More than 300 books have been written about Maria Callas, the legendary soprano whose life was as tragic as it was transcendent. Callas, who died in 1977, had what opera lovers call “presence,” that rare quality enabling special performers to command, and sometimes captivate, an audience.
Westwood’s Istituto Italiano di Cultura is celebrating her life and style in an exhibition, “Maria Callas: A Woman, a Voice, a Myth,” which pays homage to the diva’s profound impact on her art form. It offers an opportunity for those who are too young to appreciate or who may have forgotten about her style, tenacity and talent.
FOR THE RECORD:
Callas exhibition: In the April 4 Image section, an article about an exhibition on Maria Callas at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Los Angeles credited Bruno Tosi for the installation. Though the show consists of items collected by Tosi, it was designed by Sussman/Prejza & Co. in collaboration with architect Barton Myers. —
The exhibition, which includes an array of memorabilia, stage costumes and jewels as well as rare letters and photographs, is the work of Bruno Tosi, a passionate Callas collector and archivist of these precious pieces. His dream: to gather as many of her belongings as possible, safeguard them and share them with the world. This is the last year the treasures will be on tour. In the future, they will find a permanent home in Venice, Italy, where a museum waits to honor her memory.
The Instituto’s exhibition is not, of course, exclusively for those unfamiliar with Callas. It’s also for devoted fans who have followed “that voice” since her 1947 debut performing “La Gioconda” (the Verona Arena) and “Tristan and Isolde” (Fenice Opera House). In that year, opera changed forever, and the world had finally found its Prima Donna.
As her career blossomed, the singer was indefatigable, giving 595 performances over the next 18 years and mastering notoriously difficult roles (a grueling Wagner concert, for example, could last six hours). At one of her performances, Callas received an unprecedented 27 curtain calls, spanning more than 40 minutes.
But she was more than a voice. It was her vaunted presence that elevated her into opera’s pantheon. In a collection of memoirs compiled by Tosi, “The Young Maria Callas,” the diva recalls, “Even as a child I didn’t like the middle way: my mother wanted me to become a singer and I was quite happy to second her, but only on the condition that I be able one day to become a great singer. All or nothing.”
Part of the formula that made her such a revered performer was Callas’ glamorous appearance. But this wasn’t always so. As radically as she transformed opera, she transformed herself. The Cleopatra eyes that you swore were looking directly at you in the audience and the lithe model’s body and striking face came later in her career.
She had always struggled with her weight, sometimes reaching as much as 180 pounds on a 5-foot-7 inch frame. Her skin was marred by acne and she chewed her fingernails. Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidis, in his book “The Unknown Callas,” recalls the impressions of her first teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo: “One morning a girl appeared. The very idea of that girl wanting to be a singer was laughable! She was tall, very fat, wore heavy glasses. She sat in a corner, not knowing what to do with her hands, and began biting her nails.... her round face was spotted with pimples.”
Although Callas was a star by 1953, famous Italian designer Biki and Luchino Visconti, who was directing her in “La Traviata,” told her she needed to change her look. According to reporter Anita Pensotti, Biki said to Callas, “How much do you weigh? More than a 100 kilos? Before returning to me you must lose weight as fast as possible. At least 30 kilos; no less.” They gave her a one-year time limit.
Pia Meneghini, Callas’ sister-in-law, reveals the lengths to which the singer went to achieve this goal: “She underwent a dangerous treatment from a group of Swiss doctors. She was administered large doses of dry thyroid extract and hormones speeding up her metabolism, eliminating excess fat. Impatient with the results…she had iodine applied directly into the thyroid…It gave her an enviable figure but altered her metabolism, her nervous system, and also damaged her voice.”
Once Callas transformed into the bella donna she had dreamed of becoming, Dior, Balmain, Givenchy, YSL — everyone — wanted to dress her. But it soon became apparent that her Faustian bargain came at an exorbitant price: her voice. Her “instrument” had been born into a large frame. Many observers feel that the reason Callas lost the ability to reach her famous high notes was because she was simply no longer robust enough to grab the needed octaves. She weighed 117 pounds.
John Spear, a member of the Opera League of Los Angeles, was fortunate enough to witness a Callas performance in 1974 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. “It was an honor to see her on stage. Was the voice in tatters? Yes. It shredded at times. But it was still a good voice. [However,] I was there to see the person perform, as she was one of the greatest actors of the theatre in the 20th century.”
If the Istituto exhibition were an opera, Callas probably would be pleased with the staging. Her costumes have been posed in an eye-catching and realistic manner. Her 1956 La Scala Il Barbiere di Siviglia dress is a vibrant shade of marigold with contrasting black netting and pompoms. White lace drapes from the elbows, which one can imagine enhanced her every gesture. Another must-see is a 1958 stage costume worn during “La Traviata” in Lisbon. A dramatic black-velvet bodice with matching skirt would have appeared ravishing under the stage lights, its artfully placed, coral-shaped silver embroidery giving her a glittering silhouette.
Strolling through the exhibit, one listens to Callas’ recorded voice and examines each mint-condition costume, many of which she is wearing in the photos covering the walls. Also on display are examples of her dramatic personal and stage jewelry. A diadem worn in “Norma” and a gleaming crown worn in the film “Medea,” directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, are just two examples.
Callas’ legacy lives on in tributes throughout the world, and she continues to influence high fashion to this day. D&G’s fall 2009 ready-to-wear collection was inspired by the diva. The clothes were created in embroidered material and jacquards with boned bodices and heavy lace. They seem to have been designed to be costumes worthy of La Scala. The belts were fashioned after curtain tassels. But the most arresting tribute from the runway was the D&G collection of shirts bearing her famous face and screen-prints of old posters announcing her performances.
Ultimately, the luminosity of Callas’ presence began to dim with the decline of her voice.
Anne Edwards, in her book “Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography,” quotes Callas saying, “Since I lost my voice I want to die.” Years of stress (a child prodigy working with the rigor of an adult), family disasters, broken love affairs and a poor constitution all contributed to a sad libretto. She died in nearisolation of a heart attack in Paris at age 53. Appropriate for a Greek legend, she even seemed to have had a mythical demise. It has been rumored that “La Divina” appeared eerily beautiful in death, so much so that the few who saw her swore she’d somehow regained her youthful looks.
Exhibit: Maria Callas: A Woman, a Voice, a Myth. Where: Istituto Italiano di Cultura, 1023 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. Dates: Through April 23. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Free. For more information: https://www.iiclosangeles.esteri.it