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Nurturing a legend

Long before Maria Callas was an opera diva, she was working on her voice, and style, during a little-chronicled visit with relatives in Tarpon Springs.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 6, 2002

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Maria d’Annecy-Fajardo, left, searches through family papers while recalling memories of opera legend Maria Callas with d’Annecy-Fajardo’s mother, Helen Cretekos Arfaras. As a girl in the 1920s, Callas stayed with Arfaras’ family in Tarpon Springs.
[Courtesy of Maria d’Annecy-Fajardo]
Callas was Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly in Chicago in 1955. It was the only time she sang the role onstage.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Some of Maria Callas' earliest performances took place in a two-story brick house in Tarpon Springs.

"She would sing, I remember well," says Helen Arfaras, a Callas relative who grew up in the house at 455 Tarpon Ave., recalling where the future opera star birthed her legendary performance style as a girl.

"She always sang wherever she went. My mother had on the piano a Spanish shawl, and Maria would take it and perform. She would go before the mirror and just sing. She warbled like a bird."

It was in the 1920s when Callas, her older sister, Jackie, and her mother, Litsa, visited Tarpon Springs, home to their only Greek relatives in the United States, the Cretekos family. The Callases had emigrated from Greece to New York City, where Maria was born in 1923 and where her father, George, was a pharmacist.

In The Unknown Callas, a 2001 biography of her early years by Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidis, the diva-to-be's time in Tarpon Springs is described as taking place in the summer of 1929, but Arfaras, a cousin of Callas' mother, says the visit was much longer.

"Maria's mother was never happy in America," says Arfaras, 87, whose father, George Cretekos, was in the sponge business in Tarpon Springs. "She almost had a nervous breakdown. That's when they sent her and Maria and Jackie to stay with us in Florida, for the sunshine, the better weather. They spent two years with us."

Arfaras says she was 12 and Maria was 4 when the Callases came to Tarpon Springs. A photograph reproduced in The Unknown Callas shows Jackie and Maria playing with their Cretekos cousins, including Helen, in a boat.

Jackie Callas later described her and her sister's stay with the family as a respite from their mother's demanding treatment of them.

"As mother did not dare nag us in such company, we were in heaven," she wrote in her 1989 memoir, Sisters. "I think Mary (Maria) was happier than I have ever known her. But then our only thoughts were to run in the sand and splash in the water."
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
This house at 455 Tarpon Ave. was where Callas, her mother, Litsa, and sister, Jackie, stayed with relatives, the Cretekos family, in the 1920s.

The memories of Callas, who died at 53 in 1977 in Paris, were flowing one morning last week at the home of Arfaras' daughter, Maria d'Annecy-Fajardo, a.k.a. Mary Annexy. Her Victorian mansion on Spring Bayou is stuffed with family photos and memorabilia, from photos of illustrious forebears such as Konstantinos Louros, an obstetrician to Greek royalty, to a tattered album of 78 rpm LPs of Callas' first opera recording, La Gioconda. Pictures of her in some of her great roles line the walls of one room.

Surprisingly, given the cult that developed around Callas and the scores of books written about her, authors have not sought out the family in Tarpon Springs.

"We have never spoken to anyone," d'Annecy-Fajardo says.

"We have lots of her letters, but I don't want to publish them," Arfaras says. "I've kept it very low key."
[Courtesy of Maria d’Annecy-Fajardo]
Callas kept in touch through the years with her Tarpon Springs relatives. Here is a 1973 postcard she sent to d’Annecy-Fajardo.

One Callas devotee fascinated to hear of her Florida sojourn is Fabrizio Melano, a retired director at the Metropolitan Opera and other companies. Melano holds the distinction of having assisted Callas when she tried her hand at directing after retiring as a singer, with a 1973 production of I Vespri Siciliani in Turin, Italy.

Melano gives a talk on Callas on Wednesday afternoon in Tarpon Springs as part of the V.O.I.C Experience, a week of master classes, lectures and performances with promising young opera singers, directed by baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves.

Melano saw Callas many times in what he considers her five best roles: La Traviata, Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor, Medea and Tosca. She was the greatest singer he has heard.

"With her it was almost as if anything she sang got the Platonic ideal of it: what the composer would have wanted, without any interference," he says. "She went right to the core of a part and eliminated all the extraneous stuff."

Callas' voice was not to the taste of every opera buff, some of whom prefer a more purely beautiful tone than she possessed. But as a dramatic singer, a sheer presence onstage, she was unparalleled.

"It all sprang from the music," Melano says. "It was really her approach to the music which created her great acting. Her acting was a response to what she felt was going on musically."
At a glance
The V.O.I.C Experience for opera students includes Fabrizio Melano's talk "Reflections on Callas" at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, 101 S Pinellas Ave. ($15); "The Best of Broadway" concert at 8 p.m. Friday at Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, 324 Pine St. ($15); Sherrill Milnes' master class at 2 p.m. Saturday at the cultural center ($15); and the concert "Operatic Favorites" at 3 p.m. Sunday at the performing arts center ($15). For information, call (727) 942-5605.

Arfaras has vivid memories of seeing Callas in I Puritani and other operas in Chicago in 1955. "There are many fine artists that have great voices, but she had a magic about her when she was onstage," she says. "She had this ... I don't know how to explain it. Her movement, her hands, her neck."

Even as a girl, Maria had something special. "She had a presence," Arfaras says. "You'd see this little girl picking up scarves and shawls and tying them on her head. She would impress us that way."

Melano sometimes wonders if Callas' theatrical magnetism may have stemmed from her being Greek.

"We think of Greek drama as the origin of Western theater," he says. "Opera was born as an attempt, perhaps wrongheadedly, to recreate Greek drama, so maybe there is something about the Greek heritage. The kinds of gestures and movement that might have been used in Greek drama, she did them instinctively onstage."

Aside from her spectacular opera career, Callas was also a celebrity of the first rank, the quintessential diva, her every move chronicled by the tabloids. There were feuds with opera managers such as Rudolf Bing, who dropped her from the Met roster; the troubled relationship with the world's richest man, Aristotle Onassis, who left her for Jackie Kennedy; her battles with a weight problem.
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Diva with family: sister Jackie, from left, mother Litsa, Callas.

Arfaras says Callas put on the pounds in Greece, where she lived from 1937 to 1945. "We were shocked. She was not a chubby baby. She was normal. I believe that she got fat during the war years when the Germans came to Greece. I guess the diet wasn't good. When she slimmed down, she was beautiful."

To family members, Callas came across not as a grand prima donna but as down-to-earth. The last time Arfaras spent time with her was in Palm Beach, where Callas stayed with friends after the death of Onassis in 1975.

"Even to the last time I saw her in Palm Beach, she was very simple. She would wear these unfeminine bedroom slippers and a robe," Arfaras says. "She would slouch. She was very low key. She was only temperamental when it came to her work."

As an adult, Arfaras' daughter spent quite a lot of time with Callas. "I was like a niece to her," d'Annecy-Fajardo says. "I would visit her all the time. She would visit me and stay in my home. She was fascinated when I was pregnant with my first child, Lydia.

"She just loved children. It was sad she didn't have them. I guess we can't have everything."

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