Moments in the life of a great diva: Athens pays tribute to Maria Callas

A series of photos recording an excursion in the countryside in 1957 show a carefree Maria Callas having a good time. Further down, a poised, blonder Callas plays with her dog in her house in Verona. And then of course, there is «La Divina» in her moments of sheer triumph – photos taken by Ignacio Morales in Barcelona in May 1959, at the city’s legendary Liceo theater. All these moments in the life (both public and private) of the legend are part of a collection of the diva’s memorabilia currently on display at the newly established Maria Callas Museum in the Technopolis cultural center. Gems in the two-hall museum include a double-faced chinchilla and emerald silk coat by the Italian stylist Biki – Callas wore it in a famous snapshot in which she poses between the two dominant men in her life, her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini and Aristotle Onassis – a stage wig for her appearances in Cherubini’s «Medea» at La Scala in Milan, as well as a pair of Hermes leather gloves. A series of letters from and to family and friends is another part of the new museum’s assets, including correspondence between Callas, Meneghini and maestro Tullio Serafin – the celebrated Italian conductor who took Callas under his wing during the first years of her international career, acting as a second musical mentor, after her teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. (He was the first one to conduct Callas performing with an orchestra in Italy in 1947, and worked closely with her on Bellini’s «Norma,» a landmark role for the diva, while he was the one to lead her in «Norma,» the last time she appeared in Epidaurus in August 1960.) Correspondence with de Hidalgo is another focal point of the museum, with a series of letters written in French and Italian; Callas had met de Hidalgo in Athens in 1938, becoming her student and close friend in 1939. The Maria Callas Museum owes its existence to former Deputy Mayor Fotis Papathanasiou, who fought for its establishment during the tenure of Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos. It was Papathanasiou who traveled to Paris for the «Maria Callas, Souvenirs of a Legend» auction, which took place in December 2000, in which two prominent collectors of Callas memorabilia, Italian decorator Ilario Tamassia and Greek author Nicolas Petsalis-Diomidis, parted with numerous items. The purchased items – which Papathanasiou bought with the support of Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos – became the foundation for the museum. «The purposes of this kind of museum are to honor the person, to get a feeling of the broad personality, but also to create a space for research as well as an area where friends and all those interested in Callas can meet,» said Papathanasiou to Kathimerini English Edition. According to Papathanasiou, since the opening of the museum in December 2002, a number of people have come forward, willing to donate or loan items from their own collections. The museum was set up thanks to donations by Alexandra P. Kanellopoulou and Thekla K. Marinidi, in memory of their parents Dimitrios and Melpomenis Londou, while the equipment in the screening and conference hall was sponsored by the Friends of the National Opera Society. And though Papathanasiou’s term in office is over, he hopes to maintain a close working relationship with the municipality’s new administration in relation to the Maria Callas Museum. Future tasks will include a scientific evaluation of the items on display and in storage. «There are museums which were formed with much less than what we have,» said Papathanasiou, citing Rossini’s house in Pesaro, Italy, as an example (a display of vintage vinyl records and CDs was donated to the Callas Museum by Papathanasiou). For the time being, photos, letters and a few personal belongings form the bulk of the museum’s holdings. There is no doubt that given proper funding and support from both the public and the private sector, the new museum will develop into a comprehensive space of shared knowledge and collective memory, in a long-awaited tribute to one of the world’s greatest performers. Maria Callas Museum, Technopolis, 100 Pireos, tel 210.3467.322. Opening hours 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., except Mondays and holidays. Free admission.

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