dressed up like a lady: Maria Callas and my dad

Oct 16, 2013

Maria Callas and my dad

Fun fact: I grew up listening to a LOT of opera. I've known Maria Callas' voice possibly since birth, but I never knew what a crazy, fashionable, tragically batshit babe she was!

Oddly, I owe both my knowledge and ignorance about her to my dad. 

(left) My dad, getting lost in the rock and roll around 1970; (right) My dad gleefuly photographs 3 y/o me in 1984.
My dad, unassumingly awesome dude that he is, likes what he likes, giving zero fuks about the baggage associated with it. This has made him what probably sounds like a host of contradictions. He's a blue-collar maintenance man at the hospital whose spent his life loving and reading history, economics, physics and cosmology. He was a sailor in the Navy, a guardsman in the Coast Guard, a bearded hippie and professional astrologer. He's blithe and soft spoken. He restrains drunks when they freak out in the ER. He loves children. He worked on the line at the Ford plant. He uses "I says" as a past tense phrase when casually telling stories. He spends at least an hour a day meditating. 

He's never been burdened by any outside concept of who he is or is supposed to be. The only expectations that matter to him are his own. He's always been an awesomely loving, sweet, tender dad, and notions of manliness or awkwardness that might, on some planet, hinder closeness, don't even exist for him. And while you might think of the selfless support of a dad as meeting an "expectation," I can assure you that he's the best dad ever simply because he feels compelled to do each loving, selfless thing he does -- not because he's grappling with some grand notion of what such-and-such kind of guy should do.

So it should make enough sense that even though I'm pretty sure he might have once seen Iron Butterfly while on acid (before he gave up drugs to further his spiritual enlightenment), he's also always loved classical music too.

(left) My dad, hamming it up James T. Kirk style around 1985; (right) My dad, about 2 years ago, carrying Gbear on his shoulders like he did with me.
When I was about four, my dad played The Magic Flute so much that I started calling him Pop, not just because the working class vibe of my extended family included this as a perfectly acceptable salutation for your father, but because it was short for Papageno -- which in fairness, is a very child-friendly song. More to the point for this post, when I was that age, my favorite records from my parents' collection were Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, Styx's Pieces of Eight, and a random compilation of great arias by Maria effing Callas.

My dad was a fan of her gorgeous voice, and I was too. How could you not be?! As I got old enough to develop my own taste in music, my dad gave me Led Zepplin and The Beatles, hoping I'd be able to "appreciate the classics." He didn't have to give me any opera, because I'd already raided all his cassettes of Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, Turandot...all starring Maria Callas.

But here's the crazy thing: my dad exposed me to her breathtaking performances from such a young age that I completely took her for granted. The thrilling and often heartbreaking power and genius of her singing was like, you know, a given. So I never knew until I was, um, researching this post, that she was such a tragic, operatic figure herself. That classic story of the star deprived of her parents' acceptance who seems to get her magnetism and greatness from that grand, never-ending hunger for love, Callas was known as a bit of a nutball.  
Early in her career, she spent a year losing 80 lbs. and became the rail thin fashion plate we mostly know her as today. Not too long later, she fell in love with zillionaire and future Jackie O husband Aristotle Onasis, and didn't so much officially retire as she just kind of faded away from music, devoting herself to life with him (even though he was kind of a dick). Needless to say, these don't sound like the actions of a person who cares for herself -- and she didn't. Losing that much weight can already be potentially traumatic on your body, and then she spent about eight years jetting around with Onasis and NOT caring for her voice. Singing opera requires athletic levels of output from your body, after all. And her voice suffered. A lot. Many say it never fully recovered.

What's really bananas is that you'd never know this from the articulate and evocative way she talks.

(At 6:00 when she talks about "serving music" it's effing excellent.)

But what's even crazier to me is that I never knew there are people, like a lot of people, who just don't like her voice! Maybe the extreme warmth, emotion, and color that made it so uniquely suited to acting the emotion of the song just turns some people off  (people who I guess must be INSANE AND BORING).

Perfectly operatically, Callas died of a heart attack at the age of 54, just after returning from a comeback tour. But of course I never knew this stuff. Because I was raised on her music by my dad, and my dad wasn't attracted to her image or the idea of what liking her means about you or something. He just appreciated her gorgeous voice.

I didn't even contemplate until recently that Callas was absolutely beautiful and extremely stylish! There's so much content to her star power I had no idea about. Which is kind of odd, but it reminds me of how awesome my dad is.

So in a weird way, I don't mind having been sort of clueless about one of my favorite artists. It's a funny manifestation of a value my dad helped foster in me to never shunt off anything you could love just because it doesn't fit into some idea of yourself. Don't be the hippie guy or the intellectual girl, just love what you love, and in the joy of loving something, be everything. Be both Betty and Veronica. And John McClane. And Albert Camus. And Wonder Woman. And Nikola Tesla. And Batman. And Loki, god of mischief. And Hannibal, the best general who never had the Roman army at his disposal. 

And be my dad. He's the shit. 


  1. what a beautiful story, about you and your dad . And Maria Callas:)
    People often fear exploring new things, thinking it doesn't suit them to try something different. you are right, we should simple love what makes us happy.

  2. This is so moving. Your dad has helped you be the definition of well rounded! And Callas, what a knockout!

  3. This doesn't refute my theory that your dad is a secret humble badass.


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