Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Orthodoxy of Maria Callas: 12 Facts

By John Sanidopoulos

While vacationing in Paris back in 2016, on my last full day before returning home, I decided to visit the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, where you can visit many of the elaborate graves of well-known personalities from the past who died in Paris. Among the dozen or so that I eagerly wanted to see was that of Maria Callas, the renowned Greek-American opera singer. With map in hand, I visited each grave that I could locate, and the last on my list was that of Maria Callas. Hers was the most difficult to find, taking me about a good 45-minutes of searching. I finally found someone to ask, who pointed me to the location. I was told however that her body is not here, though it was originally, and what is merely left is a memorial. When I inquired as to what happened to her body, I was informed that she was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Aegean Sea. Since cremation is typically frowned upon in the Greek Orthodox Church, it got me thinking as to whether or not she died an Orthodox Christian. That night in my hotel room I did a brief search on the internet about this, and found some interesting things scattered in various sources. I found it interesting enough to write something about it when I returned home.

More than two years passed, and I had not written anything about the matter. Finally, last week, I watched an excellent documentary at a local theater by Tom Volf called Maria By Callas, the first film to tell the life story of Maria Callas, and it does it in her own words. Fascinated and inspired, I finally got myself to write the article I wanted to write a few years ago. Here are twelve facts that I found about the Orthodoxy of Maria Callas. This is not her biography, but a supplement to her biography, nor is it a psychological, ethical or spiritual analysis.

1. Maria was born on December 2, 1923 in Astoria, New York. The name on Callas's New York birth certificate is Sophie Cecilia Kalos. She was born to Greek parents George Kalogeropoulos and Evangelia. Although she was baptized Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos, Callas's father had shortened the surname Kalogeropoulos first to "Kalos" and subsequently to "Callas" in order to make it more manageable. Maria was baptized three years after her birth at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan in 1926. She did not have a normal childhood, as her mother pushed her to excel as a singer, which Maria would later resent her for.

2. In 1957, when she was 35 years old and at the height of her fame, she was introduced to Aristotle Onassis. She had been married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini for ten years. They had married in Italy. Aristotle Onassis invited her on his yacht, the “Christina”, with her husband, where they traveled throughout Greece. Maria and Aristotle soon came to fall in love with each other, but the moral Maria resisted him as much as she could for the sake of her marriage.

3. On August 7th they dropped anchor at the foot of Mount Athos. The next day Maria and Aristotle were received by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who asked them to kneel side by side to receive his blessing; calling them "the world's greatest singer and the greatest seaman of the modern world, the new Ulysses." When he thanked them for the honors they had brought to the Greek world, Maria's eyes filled with tears. It was as if he were performing a solemn marriage ceremony. Somehow she felt he brought her God's permission to be together with Ari, and her last resistance crumbled. After that they were man and wife in their minds, and a few hours later, while in Istanbul, in their bodies. By the end of the trip, both her marriage to Meneghini and Aristotle's to Tina were in effect over. Her husband later recalled that after this day, Maria completely changed.

4. Soon after Maria and Giovanni separated, and it was not until Maria gave up her American citizenship and became a Greek citizen in 1966 that she was able to divorce him, since under Greek law a Greek could only legally marry in a Greek Orthodox church, and Italian law did not allow divorce too easily. As for Onassis, he will marry Jackie Kennedy without even telling Maria, who had hoped to give up her singing career and become his Greek wife. She would never recover from her loss. Aristotle would even say that he still loved Maria more than Jackie.

5. In an interview, Maria Callas once shared her most frequent prayer: “God give me what you see fit – good or bad – but give me also the strength to bear it.” She often spoke about her faith in God and her belief in prayer.

6. Maria gifted Aristotle a golden necklace with an icon of the Virgin Mary engraved in gold, which he always wore.

7. Onassis had made a secret vow at the Monastery of Panagia Katharon, which houses a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, on the island of Ithaca. In 1953, during the great earthquake that hit the islands of the Ionian Sea, the church of the monastery was destroyed. Onassis restored the church entirely with his own money. He took Maria here to his favorite monastery, and later he would also bring Jackie Kennedy.

8. Throughout her life, Maria always wanted a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary above her bed. Towards the end of her life, a friend of hers, Vasso Devetzi, gifted her with such an icon from Russia. Immediately she placed it over her bed, where it was kept till the day she died.

9. She did not attend church services, but she believed very much in the candle. Whenever she wanted someone who was Greek Orthodox to pray for her, she would request: "Please light a candle for me."

10. Her last venture from her Paris home was to Onassis' Greek island grave where she spent hours on her knees praying. Onassis had died in 1975. Before returning to Paris, she stayed outside Mount Athos at Ouranoupolis with a friend for three days. No doubt she reminisced about the time she had anchored there eighteen years prior, a day that altered the course of her life. About Mount Athos she would comment to her friend Vasso Devetzi: "It is entirely for men. We women are only good for being beaten. Let us dress like men and go to their Mountain."

11. On September 16, 1977, at the age of 53, Maria Callas was found dead in her bed. The official story was that she died of a heart attack, perhaps due to the medication she was taking, or perhaps of a broken heart. A funeral service was held at Saint Stephen's Greek Orthodox Cathedral on rue Georges-Bizet, Paris on September 20, 1977. Maria had not been cremated at the time of her funeral, which would have been prohibited by the Orthodox Church. She was cremated afterwards at the Père Lachaise Cemetery and her ashes were placed in the columbarium there. After being stolen and later recovered, they were scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, according to her wish, in the spring of 1979.

12. Some Greeks today bring up Maria Callas as an example when they request to be cremated by the Church, but the response is that Maria Callas is not an example to be followed in this instance.

Video footage of the funeral of Maria Callas