It’s been 40 years since she left us, and Maria Callas has remained in our hearts and on our minds ever since as the greatest opera voice and actress of the second half of the 20 th century. Yet I was surprised to have dinner with a young French diplomat last week who had never heard of her ! So the exhibition at la Seine Musicale is terribly important. And it is a good reason to discover the new auditorium set on Ile Seguin in Boulogne.
Tom Volf, has devoted the last five years to the Greek, New York born diva, and he is the curator of this exhibition of films and interviews. You are being given an audioguide when you enter and in front of every screen, you can start playing her famous arias and great interviews in English and French. It is very moving especially when you have actually heard and seen her on stage. Different moments of her 23 year career (she bid her farewell at La Scala in 1962) and short life (she died at 53 from a pulmonary embolism) are conveyed through pictures and films. Her marriage to industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini guaranteed her stability and a faithful agent. At 31, she sang Traviata in a Visconti production. In 1959 she met Aristotle Onassis who invited her on his yacht, the “Christina” with her husband. She is 35 and at the height of her fame. He will marry Jackie Kennedy without even telling her. And she will never recover.
One of her most famous parts was in Lucia di Lamermoor which gave the Théâtre des Champs Elysées the occasion of putting on a concert version of the Donizetti opera, conducted by Roberto Abbado, (the nephew of) and sung by Jessica Pratt who overwhelmed the public. She received a standing ovation on September 12 th. Maria Callas had sung three times at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1963 with Georges Prêtre, in 1965 and in 1973 when she was touring with Giuseppe di Stefano in an ultimate performance.
She died on avenue Georges Mandel and her funeral took place in the Greek orthodox church of rue Georges Bizet, the famous composer, of all places. What a good omen.
I learned at the show that she had lived the first fourteen years of her life in New York and only moved to Greece when her parents divorced, and her mother took her and her two older sisters back home. There, her mother forced her into intensive singing and she appeared on stage at 15 for the first time in the role of “Santuzza” in Cavalliera Rusticana at the Olympia Theatre in Athens. She sang Tosca at 18, an incredible achievement by itself.
« My sister was slim and beautiful and friendly, and my mother always preferred her. I was the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular. It is a cruel thing to make a child feel ugly and unwanted… I’ll never forgive her for taking my childhood away. During all the years I should have been playing and growing up, I was singing or making money. Everything I did for them was mostly good and everything they did to me was mostly bad ».
Maria Callas had a tragic destiny, and a short life, dying at 53. What is most moving in this show, is that we constantly hear her voice whether in interviews or on stage and the little auditorium with its large screens give the public fabulous quiet musical moments. A the end of the show, pictures of Pasolini and herself remind us of her amazing role in “Medea”, one of the greatest films shot in Greece in 1969!
If you go and see “West Side story” in October at la Seine Musical, make sure to save an hour before hand to revisit la Callas… And on December 13, Tom Volf’s documentary will be out everywhere…
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