Mary, the girl from Athens

Mary, the girl from Athens

Little is known about the apprenticeship years of "Mary" Kalogeropoulou, later Maria Callas, in occupied Athens during World War II, where she had to navigate hunger, Nazi officers, and her ambitions as an artist.

young mary maria callas

On April 2, 1939, the newspaper Elefteron Vima (The Free Tribune) published for the first time a photo of the very young Mary Kalogeropoulou when it announced the performance of Cavalleria rusticana scheduled for that evening at the Olympia Theatre in Athens. She would be performing the part of Santuzza. It was the stage debut of the future Maria Callas, just fifteen years and four months old, who before that performance, given by the students of the National Conservatory, she had begun to make her name for herself in several concerts.

Mary had arrived in Athens from New York with her mother Evangelia on March 7, 1937. Rising tension with her husband had prompted Evangelia to leave the United States, where the couple had moved in 1923: driven by an obsession to make her daughter successful and achieve social status, she mistakenly counted on the support of her mother's family to settle in Athens and have Mary study singing. Soon, however, the three women found themselves alone in precarious economic conditions, which they overcame thanks to Miltiadis Embirikos, heir to a ship-owning family who had begun an affair with Yakinthi, or "Jackie," Mary's older sister. He took care of, among other things, rent for their fifth-floor apartment at 61 Patission Street, an art deco building a block from the Archaeological Museum.

A shrewd manipulator, "Litsa" in New York had already started to encourage Mary's passion for singing, paying for a few lessons and entering her daughter into various radio contests. Mary immediately entered the National Conservatory in Athens and joined the singing class of the Greek Maria Trivella, who steered her toward the spinto repertoire, but after an audition she went on to study privately with Elvira de Hidalgo, a famous Spanish soprano established in Greece. Mary's teenage years were not easy: she didn't know much Greek at first and was plagued by acne and embarrassment because of her poverty, a stout build and tendency to gain weight, which would later increase in Italy. So, she poured her ambition for success into studying singing. Then there was her severe near-sightedness. But she was gifted with formidable memory and musicality and great tenacity and managed to turn that defect into a strength, learning entire scores to perfection and showing up for rehearsals without having to rely on the conductor's hand gestures.

Between the end of 1939, when she moved to the more selective Athens Conservatory where De Hidalgo taught, and 1943 with her professional debut in Tosca, the foundations of Maria Callas' future career were laid. As she studied at the Conservatory, she quickly and thoroughly learned the bel canto technique and style with Elvira de Hidalgo. After her private lessons, which she was given for free, Mary often stayed to listen to the other students. The simultaneous development of the sovracuto register and a powerful grave register offered Mary an amazing versatility of repertoire, from light repertoire, such as Lakmé or Rigoletto, to some parts of Mozart and Rossini, and even the more spinto operas, from Gioconda to Norma or the great aria of Rezia from Oberon. Mary became increasingly aware of the extraordinary nature of her vocal gifts, as did her teachers, conductors, directors and peers. At her teacher's invitation, she also studied Italian, although she often sang in Greek, including the whole Austro-German repertoire.

Her remarkable progress on piano was not matched with equal interest in harmony and subjects not directly related to singing and theatre. Some problems that were destined to persist were also already evident, like the "strange" colour of her voice, which was very powerful but had a marked differentiation in registers that wasn't always evenly balanced, and the tendency to sway on some high notes, which was almost erased by De Hidalgo's exercises. Thanks to her strict discipline and despite her aggressive temperament and strained relations with her mother, Mary began to thrive and come into her own on the Athenian stage. First in Puccini's Suor Angelica, a piano recital in June 1940 in the Great Hall of the Athens Conservatory of Music, then in her professional debut in February 1941 at the Pallas Theatre with the National Opera, playing the small part of Beatrice in Franz von Suppé's Boccaccio.

Her first real breakthrough came in July 1943 with three performances of Puccini's Tosca, a part that would define her career, in the open-air theatre of the National Opera, a success that would be followed by recitals and concerts.

The Italian invasion and subsequent German occupation did not interrupt Mary's career, but rather offered her great opportunities and earned her envy and hostility. Mary now spoke fluent Italian, and to support herself, she took occasional jobs in some Athenian night clubs frequented by officers, where she sang Greek songs, Leoncavallo's "Mattinata", and "Paloma," her favourite song as a child. With other singers Mary took part in the various concerts organized by the Casa del Fascio, the local branch of the Fascist Party, for which the performers were paid, by choice, in foodstuffs, invaluable during the most difficult months of the conflict when people in Athens risked starving to death. Mary's own family was industrious when it came to scraping together eggs or some very rare cut of meat. Among the opera-loving Italian soldiers, Mary had gained several admirers, including Major Attilio De Stasio, who was much older than her. She likely forged a sentimental friendship with him as he favoured her.

In September 1943, the German contingent laid a shroud of oppression over Athens, with continued episodes of brutality even towards civilians. At the time, however, thanks in part to the admiration of journalist Friederich Herzog, who worked for German propaganda, Mary was given three new parts with the National Opera: Maria in Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland, sung for eight performances at the Olympia Theatre between April 22 and May 10, 1944, which gave her acclaim as both a singer and actress, followed by two performances in O Protomastoras, a contemporary opera by the Greek Manolis Kalomiris. The third great success was Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio: Mary, now a soloist for the National Opera, sang Leonora in eleven performances between August 14 and September 10, 1944, at the Herodes Atticus Theatre, conducted by the German Hans Hörner, who was astonished that the soprano had also memorized the other parts of the opera. In those productions, the soprano was accompanied by prominent Greek artists, director Renato Mordo, tenor Antonis Delendas, and especially baritone Evangelos Magliveras, with whom she formed an emotional bond.

Liberation came a few days after the end of Fidelio. Leadership of the Opera changed, and Mary received a three-month furlough, during which she found a small job as an interpreter with the British command. The following months, with civil war looming, were difficult. Resentment from various colleagues due to her achievements was compounded by the risk of being blacklisted by the Communist partisans, who controlled the Patission Street area. Mary endured a violent confrontation with some colleagues that even came to blows, but within a few weeks the situation reached an armed truce. Lieutenant Raymond Morgan, who had met Mary when the British contingent arrived in Athens, shared his fears, which were certainly well-founded following the indiscriminate hunting of artists considered collaborators and the murder of actress Eleni Papadaki, with whom Mary had worked. While it is true that she had been nonchalant during the occupation to find work, rumours about Mary's assiduous association with German officers were unfounded, as was the claim that she had collaborated with the British secret services, which she later confirmed herself.

Her time in Athens, although documented, carries the most gaps in the story of Maria Callas. Her records at the National Opera disappeared, and perhaps this 100th anniversary could be a chance for some valuable details to emerge. In 1945, Mary sang again in Tiefland and in some concerts. At a gala at the American base in Ellenikon, near Athens, on March 30, 1945, she appeared for the first time as Mary Callas. With the new National Theatre contract, Mary was demoted in rank. At that point, eager to see her father again, to whom she had written several times, Mary decided to return to the United States to turn her career around. The decision to leave materialized after performances of Millöcker's operetta Der Bettelstudent, in which Mary upended a rival's scheming to replace her and sent the audience into a rapture with Laura's brilliant aria. On September 14, 1945, she left for New York, ignoring Elvira de Hidalgo's advice to move to Italy. She would land there two years later, launching the "great career" of Maria Callas, who despite what it may have seemed, was not born a singer from nothing on the stage of the Arena di Verona. On the contrary, she had been trained as an artist over seven long years of study and professional performances in Greece.

Andrea Penna