My homeland of Lefkada, in the Ionian Sea, is closely tied to the history of the famed Onassis family whose private island of Scorpios lies adjacent. As such, the legendary Maria Callas, the longtime flame of Aristotle Onassis who would have celebrated her 90th birthday this December 2nd, was a regular visitor. Leaving her stamp on all those who had the privilege to have seen her perform, it was well known that Lefkada was her beloved hidden retreat.
Maria Callas spent many summers on this part of the Ionian sea and was often spotted shopping at the local stores and mingling with the islanders. All Lefkadians kept abreast of the developments in her stormy love affair with Onassis and admired her for her unparalleled talent and for what she brought to their town.
In the summer of 1964, I was barely five years old. As with every August night, my mother would take my brother and I to the central square or "plateia" in order to partake in the renowned Lefkadian Festival of Literature and Art. Established in 1955 by the inspirational Anthony Tzevelekis, the spectacle was the cultural highlight of the area where singers, dancers and musicians from all over the world would come to showcase their talents.
Completely unexpectedly one night, the crowd was abuzz that "La Callas" and Onassis were among the audience, enjoying the festivities from the same seats as everybody else. The details of the evening escape me but I distinctly remember my Mom clutching me in her arms and pleading with me to remain speechless as the greatest operatic diva of all time was about to sing. Dressed in a gorgeous summer dress and in a totally nonchalant manner, Callas climbed upon the stage and began belting out an aria. To my childhood ears, her voice was deafeningly penetrating, almost like a howling, but to the public it was simply magic.
The next day, the news spread like wildfire. Everyone knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and people were going up and down the narrow streets screaming, "Maria Callas performed at the Festival of Lefkada!" My mother was busy telling and retelling the details of her experience to the neighbors, describing the enthrallment she felt when that powerful voice poured out.
The stories in the newspapers recounted at the time how the soprano arrived to an overcrowded, 3,000-strong gathering in the central square with her tycoon lover. Suddenly, out of the blue and undoubtedly inspired by the crowd, she asked if she could sing. And, just like that, she rose up and performed Santuzza's aria from the opera "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Pietro Mascagni.
At the piano, she was accompanied by a local musician-in-training, Kyriakos Sfetsas. Inspired by the moment, the talented Sfetsas would go on to greatness, becoming a noted composer, producer of the prestigious Third Program on National Greek Radio and, eventually, director of the Lefkadian Festival of Literature and Art.
Interviewed in 2005 about that memorable day, Sfetsas declared:
"The dead silence that spread when we went on stage was the most exciting music pause I have ever felt. As if a hidden air comes to draw you to some unknown dream. Velvet tones gushed and charmed the waters of the Ionian Sea. And they brought in a catharsis that only unspeakable events can bring. When Maria finished, everyone was screaming with joy and excitement, a huge throng accompanying her all the way to the port where her launch was awaiting. I disappeared, a simple number among the adoring thousands. I remember the loneliness and melancholy I felt as that unexpected dream lasted so little, bringing me so abruptly back to reality. I kept the feeling of the kiss she gave me on the cheek and the eroticism that I felt when I touched her bare arms."
As for me, little as I was, that magical scene in Lefkada's humble square would mark my memory and personal history forever. I would grow up listening to Callas' albums and closely following her tragic life as it unfolded. When Aristotle Onassis betrayed her to marry Jackie Kennedy in 1968, it left an indelible mark on my soul.
She was only 53 years old when she died on September 16, 1977 as a result of an illness related to her vocal deterioration, living in isolation in her apartment in Paris.
When her ashes were eventually scattered over the Aegean Sea according to her wishes, as a female I could relate with the pain she must have felt over losing her true love and it is this personal drama that draws me to her even more than her magic voice.