CallasPiled high in boxes in a warehouse in a Paris back street sit the various remnants of a life that was notorious, exotic, tragic and apparently quite disqualified from the normal postmortem prerogative of Rest in Peace. They're not especially exciting remnants, unless you thrill to the prospect of secondhand bed sheets, coat-hangers and kitchen equipment. And when they all come up for auction next weekend [2000-12-02], it will be more like a grand garage sale than the kind of event normally hosted at the chic Parisian auction rooms Drouot-Montaigne — with table lamps in doubtful taste, odd sticks of furniture, and (for the seriously voyeuristic) bras and stockings and a Christian Dior latex girdle: lace appliqué with two satin bows. Yours sir (it will almost certainly be sir) for an estimated $1000. What sir will do with all this when he gets it home is best not thought about.

The sale, of course, is squalid. Reprehensible. But it will make good business, because everything here belonged to one Cecilia Sofia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulou: otherwise known as Maria Callas and the most celebrated singer of modern times.

Had she lived to a reasonable age, next weekend would have been marked, not by the fall of a hammer on her underwear, but by celebrations for her 77th birthday. As things turned out, she died at the pitifully early age of 53, alone, withdrawn, and desperate for privacy — all of which makes this raw exposure of the contents of her drawers and wardrobes rather cruel.

But then, most of Maria Callas's life was lived in the public domain. The details of her adversarial relationships with opera-house intendants, fellow artists and family ("I wouldn't give her the lice from my hair," she said of her estranged, near-destitute mother) were bus-stop conversation matter in the 1960s — rivalled only by the scandal of her extramarital association with Aristotle Onassis and the minutiae of their life together on the yacht Christina. Guests reputedly bathed in champagne or, more conventionally, drank it from bar stools upholstered in the foreskins of whales. How many foreskins it took to upholster a bar stool was all part of the mystique. As none have surfaced in the auction (too bad) we shall never know.

In the pursuit of thoroughness, I asked the auctioneers about those stools, and got a vague reply to the effect that they were never Callas property. But you could say the same for other items waiting for the hammer in those boxes, including Lot 19, a score of Verdi's Don Carlos stamped "Library Copy" (upper estimate $1710), and Lot 10, a bible "placed by the Gideons" which the diva presumably lifted from a hotel (estimate $570).

But gathering together the 400-odd other lots to which she clearly did have some legitimate claim, it's possible even from the marginalia (as most of this stuff is) to build a picture of a curiously one-off life. Beginning with Lot 135, which is a framed certificate recording the fact that in 1959 Callas was made an honorary citizen of Dallas, Texas. The fact that Lot 136 is a similar certificate, awarding her honorary citizenship of Dallas in 1968, suggests that she, or they, forgot the previous occasion. But no matter. Callas was a product of America, born in New York in 1923, to immigrant parents who had only just arrived from Greece and whose marriage didn't last. She was consequently shipped back to Athens, where she built a teenage profile singing Toscas and Fidelios for the German troops in occupation through the war years.

Lot 7 is a collection of letters that passed between Callas and the Italian conductor Tullio Serafin who was the man behind her first big break: a 1947 Verona performance of Ponchielli's La Gioconda that marked the launch of her international career.

But in 1947 she was a different kind of voice to the one that brought her ultimate, enduring fame a few years later. It was Serafin, again, who engineered the change. Callas had been trained as a soprano d'agilità, which is to say she had the ability for aerial embellishment, but was rooted nonetheless in heavy, earthbound roles such as Wagner's Isolde and Brunnhilde: the femal vocal equivalent of beefcake.

Her Italian repertory included Turandot, which takes some muscle too, and she continued singing things like that throughout the 1950s. But at the same time Tullio Serafin was steering her toward more decorative bel canto roles — the nightingales you find in Donizetti and Bellini — and for a while she did both the heavy and the decorative side by side: which is against the supposed rules of vocal well-being, and could well be why her voice gave out as quickly as it did.

She was in peak condition for no more than 15 years. By the late 1960s, there was little left but squall.

But that short-lived peak had important consequences for the art of singing. Callas carried through the weight and muscle of her old roles to the delicacy of her new ones, empowering the nightingales with a strength and depth of feeling nobody had thought to offer them in modern times. She gave them credibility as drama. And the supreme, showpiece vehicle for what she could do was Bellini's Norma: her greatest role, which she officially recorded twice and sang on stage no less than 84 times.

