A PROB­LEM LIKE MARIA

It’s 30 years since the so­prano Maria Cal­las died, alone, in her Paris flat. To mark the an­niver­sary, a new ex­hi­bi­tion will show pre­vi­ously un­seen mem­o­ra­bilia – all pre­served by the man who launched her and whose heart she broke. By Sally Wil­liams

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - La Divina -

The opera singerMaria Cal­las was born in 1923, showed a tal­ent for­mu­sic by the age of three, gave her first pub­lic per­for­mance aged 14 and her last at the age of 50. In her later years she was a vir­tual recluse de­pen­dent on a cock­tail of up­pers and down­ers and she died aged 53, af­ter a heart at­tack, in Paris on 16 Septem­ber 1977.

That was 30 years ago, and yet Cal­las the leg­end has yet to fade. Driven, charm­ing, dif­fi­cult, flawed and in­fu­ri­at­ing, Maria Cal­las, the orig­i­nal diva, was that rare thing: an opera singer whose rep­u­ta­tion tow­ered above the roles she sang. Early this year a poll of opera crit­ics, pub­lished in Gramo­phone mag­a­zine, voted her the most in­flu­en­tial so­prano of the record­ing era. In Fe­bru­ary she was awarded a post­hu­mous

Grammy life­time achieve­ment award. And now Sotheby’s has or­gan­ised a tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of mem­o­ra­bilia, which opens in Lon­don on 11 Novem­ber, lead­ing to a sale in Mi­lan in­De­cem­ber.

‘This is very im­por­tant for us,’ says Iris Fab­bri, who cat­a­logued the ar­chive, when we meet at the launch of the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Villa Tor­ri­giani di Camigliano in Lucca, Tus­cany. ‘Cal­las is amyth here in Italy, an icon, and not only in Italy, but around the world.’

There have been Cal­las sales be­fore, of course; the most re­cent­was of her jew­ellery in Geneva in 2004. But this is dif­fer­ent, be­cause it re­veals a softer, more per­sonal side to La Div­ina of pop­u­lar myth. Most peo­ple, if they knowany­thing about Maria Cal­las at all, link her with the Greek ship­ping mag­nate Aris­to­tle Onas­sis and see her as a cel­e­brated jet-set­ter draped in Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. But this sale of about 400 items is drawn from the es­tate of the other man in her life, Gio­vanni Bat­tis­taMenegh­ini, whom she met when she was 23 and, as one bi­og­ra­pher de­scribed her, ‘a fat, awk­ward girl’. Twenty-eight years her se­nior, Meneghini was dot­ing and wealthy – hewas the head of a fam­ily build­ing busi­ness – had a pas­sion for opera, and was ready to be­come the ar­chi­tect of Cal­las’s suc­cess.

‘The most touch­ing things in the sale are the love let­ters toMenegh­ini,’ says Sotheby’s book spe­cial­ist Es­mer­alda Ben­venuti, who cat­a­logued the 63 let­ters, mostly dat­ing fromthe pas­sion­ate be­gin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship, from 1947 to 1950. ‘Later on they al­ways trav­elled to­gether, but in the be­gin­ning they didn’t, and so when­ever she went away she wrote two or three let­ters a day, and he kept them all.’ There is a pho­to­graph of Cal­las with Meneghini in the sale. Her smile is wide, un­trou­bled; he is touch­ing her arm: vis­ual proof of their hap­pi­ness. But it wasn’t to last. She left him in 1959, for Onas­sis –a fact Meneghini never got over.

‘He suf­fered like hell,’ says Fab­bri. ‘She be­came num­ber one and with­out him she wouldn’t have achieved that.

He opened the doors of the the­atres for her. I think he even paid [the­atres for her to per­form]. He had the pho­tog­ra­phers ready to pho­to­graph her. She had the voice, but no con­nec­tions. She grew from the ugly duck­ling into the beau­ti­ful swan, and then she felt she didn’t need him any more.’ By all ac­counts, Meneghini re­treated into his own private world af­ter she left. ‘He lived a life of­mourn­ing un­til the end,’ says Fab­bri. When Cal­las died (she left £7 mil­lion and no will), he in­her­ited much of her es­tate, and the way he stored his ex-wife’s be­long­ings in his Paris flat says a lot about how he felt. ‘They­were un­touched for 30 years,’ ex­plains Fab­bri, re­call­ing the day, three years ago, when she was in­vited to as­sess the col­lec­tion (Meneghini died in 1981). ‘Ev­ery­thing was in boxes, all cov­ered­with cob­webs. I found the dresses in the loft, still in their pro­tec­tive cov­er­ings.

