The great Callas, according to biographer Richard Levine:
Maria’s impressive willpower and focus enabled her to develop into the artist we think of when we think of Callas, but at the time her fellow students were hardly charmed by her chilly single-mindedness. One of them later said that ‘her earnestness was oppressive.’ Maria knew, however, that is was necessary for her to focus her talent into a light that would outshine everyone else. It was Maria against the world, and she would not share the spotlight. Of course, the anger and alienation that she had long felt were elements of this drive, but as time went on she achieved the calm, regal demeanor for which she would become known. A close friend later revealed, ‘When I was near Maria, her appearance may have been of calm and silence, but if I sat near her quietly, without talking, I never felt calm or silence coming from her. Deep down the turmoil was hidden. On the surface everything was quiet; underneath I felt the volcano getting ready to explode at any minute.’
I like this passage for its highlighting of traits that successful people embody — willpower, focus, single-mindedness, volcanic energy, and so on. But also for its contrasting the genius’s relation to others and the others’ relation to the genius.
Callas early in life ran into those who were uncaring about her talent, unable to recognize it, or obstructionist when they did recognize it. As a result, she developed a generalized attitude of anger and alienation against a world that resisted or opposed her development. But then, as she matured, she strove to rise above the anger, not letting it dictate her reactions, instead focusing her energy positively on becoming how she wanted to be.
Relationships have two sides, and the other side is how those in Callas’s social circle responded to her. Some shared her commitment and admired her talent, and they became friends and associates. But many others were less committed or resented her talent. And it’s striking how the same character trait of one person will generate opposed reactions from others. When a fellow student says, for example, that Callas’s earnestness was “oppressive,” does that tell us more about the student or about Callas?
Source: Richard Levine, Maria Callas, A Musical Biography (New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 2003), p. 19.