The performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in Chicago’s Civic Opera House on the night of November 17th 1955 was an unscheduled one. After two rapturous performances, the great soprano Maria Callas was asked to give one final show, and it was a triumph. But the real drama came only when the opera was over. U.S. Marshal Stanley Pringle (foreground in photo above) and Deputy Sheriff Dan Smith burst into Callas’s dressing room and served her with court summons for a breach of contract. Callas, still in titular Cio-Cio-San’s kimono, was furious; she proclaimed, “I will not be sued! I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me.”
The moment was immortalized in an iconic photo of Callas, her black eyes aflare with hatred, her mouth curled up with fury. The press dubbed her “The Tigress” from that day onward. She vowed never to return to Chicago. This was just one of many melodramatic episodes for La Callas, who lived an operatic life both on- and off-stage. Born to Greek immigrant parents in New York City, Callas possessed a vocal range that made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works, and changed the operatic repertoire for generations to come.
But frequently ill (probably due to her earlier rapid weightloss), Callas had disputes and lawsuits with many a grand operatic stage. On the opening night of Rome season in 1958, she famously walked off after the first act of Bellini’s Norma; the temperamental diva had no understudy and left the President of Italy and most of Rome’s high society in attendance shocked and outraged, for which she was savaged in the Italian press. *
Her career was slowly declining by then; her imperial stature meant that she was still enthusiastically welcomed by the audience, but she herself knew her voice was faltering. After a less-than-adequate season in 1964, she abandoned her signature role of Norma. The next year, she gave up a more relaxing role in Tosca for good. Her last tour after a long retirement in 1973 was not critically well-received. Afterwards, holed up in her Paris apartment, she would spend many a sleepless night with her old recordings, listening to the Voice that had now left her, and died a loner four years later, unable to forgive the world that had forgotten her. She was 53.
* Typo corrected. I got more emails and DM tweets for this than any other grammar mistake or malapropism I used on this blog in last three years.