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 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