Today’s Google Doodle honors what would have been the 90th birthday of Maria Callas (1923-1977,) who TIME once called, “undisputed queen of the world’s opera” and ”a woman for whom the term prima donna could have been invented.”
Callas was as famous for her ferocity as she was for her dominating voice. In her obituary following her death of a heart attack in Paris in 1977, TIME called her “tempestuous, unpredictable, charming, ruthless, overwhelmingly talented, capable of canceling a performance halfway through (as she did once in Rome) even with a King in the audience.” Born in Manhattan to Greek parents, Callas grew up a sullen and overweight child who willed herself to greatness through ferocious ambition and the power of her voice. As TIME wrote in their 1956 cover story, “The Prima Donna:”
But from the first the lonely, fat girl from Manhattan saw herself pitted single-handed against a world of enemies. In her triumph, she takes fierce pride in her defiant self-reliance. At La Scala supporters of a rival diva hiss her regularly. It only arouses Callas to cold fury.
Once, her enemies began to heckle as she got to the high notes of her second aria in Traviata. Callas tore off her shawl, stepped to the front of the stage, glared directly at her tormentors. With reckless ferocity, she lit into one of opera’s most perilous arias. If she had made a mistake, it would have been fatal. Instead, she sang with immaculate and unearthly beauty. Five times she was called back by the deliriously happy audience, five times she stood, stony and arrogant, before turning away. On the sixth call, she relented, bowed to everybody except the hecklers. Then she faced them, suddenly flung up her arms in a gesture of spitting contempt. Says she, with savage satisfaction: “As long as I hear them stirring and hissing like snakes out there, I know I’m on top. If I heard nothing from my enemies, I’d know I was slipping. I’d know they’re not afraid of me any more.”
Callas’s personal life was no less dramatic than her stage one. She abandoned her Italian millionaire husband in 1959 to live with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who then left her for Jackie Kennedy in 1968.