As the subtitle imples, Stassinopoulos' soap-operatic, terribly sad biography is for celebrity-watchers rather than...

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MARIA CALLAS: The Woman Behind the Legend

As the subtitle imples, Stassinopoulos' soap-operatic, terribly sad biography is for celebrity-watchers rather than music-lovers: ""Jackie"" is mentioned more often than Verdi in this gossipy but well-researched and relatively tasteful portrait of Callas as tragic victim (a view not very different from that of Pierre-Jean RÉmy in the far more worshipful Maria Callas, A Tribute, p. 427). Denied real love by her fame-hungry stage mother (who preferred Maria's pretty sister), fat, nearsighted little Maria soon saw her ""Voice as a weapon"" against rejection, a path to acceptance--and her ambitions soared, with early success in Greece, a frustrating return to her hometown (N.Y.), and then the 1949 Italian triumphs, astonishingly alternating Walkure and I Puritani. Also at that time: marriage to rich, older, testy but ineffectual G. Battista Meneghini, and the creation of a ""carapace of dedicated professionalism and an efficient marriage."" But underneath was still the insecure, love-needy child--who had a ""teenage crush"" on mentor Luchino Visconti, who cut herself off from her mother, who cried over a London review that mocked her fat legs. . . and then, with Audrey Hepburn as model, lost 60 pounds to acquire a new ""weapon"": beauty. Even slim and gorgeous, however, Maria felt herself surrounded by hostility--especially when N.Y.'s ""sleepless legions"" of scandalmongers exploited her temperamental side, making her a legend/monster. And work--once she'd made her unique dramatic mark and her always-controversial voice began deteriorating--lost its all-encompassing importance. So, enter: ""Aristo"" Onassis, ""her first experience of loving and being loved."" He divorced his wife; she divorced her husband and set out on a great new career--to ""become a woman."" But celebrity-junkie Aristo ""wanted a slave,"" not a happy, successful wife: he stalled on marriage, forced Maria to have an abortion. . . and then cruelly dumped her for Jackie O., manipulating this triangle even after the marriage. And from there it was all downhill--a ""gradual descent into self-destructive inertia,"" the pathetic comeback/love-affair with Giuseppe di Stephano, and death not long after Aristo's (""To exist in a world that did not contain him seemed pointless""). Cheap, speculative soap opera? Yes, to some extent. But, drawing on newly available letters and tapes and interviews (though not on Linakis, p. 1335), Stassinopolous makes the basic drift convincing--and very, very sad. Despite the low-level prose and the rudimentary opera-by-opera documentation, then, this is the best private life of Callas yet, and a solid bet for fanciers of jet-set scandals.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1980

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1980