Opera Legend Maria Callas “Didn’t Die Of A Broken Heart”

A new study rejects the hypothesis of suicide, concluding that Callas' vocal decline and 1977 death were caused by a degenerative disease.

Maria Callas, Henry Koerner, Oil on canvas, 1956 (via Flickr)

BOLOGNA - To this day, the causes of both the vocal decline and eventual death of legendary soprano Maria Callas have remained a mystery. Several hypotheses have surrounded the Sep. 1977 death at the singer's Paris home, including suicide, which in recent years has been strongly disputed by her family.

Now a new detailed scientific study by Italian vocal researchers, Franco Fussi and Nico Paolillo, that relies on medical records and the latest audio technology, may shed further light on the truth of her demise.

The great soprano was suffering from dermatomyositis, a disease that causes a failure of the muscles and tissues, including the larynx, and a noticeable decline in Callas' vocal chords began to afflict her as early as the 1960s. Treatment for dermatomyositis includes corticosteroids and immunosuppressive agents, which over the long term can cause heart failure. Thus the official cause of death, cardiac arrest, which many had previously considered a cover-up for suicide, now has hard scientific evidence behind it, say Fussi and Paolillo.

The pair presented their findings last week to a roundtable of experts at the University of Bologna, in an event hosted by Il Saggiatore Musicale, a cultural quarterly. The starting point of the study — through the use of modern audio technology — was to document when and how her voice changed over time. They analyzed live Callas studio recordings to ascertain the evolution her voice from the 1950's through to the 1970's, when her voice began to show increasing problems of transition and uneven performances.

Recordings of the same songs in different years were subjected to spectrographic analysis, which revealed that during the last years the soprano Maria Callas had become a mezzo-soprano: characterized by an inability to hit the high notes well.

But Fussi — a well-known specialist in Phoniatrycs and Otolaryngology– and Paolillo say the last recorded videos of Callas clearly show muscle failure. In the waning years her chest did not fully expand to its full capacity, leaving her with poor posture and, perhaps above all, a strong contraction of her deltoid muscles, which rendered far less capable of hitting certain notes.

In 1975 the physician Mario Giacovazzo visited the singer and determined that she suffered from dermatomyositis but only revealed the secret in 2002. Fussi and Paolillo looked deeper into the clinical picture of disease, which carried to its extreme can cause cardiac arrest.

Their findings could help rule out the hypotheses that the cause of death of this 20th century icon was either barbiturates or depression linked to her failed relationship with Aristotle Onassis. Married to the industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Callas had an affair with the Greek shipping magnate in the summer of 1959. Unconfirmed reports held that Callas and Onassis had a child, who died shortly after birth. Callas separated from Meneghini, but was then subsequently abandoned by Onassis, who would eventually marry Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968.

Health issues and apparent emotional turmoil had long followed the career of the US-born Greek singer. In 1954, Callas dramatically lost 65 pounds, sparking rumors that she had swallowed Taenia solium — a tapeworm. Fussi and Paolillo note that such dramatic weight loss is now known to reduce physical support of the vocal chords and hamper homogeneity of the tonal registers.

The research may also help explain the infamous Jan. 1958 evening when Callas abruptly stopped during the first act in Bellini's Norma at the Rome Opera. The scene prompted Italy's President of the Republic Giovanni Gronchi to leave after the first act, and Callas was widely criticized for her diva-like ways. But by applying spectrographic analysis to that stock footage, which has been restored after being damaged for years, the researchers say they now have a clearer picture. Fussi and Paolillo found a tired voice, unequal in the various registers, without the control once displayed. It was not a diva's whim that caused her to abruptly stop the show. Callas was not well, tracheitis had set in, and her muscles were probably already giving way. The decline had begun.

Read the original article in Italian

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!