Lot 105 in the Paris auction is a photograph of Callas in her role as Norma, signed not by the diva herself. but by her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy Italian industrialist some years her senior. And though it's odd for a husband to sign his wife's publicity shots — you'd think he was attempting to secure his own role in her life for posterity — the wretched Meneghini had good reason not to feel secure. In fact before too long he was obliterated.

When he married her in 1949, Callas had yet to hit the headlines and was still a plump and not particularly attractive woman.

In a few years all that changed however. She lost weight. She acquired the sculpted beauty of the many portraits in the auction where she looks like an Egyptian queen: the hair pulled back, the cheek-bones riding high, the eyebrows heavily defined, and lashes curling sharp as scimitars out to the corners of the face.

Above all, she discovered fashion — guided by a couturier called Madam Biki, a granddaughter of Puceini who knew a thing or two about 1950s European chic.

Most of the items in the auction are the coats, hats, gloves and shoes in which the off-stage iconography of La Divina (as the papers called her) was created. Endearingly, there are old furs given a new lease of life as linings for designer coats (Callas was clearly not above recycling her possessions). More macabre is a great pile of wigs, hairpieces and appendages that look like dangling rats' tails, but were meant to give her head a fuller, rounder shape. And ominously — in Lots 261 and 262 — there are the boating shoes she wore on the Christina, where Onassis wooed and won her under Meneghini's nose.

Other things, such as letters sent on the Christina's headed paper, bear witness to the way she then abandoned her career, devoting herself so totally to the vacuous life of a rich man's adornment, that when Onassis dropped her, ruthlessly and publicly in 1968, her world collapsed. Refusing all further stage work, her only remaining performances were a handful of masterclasses in New York and an agreement to bail out Giuseppe di Stefano's gambling debts by accompanying the tenor on an ill-fated recital tour in the early 1970s. By which time the voice had long gone.

In truth, her professional life began to fall apart as early as the 1950s when, after a succession of well-publicised scraps, she was sacked by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and squeezed out of her home base at La Scala, Milan. The point of no return was probably the night she walked out on a gala performance of Norma, attended by the Italian president and the glitterati of Rome. It was neither forgotten nor forgiven and fuelled Callas's enduring reputation for tempestuously unprofessional behaviour.

But hindsight suggests that she was in fact professional to a fault and more often the victim than the perpetrator of the battles. On the night of that Rome gala, she was ill — genuinely ill and attempted to explain this to her audience. Lot 65 in the auction is a note, scribbled by Meneghini on the back of an envelope in make-up pencil, to be read out on stage. For some reason it never was: hence the furore, which scarred Callas so badly that she kept the 700 or so letters of support she received the following week from her fans. The letters now comprise Lot 67. Estimate $5000.

The retention of those letters says something about her vulnerability — as does Lot 89 (a pair of owl-like spectacles: she was shortsighted and accordingly saw very little on stage, least of all the conductor) and Lot 384 (a pack of tarot cards, which presumably failed to reveal the fate in store for her).

But then, perhaps they did. There was an element of self-will in the sorrows of Maria Callas, and it made her a great artist for much the same reasons that she was a difficult woman. She demanded everything and more. And if she was tough on others, she was tougher on herself — which is why the voice could never be the seamlessly beautiful instrument bel canto singers are supposed to cultivate.

Her personality was too volatile, her approach to singing too visceral, too self-sacrificing in its love affair with risk. Yet in the mythology of the performing arts, this is just what audiences ask for. We expect the diva to be both a goddess and a slave: to give her life for art. We thrill to the dimension of that sacrifice. And Callas dutifully obliged. She lived her life like one of her own tragic heroines who, fulfilling the standard requirement of women in opera, sing, suffer and die. When death finally came, it was so Wagnerian — she seems to have simply faded away — it could have been scripted.

I used to know a record company executive who claimed to have seen Callas on her death-bed and fought the temptation to snip off a lock of her hair, believing (as he told me) that she should "go to the grave intact". He needn't have been quite so scrupulous. Lot 202 next weekend is a mangy-looking swatch of slightly greying chestnut tresses. Going for a song. Or failing that, $2860.

Michael White's article first appeared in Weekend Review,
The Independent (U.K.), 25 November 2000, pp. 1-2.

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