‘It is al­ways vi­o­lat­ing,’ she says, to go through peo­ple’s pos­ses­sions, ‘but this felt ter­ri­ble.’ She pauses and then says, sotto voce, ‘I was read­ing the diary where Meneghini is de­scrib­ing in 30 pages his wife’s be­tray­al­with Onas­sis.’ This fa­mously hap­pened on board Onas­sis’s yacht, the Christina O. Meneghini was sea­sick and so con­fined to his cabin. ‘“One o’clock, she en­tered the cabin. One-thirty, she went out and said she had a headache. Two o’clock, she is not back…” It’s like a dra­matic film, right?’ says Fab­bri.

Maria Kalogeropou­los was born in NewYork to Greek im­mi­grants and, true to form, even her be­gin­nings were dra­matic. The story goes that the first words her mother ut­tered af­ter her birth were, ‘Take her away.’ Her mother’s sec­ond child and only son, Vasily, had died aged three from ty­phoid fever, and she had been hop­ing for an­other son ‘to fill the empty place inmy heart’. So be­gan a trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with her mother.

Cal­las re­ceived her mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion in Greece but es­tab­lished her ca­reer in Italy. She­was the first singer in 80 years (since the Ger­man so­prano Lili Lehmann) who could sing both the weight­i­est Wag­ner and the Ital­ian roles re­quir­ing fiendishly dif­fi­cult col­oratura, and her voice was at its most res­o­nant where many are at their weak­est: in the mid­dle reg­is­ter. ‘It’s a puz­zling voice,’ wroteHoward Taub­man in theNewYork Times, go­ing on to re­veal as much about Cal­las’s char­ac­ter as her voice. ‘Oc­ca­sion­ally, it gives the im­pres­sion of hav­ing been formed out of sheer willpower rather than nat­u­ral en­dow­ments.’

The other thing about Maria Cal­las was that she looked the part. ‘Be­fore her, all opera singers were big and fat, pretty

much,’ says Kerry Tay­lor, a spe­cial­ist auc­tion­eer of cos­tume and tex­tiles, and Sotheby’s con­sul­tant on Cal­las’s clothes and ac­ces­sories for the sale. ‘She was the first opera singer who re­ally looked like a hero­ine on stage.’ It came in part from her per­for­mance – her mouth, eyes and arms (‘like thewings of a great ea­gle, amar­vel­lous bird,’ wrote one critic of her per­for­mance in Lu­cia) drama­tis­ing life’s blows – but also from her ap­pear­ance. Trans­for­ma­tion was her great theme – child prodigy to star, poor to rich – and none so myth­i­cal as that which she ex­erted on her own body. ‘Does she have to be so big?’ asked one critic, af­ter her per­for­mance in­Norma at Covent Gar­den in 1952.

The an­swer was a re­sound­ing no. Putting her­self on a se­vere diet, Cal­las lost four and a half stone be­tween 1952 and 1954. She be­came lin­ear, sub­limely el­e­gant – a cou­turier’s dream. A fash­ion icon was born, dressed by Dior and the lead­ing Mi­lanese fash­ion de­signer Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure, or ‘Biki’, whom Cal­las had en­coun­tered at a din­ner party in 1953. The Queen of Opera be­came a so­phis­ti­cated New York femme du monde. ‘Not even the best fash­ion mod­els,’ Biki once said, ‘could wear shawls as Maria could. Like the an­cient Greeks she had a long torso and short legs, the ex­act op­po­site of amodel’s fig­ure. But what do youwant? She­wore clothes like no one else.’

Yet it was Cal­las’s af­fair with Onas­sis that re­ally cat­a­pulted her into a dif­fer­ent so­cial league. They first met in Venice, at a party given by the so­cialite and gos­sip colum­nist Elsa Maxwell in 1957. Onas­sis was with his wife, Tina, but he sin­gled Cal­las out for his spe­cial at­ten­tion and for the next seven days pur­sued her through­out Venice, from the Lido to Harry’s Bar. But it was an in­vi­ta­tion to cruise on the Christina O (with a party that in­cluded Sir Win­ston and Lady Churchill, their daugh­ter Diana and ca­nary Toby) that changed ev­ery­thing. ‘It­was as if a fire was de­vour­ing them both,’ Meneghini re­called later. The Ital­ian pa­pers were full of re­ports of the scan­dal. Onas­sis and Cal­las were be­sieged by re­porters.

