The True Story of Legendary Opera Singer Maria Callas - The Gloss Magazine
From: Maria by Callas, 100th Anniversary Edition, Tom Volf, €195;

The True Story of Legendary Opera Singer Maria Callas

Author Daisy Goodwin tells Edel Coffey why she chose to write an historical novel based on Maria Callas’ life story…

All products featured on are selected by our editors. If you buy something through affiliate links on our site we may earn a commission.

There are very few opera singers who have instant brand recognition. Pavarotti, yes. Andrea Bocelli, definitely. But nearly 50 years after her death, there is still one name that is instantly identifiable as one of the greatest opera singers of all time – Maria Callas.

Callas is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment. Fashion designer Erdem staged a Callas-inspired show at London Fashion Week in February, a new biopic starring Angelina Jolie is due to hit screens this year and a new novel, Diva, by Daisy Goodwin, based on the singer’s life and loves, has just been published. According to Goodwin, it’s time for a reappraisal of the cliched narrative that has dogged Callas’ story. “I’m reclaiming the diva,” Goodwin says from her home in London. “Diva is a word that we now think of as a bad-girl pop princess who wants six different kinds of mineral water. I think of a diva in the original sense, as a goddess. It’s always a pejorative term now. I find it as gendered and deeply enraging as the word bossy; again, a word that is only used about women.”

Erdem Autumn/Winter 2024 Collection inspired by Maria Callas

Goodwin, a TV producer and presenter, has previously written riveting historical novels about Queen Victoria (which she also made into the hit ITV drama Victoria which sold to 134 countries) and the Empress Elizabeth “Sisi” of Austria. She also happens to be the creative genius behind the TV show Grand Designs. What drew her to Callas as a subject? “She was incredibly talented, worked incredibly hard, made herself from nothing into the most famous classical singer in the world and her life had played out in this extraordinary cinematic sense, and I thought, oh, here’s a story I can tell.”

Goodwin chose to novelise the story because, despite the existence of several biographies, so many of the facts around Callas’ life remain murky. “There isn’t an archive where you can get to the truth and Maria herself was a great embroiderer of the truth.”

Callas was born in America to Greek immigrant parents. Her mother disliked her but when she discovered Maria’s spectacular talent she moved the family back home to Greece to take control of her burgeoning career. Raised in Nazi-occupied Greece, when the war ended, Maria left to begin her career. At the age of just 23, she met her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy 51-year-old manufacturer who became her manager. It later emerged he was embezzling her earnings. When she met the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis at the age of 36, she le? Meneghini.

“I think Maria learned very early on that singing was the way she was going to find love and that’s vital to the story,” says Goodwin. “Her mother only loved her for her voice, audiences fell in love with her voice, her husband fell in love with her because of her voice – this is the pattern of her life. She’s inhabited by this thing that everybody loves. When she meets Onassis, the one thing he isn’t particularly interested in is her voice because he’s not really musical, he doesn’t care. And she thinks that he has fallen in love with her, with the rest of her. To her it’s a relief because she thinks, here’s a man who won’t care if I don’t have a voice.”

Goodwin believes there was a real connection between Callas and Onassis. “When she meets Onassis, I think that’s the first time she’s had really good sex and that is a huge deal. If you’re 36, that is a game-changer. But because she knew that her voice was going I think of her as this sort of Vestal Virgin. She knows that the gods are taking away her voice so she’s looking for a bit of pleasure on this earth.”

Her relationship with Onassis ended when he married Jackie Kennedy. The relationship became the defining love story of Callas’ life but perhaps it was not the tragic one we’ve come to view it as, says Goodwin. “I’m so fed up with people talking about Callas as this kind of tragic heroine. They confuse her with the heroines on stage, they’d quite like her to die at the end because she’s been betrayed by a man and it’s just not like that. I think her life became sadder when she stopped being able to sing but I think that her affair with Onassis gave her last singing years an emotional depth and maturity that she maybe hadn’t had before.” For Callas, Goodwin says, her voice came before all else. “Her real tragedy is not losing Onassis but losing her voice prematurely because she sang too much at an early stage. That’s the real sadness in her life.”

While Goodwin’s book doesn’t scrimp on the celebrity and glamour of Callas’ life, she also wanted to write about Callas’ musical genius. ‘When I was writing about Queen Victoria people would say, oh but wasn’t she a bad mother? To be a woman, it’s not enough to be a genius or the greatest singer of every opera there’s ever been. You also have to have a fulfilled personal life, you have to be perfect in every respect.”

Goodwin herself comes from a family of creatives. Her father was the Oscar-nominated film producer Richard B Goodwin, whose films included Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile, while her mother was a writer and interior decorator. “It just never occurred to me to do something sensible like become a lawyer,” she says. She also has an Irish connection dating back to the famine. “My grandmother was born in Argentina but her great-grandfather was the rector of Schull during the famine. He was evangelical Church of Ireland who talked about Catholics as pagans. Then, during the famine he suddenly became evangelical about saving people and turned his rectory into a soup kitchen. I was pleased that in his own small way he had come to realise that humanity is humanity.”

“I’m so fed up with people talking about Callas as this kind of tragic heroine.”

Daisy Goodwin

Goodwin also has a strong sense of right and wrong. Last year, she spoke out publicly against Daniel Korski, a former special advisor to David Cameron who was seeking the Tory candidacy in the 2024 London mayoral election. Goodwin alleged that in a 2013 Downing Street meeting with Korski he had put his hand on her breast. He later withdrew his candidacy. “I felt for once in my life I had a moral choice,” she says. “If I had kept silent then I was betraying all the younger women like my daughters who will have to put up with men like that for the rest of their lives. I did hesitate because I knew he was popular with the Tory party but I thought here is a man who is running for Mayor of London, who has responsibility for the safety of women and girls, we cannot put someone like that in charge of a job like that. It’s just not right.”

Does she think the world is becoming a better place for women? “I’m not entirely sure that it is. One of the reasons I like Maria is she doesn’t take any shit in that sense. There’s no casting couch for her. I think that was one of the reasons people didn’t like her because she wouldn’t say it was fine for tenors to grope her.”

Is she happy to see a new appreciation of Callas emerging? “I’m surprised it’s taken so long. There are lots of reasons to celebrate her because she is so talented and she’s also an icon, she worked incredibly hard to be who she was on stage and off. Maria Callas is a heroine for our times because she was constantly authentic and she lived life by her own rules.”

‘Diva’ by Daisy Goodwin (€21; Head of Zeus) is out now.


All the usual great, glossy content of our large-format magazine in a neater style delivered to your door.



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This