Glimpse into Callas’s personal life

MILAN – Musical scores, glamorous dresses and love letters belonging to Maria Callas to be auctioned next week will offer a glimpse of the private passions of the opera diva whose voice enchanted millions. The material, released by the estate of Callas’s late husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, unlocks aspects of the life Callas shared with the man she left before having an explosive relationship with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Penned before and after her marriage, 63 letters written to Meneghini are being billed as the most valuable items being put up for sale by auctioneer Sotheby’s in Milan with a price tag of 50,000-70,000 euros ($72,780). Written between 1947 and 1950, they unmask Callas’s vulnerability and deep affection for the Italian industrialist 28 years her senior who was also her manager. «To leave you would be too big a punishment for me,» she wrote after meeting Meneghini in 1947 in Verona where her career blossomed with a performance of Ponchielli’s «La Gioconda.» «Dear Love, the day of our encounter is coming! Do you want me? I am yours!» the Greek-American singer wrote in another letter. The New York-born soprano, who performed at Milan’s La Scala opera house, became one of the 20th-century music world’s best-known figures and is credited with the almost single-handed revival of Italian bel canto opera. «I am writing today, the day of the crucial test and the day of the great ‘bel canto’ lesson I will give to everyone all over the world,» she wrote from Buenos Aires in 1949, the day of the opening of «Norma.» «I want the best in everything but my art comes first,» she wrote in another letter. There are 330 lots in the collection, including material Meneghini bought at an auction after Callas’s death in 1977. Photographs of «La Divina» start in the couple hundred of euros while her metronome is being offered for 1,000-1,500 euros. Also up for sale is a silver bowl given to the singer by US President John F. Kennedy when she performed during his 1962 birthday celebrations, also attended by Marilyn Monroe. Paintings, including a portrait, musical scores, china as well as dresses by Milan designer Biki are being offered, as is a hooded Yves Saint Laurent evening cape the singer wore. Meneghini’s diary in which he recounts his separation from Callas after she and Onassis became lovers after a yacht cruise in 1959 is also being put up for sale for around 1,000-1,500 euros. Callas transformed herself from an ungainly young woman to a slim, stylish and elegant diva but a mid-career weight loss might have contributed to her vocal decline. Her prima donna temper and turbulent life kept her constantly in the spotlight as did her affair with Onassis, said to have broken her spirit and made her a recluse in her later years. «We all think to know everything about Maria Callas… so maybe the reality of her life which you see here in all its different aspects brings us back to imagine how she really lived,» said Sotheby’s Iris Fabbri. The auction has attracted interest from Athens, which has previously bought relics that once belonged to the soprano. Callas first performed in Greece when she was 18. «We are getting some fanatic phone calls from people saying, ‘Remember this is going to be mine,’ so I think the interest is of course very very big,» Fabbri said. Callas died in 1977 aged 53, but her reputation remains strong in the 30th year after her death. EMI has rereleased her commercial catalog on 70 CDs, while fashion capital Milan is exhibiting gowns by the likes of Gucci and Prada dedicated to the opera diva. The auction will take place on December 12, while an exhibition will open to the public today. The highs and lows Maria Callas was born Maria Anna Sophie Cecilia Kalogeropoulos in New York in 1923 of Greek parentage and made her professional operatic debut in Athens in 1941. With World War II intervening, her career blossomed only from 1947 when she appeared in Ponchielli’s opera «La Gioconda» at the Verona Arena in Italy conducted by Tullio Serafin who became her musical mentor. In January 1949 Callas, at the insistence of Serafin, replaced the indisposed Margherita Carosio in «I Puritani» at La Fenice – a turning point in her career. In April 1949 Callas married Giovanni Battista Meneghini. In 1957 the couple was introduced to the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis at a party in Venice. Callas hit the headlines in early 1958 after she walked out after the first act of Bellini’s opera «Norma» in Rome, attended by the president of Italy and Roman society. Her professional engagements petered out. She and Meneghini were invited for a cruise on Onassis’s yacht. By the end of the cruise, Callas and Onassis were lovers and the Meneghini marriage was finished. Callas barely sang after. In 1964/5, she was persuaded to return to the operatic stage in «Tosca» and «Norma,» which turned out to be her last. In 1966 she relinquished her American citizenship and took Greek nationality, annulling her marriage to Meneghini. She expected Onassis to marry her, but in 1968 he married Jacqueline Kennedy. In what many considered an ill-advised venture, she undertook a series of comeback concerts with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano in 1973-1974 which were an artistic failure. Callas became a virtual recluse in her Paris apartment and died there suddenly on September 16, 1977. (Reuters)