Derek Parker celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Maria Callas

It was during the Second World War, in German-occupied Athens, that Maria Callas began her career as a professional singer. Born in New York in 1923, she had been brought to Greece by her domineering mother after her parents’ divorce, and at fourteen was enrolled in the Greek National Conservatoire. In 1939 she sang in public for the first time at a students’ concert – choosing for her début an aria from Tosca.

This led to performances in small roles at the Greek National Opera, and she continued to sing professionally during the German occupation – the only way in which she could curry favour with the Nazis and obtain food. But it was only by fleeing to America during the following civil war did she avoid being murdered by the Communists, who executed collaborators – including Greece’s most prominent actress, Eleni Papadaki. Callas’s career failed to prosper in New York, however; her first public success was in the arena at Verona, where, championed by the conductor Tullio Serafin, she triumphed as La Gioconda. But it was in 1949, at La Fenice in Venice, in the role of Elvira in I Puritani, that she gave a performance the magnificence of which sent ripples throughout the European opera scene and as far away as the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The rest of her story celebrates her as the soprano who became defined as the finest female singer of the twentieth century (with the possible exception of Chaliapin), although her career was not without self-inflicted problems. Almost as legendary an enthusiast for pasta as for music, she allowed herself to become obese, and when persuaded reluctantly to take action, within a year went to the other extreme, losing eighty pounds (36 kg).

Some critics said that her voice suffered because of the dramatic weight loss, but she also became the most beautiful woman on the opera stage. More damaging was her nine years’ affair with the Greek shipping owner Aristotle Onassis. She gave up singing for seven years, hoping that he would marry her, but he rejected her in favour of Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the assassinated American President. She resumed her career, but her voice had lost some of its assurance, though her stage presence remained phenomenal, its apogee in her appearance opposite her friend Tito Gobbi, in Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca.

Apart from her extraordinary voice – utterly individual, and always under astonishing control despite its tremendous force which could almost become stridency – she had an incomparable acting technique, and a stage personality only rivalled by the dancer Rudolf Nureyev. No matter how obscure her entrance, one’s eyes flew to her the moment she appeared, and never left her while she was on-stage. No female singer has equalled her in voice or performance; no-one who was at one of her performances can ever forget her.