How many books have been published about Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou Meneghini Callas, great operatic goddess of the dark arts? Just in my own lifetime it’s nearly become its own cottage industry.
Scandalous tell-alls alternate with a major opus by some gossip columnist printed on good paper. Some tend to the chatty and catty, others take more scholarly slants. All of them still try to capture a piece of that simultaneously iron-willed yet fragile personality that dominated the world of opera from the moment the curtain came down on her game changing performance as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at La Fenice in Venice in 1949 until the, sad and far too early, death in 1977 at age 53.
It’s a funny thing about books written about Maria Callas. Many of them, although penned by skilled and proficient biographers, lack musical context because the authors may well have done mountainous research but they themselves aren’t opera lovers. Consequently they don’t really see the wider frame of historical reference.
It’s important to also touch on what sets Callas apart and made her one of the greatest interpretive artists of the 20th century. In the end a lot of these books feel empty. It’s all just a lot of blather and conjecture about motives and emotional reactions without a true appreciation for the artist as anything but a tabloid personality.
What we have before us now, though. is something unique. Roads Publishing has come forward with The Definitive Maria Callas: The Life of a Diva in Unseen Pictures. Many of these photos have been “unseen” by you and me because they’ve been languishing away in the Villa Marzotto in Trissino.
After the death of Bruno Tosi, who was the head of the Maria Callas Association, there was some legal wrangling before the Fondazione Progetto Marzotto could take charge of her personal archives with the many memorabilia and personal objects that had been left sadly decaying and unkempt in Mr. Tosi’s possession. Now, after careful preservation, these and many others of the most famous portraits and candids of La Divina are on display in this new coffee table volume for our quiet genuflection and devotion.
At just over 300 pages it’s printed on heavy paper with a flat matte finish so the only glare you’ll see is from those famous Greek eyes. It’s not just a book of pictures it’s a book of the pictures.
And yet is is still surprising to see Callas in so many early photos from Greece and Mexico City when the career was in its infancy and she was full -igured. It’s even more surprising to read her letters to her husband Giovanni Meneghini, cooing and whimpering of her unhappiness without him by her side.
Her complete devotion is rendered in the kind of solicitous language you wouldn’t even think Maria Callas was capable of. Yet still the personality we think we know peeks out occasionally from behind the veil, ”Are you never jealous of me? That’s not good, and I’m displeased,” she writes to him. Can you hear thunder from distant mountaintops?
Many photos are printed in larger format than we’ve seen before, often only one to a page. Nine chapters, each prefaced by a potent quote of Madame’s, and lightly scattered throughout with fairly brief biographical content just to give the reader a timeline.
Among the things I had never seen were pictures from that famous Fenice Puritani, candids from a vacation on the island of Ischia in 1956 (Callas smokes!), and dressed as Princess Hatshepsut of Egypt for Elsa Maxwell’s costume ball at the Waldorf in New York. Then we have Callas with a host of celebrities backstage and at dinners including Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor, and standing next to Marilyn Monroe (in THAT dress) at the famous JFK 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. (Callas also sang that night.)
Some of the snapshots show her looking pensive when I don’t think she was aware she was being captured. I especially like the use of the original tints on some of the fashion photography. There are even a couple of Callas’ recipes in her own hand.
Karl H. van Zoggel is to be praised for writing the biographical text and having already written two books on Callas (in Dutch) he knows his subject well enough that he doesn’t have to prove it. He’s not fawning or overtly dramatic in a tabloid way which suits the slow pace of the book and its content. I appreciated his clear style because we all know there’s enough drama in the story of this woman’s life just in the reciting of it. There’s little need to fan those flames.
“I thought when I met a man I loved, that I didn’t have to sing,” begins one of the last chapters and you start to see the sadness creeping up behind her in her face and her eyes in the pages that follow. I suppose it shouldn’t be astonishing that she wanted fulfillment and validation as a woman as well as an artist. Ultimately, her life wasn’t really hers.
In the meantime we now have this wonderful, and you could say definitive, pictorial document of this extraordinarily talented woman who had such a sense of high style and was one of the consummate artists of her era. Meanwhile it’ll look stunning on the coffee table and it’ll tide you over until they open the theme park.
Photo © Marzotto Collection