Italy was where Maria Callas began her career, lived in many cities, fell in love, and sang
The “La Divina” arrived in Verona from the U.S. New York in 1947 because she had to meet Giovanni Zenatello, impressario of the Arena Opera Festival who engaged her for La Gioconda, the opera to be performed that season. On June 27th Maria Callas had already been in Verona, she’s staying at the modest hotel Accademia, (today a luxury hotel). For dinner she went to Pedavena restaurant in Bra square, almost in front of the Roman amphitheater (today in the beautiful building where Pedavena was, there’s a restaurant). There she met Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy industrialist, with a passion for the opera who soon began courting her. In August Maria Callas song in the Arena directed by Tullio Serafin.
Reviews were good but success didn’t come yet. In 1947 she song in Florence and in many other Italian cities. Two years later in 1949, unable to find a replacement for Carosio, Maestro Serafin asked Callas to sing Elvira in I Puritani at La Fenice in Venice. It’s an enormous success, it was the turning point in Maria Callas career.
In 1950 she debuted at the Scala theater in Milan and it’s the beginning of a long period of success in which both the audience and critics loved her.
The Wedding at Filippini Church
In the meantime, after a long courtship, Maria Callas accepted to marry Giovanni Battista Meneghini. The wedding was celebrated in a side room of the church of Filippini in Verona. Maria’s a Greek orthodox Christian, and she didn’t want to convert to Catholicism so that the wedding couldn’t be performed as an official rite. Meneghini left the management of his factory and became the manager of his wife.
Maria Callas in Zevio
When she’s not on a tour, Maria Callas lived with her husband in his villa in Zevio, in the countryside south of Verona. Her years in Zevio were quiet and serene. She practiced in the beautiful park of the villa. People of the village climbed on the wall surrounding the building to hear her singing.
When she’s not too busy she enjoyed cooking, she prepared typical dishes of Veronese cuisine: pearà, risotto al tastasal, pastissada.
She liked the bar Sport on Santa Toscana square and bar Commercio on Marconi square and she visited them quite often with her husband.
Now, the town of Zevio, together with the Maria Callas Foundation has undergone an important project to celebrate the presence of the “Divina” in the Veronese countryside.
In the old town hall a museum was created in which the collection of Maria Callas memorabilias are displayed collected in more than 40 years by one of Maria Callas greatest fan, Giancarlo Tanzi. It’s a collection of thousands of pictures, old records, magazines, dresses of the great singer. The museum has been operating for December 2007 and it’s followed by a concert hall hosting operas and international events.
Maria Callas in Sirmione
Maria Callas and Giovanni Battista Meneghini spent few weeks in their villa in the heart of Sirmione at Lake Garda, away from the crowd. Maria Callas arrived at Sirmione for the first time in 1952 and spent 7 summer holidays there (until their bitter divorce). Today, in the heart of Sirmione peninsula, people still admire the beautiful and elegant villa in which Maria Callas spent the best years of her life. Local people still remember her as a simple and friendly lady. She often stopped for an aperitivo at Caffé Grand Italia.
But in 1959 Maria Callas met Aristotele Onassis and left her husband. It’s the beginning of that tragic relationship that would lead her to downfall and she never came back to Sirmione, but she always missed Lake Garda and its atmosphere.
Callas’s international career began in 1947 when opera singers were expected to be overweight. But at 108 kg Callas felt miserable and regarded herself ugly and unlovable. When the director Luchino Visconti told her to lose 30 kg before he would work with her, she dropped 40 kg. She then went on to lose another 8 kg. When she lost that incredible 40 kilograms in one year she transformed herself from fat and dowdy opera singer into svelte and elegant diva. But the pressure to stay thin was tremendous for the food-lover soprano, whose newly published personal papers show how she tried to comfort herself during her tormented battles with her weight.
According to legend, Callas’s enormous weight loss came about because she deliberately swallowed a tapeworm. Bruno Tosi, president of the International Maria Callas Association, said she did have to have treatment for worms, possibly because of her fondness for raw steak, but she dropped the weight by following a diet based on consuming iodine.
“It was a dangerous treatment because it affected the central nervous system and changed her metabolism, but she turned into a beautiful swan”- said Tosi.
Callas began a habit of meticulous recipe collecting, scribbling down instructions for her favorite dishes as she traveled the world. She would ‘steal’ recipes from famous cooks in hotels, writing them on scraps of paper and stuffing them into her handbag. But they were for food she herself would never eat. “She loved food, especially cakes and puddings, but lived mostly on steak and salad”- said Callas expert Bruno Tosi, who was allowed the handwritten recipes to publish for the first time in Italy. “Writing down these recipes was a vicarious pleasure because she rarely allowed herself to taste any of them.”
Callas never ate pasta and favored meals of rare beef or steak tartare. However all the time -and during her love affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis – she collected recipes: tomato omelettes, veal l’oriental, bechamel sauce with capers, mustard sauce, golden pound cake, chocolate beignets and a cake she called ‘my cake’ which was heavy and laden with sugar. The recipes were sent back to her personal cook, who served them at Callas’s dinner parties. While her guests tucked in, Callas ate only a few morsels. She rarely drank wine, but liked champagne because it was less calorific. She was like many women, struggling her entire life with her weight,’ said Tosi.
In spite of her diet Callas died at age of 53, in Paris in 1977, still heartbroken at Onassis leaving her to marry Jackie Kennedy. But in Italy, 41 years after her death, Italians still love her. In Venice the Ponte della Fenice bridge was renamed Ponte (Bridge) Maria Callas after 100,000 signatures were gathered by the Maria Callas International Association. In Sirmione, park, restaurant, streets are called after her.