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|Cover: Prima Donna: The Psychology of Maria Callas.
In Prima Donna: The Psychology of Maria Callas, Paul Wink convincingly concludes—based on largely secondary sources—that Maria Callas was not only a wildly ambitious operator who was not known for an emollient manner, but a prime example of narcissism. Wink, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, used conventional psychology to conclude that Callas fits the description of the variant known as vulnerable narcissism. She searched for love and connection from her adoring audiences and entered into immature, self-abnegating relationships with older men (her husband, Giovanni Meneghini, and later, Aristotle Onassis) to liberate herself from a controlling and admonishing mother while compensating for her father’s abandonment. She lacked the internal resources to find fulfillment in other activities and relationships as her voice deteriorated, particularly after losing Onassis. Traits that are central to grandiose narcissism, including egocentricity, entitlement, manipulativeness, and callousness, are highly evident in Callas’s biographic interactions, but she also displayed vulnerability and low self-esteem in her extreme over-reaction to criticism and her submissive willingness to accept Onassis’s put-downs.
Callas’s childhood lacked the security and affirmation that typically allows children to grow into happy, confident adults. Her early years were spent in New York during the Depression with a philandering father, an unhappy, social-climbing mother, and a slim, attractive older sister. Following the parents’ separation, the Callas women returned to Athens, where they experienced the privations of the Italian occupation and post-war Communist uprising.
Poverty and lack of parental attention (at least until her mother perceived the financial potential in young Maria’s voice) all contributed to shaping her personality.
The author quotes film and stage director Franco Zeffirelli, who noted that opera should be divided into two epochs: before Callas and after Callas. Before Callas, singers focused primarily on producing a gorgeous sound and secondarily (if at all), on acting. Callas, however, was willing to let her voice fade away when playing the dying Violetta or grate harshly when portraying Lady Macbeth. Within her career, there is a divide between her early years as a chubby, awkward young woman with a voice up to the challenges of Wagner, and her glamorous post-weight loss years with a wobbly, unreliable upper register. While many blamed the weight loss for her vocal difficulties, Callas made the decision to reduce so that she could more convincingly portray heroines who were alluring and often frail. Her weight loss may have reflected some body dissatisfaction and resulted in intentional heightened dietary restrictions, but there is little documented evidence of a binge-or-purge eating disorder.
Her vocal expressions of emotional states in no less than forty-seven different roles during her ten-year international career, have been singled out by experienced opera listeners. (Video recordings of her performances are few and far between and thus her temperament is fading from memory.) Her mind was set on absolute perfection. Many opera devotees may acknowledge the effort needed to get to the top but rarely understand the emotional struggles, psychological conflicts, and addictions that may occur when performances are below expectations. Callas’s life was all about emotional highs and lows: “I want the best in everything . . . and it torments me.” Her life was also about glamour, elegance, and sun-kissed grand yachts. According to Wink, her sense of incompleteness caused her personal disintegration.
Expressing a sentiment of her time, Callas referred to the need for women to find fulfillment in a foresworn fork in the road: career or motherhood. Over her entire career, Callas wrote frank and honest letters about both technical vocal issues and intimate personal problems. Many of them have also been captured in Tom Volf’s recent brilliant documentary Maria by Callas. She was fired by Metropolitan Opera director Rudolf Bing, who called her impossible and echoed what many others felt, i.e., that she was just a spoiled and entitled prima donna. Her final years in Paris were filled with regret, envy, and Mandrax—a sedative known for its highly addictive properties that was banned in France but not in Greece. (Her sister Jackie sent her supplies.) It is not inconceivable that her later isolation and deep melancholia, which affected her willingness to perform, may have been signs of depression. She died suddenly at the age of fifty-three. There was no suicide note, though she and others may have seen suicide as a public disgrace. Her death could also have been caused by an unintentional drug overdose. Wink attributes her death to her fragility and low blood pressure, which is not a medical diagnosis. Others were told (and readily believed) that she had a heart attack, which could not have been known without an autopsy.
Callas is one of the more intriguing personalities of the past century. The lives of great artists have often been molded into a ruin-and-redemption story or, for some, a feat of untouchable resilience. Callas’s life trajectory was different. But any psychiatric or psychological diagnosis of a dramatic performing artist will generate conflicting interpretations, speculations, and even name-calling. (Psychobiographies of deceased persons are considered an exception to the Goldwater rule.) Wink recognizes this stumbling block and presents an unprejudiced, multitiered analysis of the unpredictable and vulnerable personality of Maria Callas. She famously commented to David Frost: “There are two people in me actually, Maria and Callas . . . If someone really tries to listen to me; he will find all of myself there.”
Prima Donna: The Psychology of Maria Callas. Paul Wink. Oxford University Press 2020
EELCO WIJDICKS, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Neurology and History of Medicine at Mayo Clinic with subspecialty interest in Neurointensive Care and the author of Cinema MD: A History of Medicine on Screen (Oxford University Press 2020).
LEA DACY, AB, is an Administrative Assistant in the Mayo Clinic Department of Neurology, a freelance musician, and a lifelong opera devotee.