‘Onas­sis had a pow­er­ful sex ap­peal,’ ob­serves Fab­bri. ‘He was Greek, she was Greek, they had some­thing in com­mon. She was with her hor­mones, who knows where. She had tem­pesta – she was in the tem­pest. You know, love!’ The tu­mul­tuous melo­drama of their af­fair has been chron­i­cled in scores of (un­re­li­able) bi­ogra­phies. But cer­tainly Cal­las’s ca­reer lost mo­men­tum­from this point on. ‘She started to have other pri­or­i­ties,’ ex­plains Fab­bri, point­ing to the pho­to­graph of Cal­las with the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent John F Kennedy at his birth­day party in New York, in May 1963. She started spend­ing more time so­cial­is­ing in night­clubs, jet-set­ting with the rich and fa­mous, than in opera houses and con­cert halls, liv­ing a life

of fash­ion­ably root­less cos­mopoli­tanism. In 1958 she gave 28 per­for­mances of seven op­eras in six cities around the world. In 1963 she sang no opera on stage at all.

‘This is the hu­man story of awoman who had a mis­taken love that de­stroyed her life and de­stroyed her ca­reer,’ says Gio­vanna Lo­mazzi, one of Cal­las’s close friends, at the ex­hi­bi­tion in Lucca. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Onas­sis and Cal­las lasted nine years, end­ing in dev­as­tat­ing cir­cum­stances for Cal­laswith Onas­sis’s mar­riage to Jackie Kennedy in 1968. It was a pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion. For years ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Cal­las, had be­lieved it was she who would be the one to marry ‘Ari’.

‘Where does it leave me?’ a hurt Cal­las is re­ported to have said soon af­ter. But he was to stay in her life, al­beit in a semi-de­tached way. There is a pho­to­graph of them (not in the sale) taken in 1970 on a private is­land in the Aegean, kiss­ing on the lips un­der a big beach um­brella, Cal­laswith long hair pulled straight back. ‘He ismy best friend,’ she said the fol­low­ing year. ‘He is, he was, and he al­wayswill be.’ Onas­sis died in 1974.

And it is this fi­nal lap of Cal­las’s life that the Sotheby’s sale fills in. Many of the dresses date from the early 1970s and Cal­las’s farewell con­cert tour. She is still tiny – a 34in bust and 28in waist, says Tay­lor – but ‘th­ese are the things she had be­fore she died, ba­si­cally’. There’s a Biki cream silk-crêpe cock­tail minidress from the late 1960s and, il­lus­trat­ing Cal­las’s love of the dra­matic, a black hooded evening cape circa 1970 by Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche (the dif­fu­sion line – ‘She­was care­ful with her money,’ says Tay­lor). Her stage dresses are col­umns of pure colour: a Biki jade-green chif­fon evening gown with floor-length gothic-style flow­ing sleeves, and an aqua silk evening gown by the same de­signer, worn in per­for­mance at CarnegieHall, New York, in 1974. But they are filled with an au­tum­nal air. Cal­las’s end is far from clear, but the con­sen­sus is that she melted away from com­pany to be­come ‘shriv­elled, shrunken, iso­lated’, ac­cord­ing to one bi­og­ra­pher, in the lux­ury of her Paris flat.

‘This is Cal­las when her voice is break­ing, and that gives them an added poignancy,’ says Tay­lor, point­ing to the dra­matic dresses. ‘Her voice­was go­ing, she had be­trayed her hus­band, lost her lover and yet was still need­ing – want­ing – to per­form. That, for me, says it all.’

‘Maria Cal­las and­Her Pyg­malion: Her Life with Gio­vanni Bat­tista Meneghini’ is on showat Sotheby’s, 34-35 New Bond Street, Lon­don W1 (020 7293 5000), 11-13 Novem­ber

Clock­wise from left cal­las on the set of ‘medea’ with her poo­dles; with an ad­mirer in kansas in 1959; on­stage with the tenor giuseppe di ste­fano at the royal fes­ti­val hall, lon­don; with aris­to­tle onas­sis

Clock­wise from top cal­las in 1956; notes on ‘la travi­ata’; en­gravedrings from her mar­riage to meneghini

Clock­wise from above cal­las at home with her hus­band, meneghini, in 1955; ar­riv­ing in mi­lan in 1958; a cartier brooch that she­owned

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