Jim Dykes, NYC Celebrity Tourguide writes about Opera Superstar MARIA CALLAS- Diva Supreme-- raised in Manhattan's Washington Heights Neighborhood!

La Divina. Prima Donna Extraordinaire, The Golden Voice of the Century. These descriptive terms were all used in reference to the legendary opera star Maria Callas, who spent ten of her formative years growing up as a bright, chubby child in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan.
In fact, her initial musical training and first public performances took place in this Northern Manhattan neighborhood. When Callas died at age 53 on Sept. 16, 1977, the world lost one of the greatest singers in history. She had also slimmed down and become not only an opera star, but a fashion star.
Without any question, Callas was a celebrity. Even for those who were not opera devotees, she provided front page reading and was a source of gossip due to cancellations in major opera houses, a much-publicized divorce from Italian industrialist Battista Meneghina after she met the infamous Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and a humiliating rejection when Onassis tossed her aside to marry another celebrity named Jacqueline Kennedy. The legend is that she bought about her own death by the overuse of sleeping pills and other pills because of her intense depression after being rejected by Onassis but no one has ever confirmed this.
Callas was the daughter of Greek immigrants who arrived in America during the early 1920s and subsequently changed their name from Kalogeropoulos to Callas. On Dec. 2, 1923, the couple’s second daughter was born at Flower Hospital at Fifth Avenue & 106th St. (now Cardinal Cooke healthcare & rehab). Callas weighed a healthy 12 ½ pounds and was named Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria.
Maria’s first home was in Astoria, Queens but by the time she was 3, the family moved to 569 West 192nd St. in Washington Heights. Her father, George, had acquired a drug store at Eighth Avenue & 139th Street. The family purchased a piano and a gramophone, allowing her mother to purchase opera recordings and for her daughters to take piano lessons 4 times a week.
One July evening when Maria was 5, she was waiting at a street corner with her parents and was struck by a car. The child was taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and remained there for 22 days before recovering. Several months later the stock market crashed and her father was forced to sell the pharmacy. From 1929 thru 1933 the Callas family had to move several times within Washington Heights to less expensive apartments as money became a problem. But despite financial constraints, both girls kept studying piano and voice 4 times a week.
At this time, Maria’s mother Evangelia, recalled that one warm evening in May Maria was playing piano and singing “La Paloma” near the window. Looking outside, her Mother noticed that the street below was crowded with neighbors who would not disperse until Maria had finished singing.
Twice a week Evangelia took her daughters to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street to attend lectures and readings of the classics. Maria also began to borrow various opera recordings from the library.
Every Sunday the family worshipped at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox at 124 Wadsworth Ave. and Maria loved the singing during the ornate services. On Tuesday evenings the Callas family enjoyed Chop Suey from a local Chinese restaurant.
Maria attended school at P.S. 189 on W. 188th St. She was remembered by one of her former teachers as “a pleasant, well-behaved girl, but hardly someone who later in life would set the world on fire.” To this day, her school records are kept in plastic and displayed at the school. Maria made her stage debut in a school production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado and soaked up the audience applause and the compliments of her classmates.
In 1937, Evangelia and her husband experienced marital problems, so she packed up her daughters and returned home to live with her Mother in Greece. On January 28, 1937 Maria participated in the  8th grade graduation exercises and sang a selection from Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.
A few days later Maria boarded the Ocean liner Saturnia for a new life in Greece, where her intense vocal training would begin. Callas never returned to Washington Heights.
Almost 20 years later, in 1956, Callas came back to New York as a famous diva to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in “La Traviata”. Very few people knew that this fiery, explosively glamorous diva from Europe was actually once an overweight, insecure Greek-American girl who grew up in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan in the shadow of The Cloisters.




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