“Music starts where language stops…This is true, but although music is something too big to be talked about, it can be served forever and respected with humility. Singing, for me, is not an act of pride, but merely an attempt to rise towards those heights where everything is harmony.” — Maria Callas
Now that social media has catapulted us to a new dark age where millions know how Kendall Jenner eats a KitKat but need a Google Doodle to remind them who Maria Callas is, it seems like a better time than ever to deep dive into some of the more rarely seen facets of the great diva’s life and art. And appropriately enough given Callas’s Hellenic heritage, one venue in the Greek capital has gone all in.
Or out, depending on how you look at it. But clearly the B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation in Athens is the place to be for both seasoned Callas fans and the culturally curious alike. Now through October, many of the soprano’s effects are on lavish display.
Obviously Maria Callas, the Greek-American soprano and most justly celebrated operatic diva of all time, needs no introduction. But aren’t you kind of curious about what the diva wore? Oh, I know you’ve seen the old photos and those Youtube clips drop clues, but it’s not the same as seeing the carefully crafted and often surprisingly colorful couture of Milan design great Biki up close.
A recent show at The Museum at FIT in New York on the gowns of Adrian, the designer who dressed Greta Garbo, was a fitting reminder that high fashion was a truly an art before style was cheapened by the likes of Instagram and debased by fashion shows sponsored by (and frankly more or less beholden to) German car companies. I won’t go so far as to say you can hear Callas through her clothes, but there is something poignant about looking at the packaging that, while not the thing that transfixed audiences, certainly did its part to keep those ovations standing.
But don’t be mistaken: Maria Callas: The Myth Lives On exhibition, which was inaugurated by the Greek President, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, on May 15 at the stately B & M Theocharakis Foundation in Athens, is not simply about a flash of fashion. It’s a window into the life of La Divina herself. Fashions figure prominently, of course, but there is also jewelry, rarely seen photos, VIP airline luggage tags and other items on loan from the private collection of Nikos Charalampopoulos that bring you tantalizing close to the inner life of a star.
All the objets on display are have not been randomly chosen but rather relate to Callas’s artistic career: a postiche (made of her own hair) that she wore for many of her stage performances, the gloves she was wearing for the legendary Visconti production of La Traviata, books with music scores and parts, and of course the outfits for her recitals (including elements of the outfit she wore for her Herodion recital and her shawl) and for high society parties too, during her Onassis years.
Now, the fact that the President of the Hellenic Republic opened this show should tell you something about the special significance of Callas to Greeks. Beyond her extraordinary artistic talent, to which her style and glamour were ultimately just footnotes, it was what Maria Callas represented that made her so much larger than life. In an interview with the Greek newspaper LIFO, exhibit curator Fotis Papathanassiou said, “We wanted to remind people of the extent not only of Callas’s greatness but her Greekness too. In the 20th century we saw the spirit of tragedy embodied through the art of opera,” he adds, evoking how in the 18th and 19th centuries Gluck and Wagner respectively “returned to the source” and noting Renaissance efforts too to imitate the ancient tragedies. “In terms emphasizing the dramatic plot, to almost therapeutically working society and creating catharsis in the Aristotelian sense, Maria Callas served these dimensions like no other. Callas brought the tragic roots back to opera in the 20th century. It was a mystical coincidence that she was Greek.”
International, cosmopolitan, regenerator of ancient Greek tragedy, which is to say a good chunk of the foundational art of Western civilization. And a creature of impeccable taste, too. Refined. Elegant. Check out this gold Bulgari number…
And wait, are those personalized matchbooks from some of the world’s finest hotels?
Yes they are. A famous score of La Traviata, Aristotle Onassis’s favorite flytzani (small coffee cup), items from the Onassis yacht, Christina. There’s a lot to take in on the three floors of the Theocharakis Foundation, which has for now become the closest thing the world has to a Maria Callas museum. In Athens, this show that sheds a new and nuanced light on a cultural legend is one that should definitely go on your (yes!) don’t-myth list.
Maria Callas: The Myth Lives On runs until the 29th of October, but note that the Foundation stays closed during August (from 1st to 28th).
The B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music is located at 9 Vassilissis Sofias Ave and 1 Merlin St, across from the Greek Parliament building in Athens. Check out their Facebook page here.