo and dramatic), attended all the compulsory classes of Solfeggio, Harmony, Music History, and Piano. In order to become a good singer, she had to first become a complete musician. The Athens Conservatoire aimed not to train people who would play music, but to create artists.
Maria Callas and Elvira de Hidalgo at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in 1957 (Athens Conservatoire Archives, Stathis Arfanis Archive-Collection).
This deep respect for the art of music was also a trait of young Maria herself. She was extremely diligent and disciplined, studious, and intelligent. She arrived at the Conservatoire at 10am in the morning and left at 6pm in the evening, attending classes with all her classmates. 'I did not need to tell her something twice. The next day she had learned it perfectly,' said De Hidalgo. What would later allow Callas to have such a broad repertoire and sing everything, was the combination of her unquenchable thirst for learning with a humility towards music. However, if she hadn't had the fortune to be at the Athens Conservatoire and to meet De Hidalgo, perhaps she would not have reached such heights. “To this brilliant Spanish artist, I owe all my artistic, drama, and musical training,' she said about her teacher.
Maria Callas' Examination Record on Monody of the Academic Year 1939-40 (Athens Conservatoire Archives, Conservatoire Historical Archives).
Callas attended the Athens Conservatoire for four years, interrupting her studies in 1943, shortly before leaving for America), having secured a scholarship that provided her with free lessons. Meanwhile, she had been employed at the National Lyric Stage (Εθνική Λυρική Σκηνή), where she sang leading roles in well-known operas such as “Tosca”, “Fidelio”, and “The Master Builder” by Manolis Kalomiris. Her years of study coincided with the difficult years of the German Occupation. During the harsh winter of 1941-42, cold and hunger decimated the population of the capital. People ate soup in charity canteens, or bought food from the black market. Callas had to walk kilometers to illegally secure her daily food from villagers, who risked execution if caught by the Germans. Repercussions from the Occupation had cost her so much that for the rest of her life, she ws no able to spend recklessly, or to allow a piece of bread to go wasted.
It was in these adverse conditions that her musical personality was shaped. It is possible that these difficulties gave her yet another reason to devote herself to what she knew best: singing. As she said, singing was an attempt to ascend to the heavens, which eventually she managed to reach, becoming one of the best opera singers of all times. The education provided by the Athens Conservatoire, was what helped her transform from Mariana Kalogeropoulou to Maria Callas
(In the pic, Maria Callas around 1940, Athens Conservatoire Archives, Stathis Arfanis Archive-Collection)
In June 1947, Callas performed in “Gioconda” at the arena in Verona, marking her first major success, which opened the doors to her international career. The maestro of the opera was Tulio Serafin, a figure who, like De Hidalgo, would mark her artistic path. Quickly, she conquered the entire lyrical world in Europe and America. Her talent and the truth with which she interpreted each role, made her stand out and touched even the most inexperienced listener. In her uniqueness, Callas reminded to the world that true art is for everyone.
A Museum dedicated to Maria Callas has now opened in Athens, you can find all the information here