On 16 September 2017, it will be 40 years since Maria Callas died in her home in Paris at the age of 53.
Callas’s friend Giovanna Lomazzi was just 20 when the two of them met in Milan in 1952 after a performance of La Gioconda at La Scala. Callas was 29.
She always said that I was her little sister. She needed to create bonds because they were missing in her family. Her father lived in America and she never saw him, and her relations with her mother and sister were terrible. Her mother never came to one of her performances, and concentrated on the other sister who had no particular talent.
At the time of their first meeting, Callas was still overweight, but the following year that would change.
She was aware that with her unglamorous physique, she couldn’t be a great interpreter. She decided to diet to become more believable and in just two years she lost 50 kilos. She would eat only grilled meat and unseasoned vegetables. She didn’t drink alcohol or eat desserts. Her only lapse was to eat little jellies that she bought at a Scala. She transformed herself into a woman who was elegant, beautiful, and convincing in every role she interpreted. She attracted the attention of great directors, who previously were not interested in her, beginning with Luchino Visconti who did a Traviata with her. It was a triumph.
Lomazzi came to know Giovanni Battista Meneghini well. Meneghini and Callas had been married in 1949.
It wasn’t Meneghini who transformed her into a diva, but their relationship was pure, loyal, and full of warmth. Meneghini was a safety net for Maria when she arrived in Italy with just a blouse that she would wash in the evening so that she could wear it again the next day. Battista provided her with a house where she had her first important encounters. He was a respectful husband and she admired him, though I don’t think the word ‘love’ would describe her feelings.
Giovanna Lomazzi became an intimate friend, a ‘sister’, accompanying Callas on tours abroad, and a constant presence in her home in Milan.
She was a woman who was series, punctual, precise and she studied hard. She was the first to arrive for a rehearsal and the last to leave. She was very instinctive. Once, in New York, a score arrived where we were staying and she immediately played it through. Her all-round musicianship allowed her to become great.
When Lomazzi is asked about the rivalry with colleagues, she says,
Nothing of that is true. There was a disagreement in South America when she and Renata Tebaldi both showed up to sing the same opera. In that occasion, it’s true, there was rivalry, but that’s understandable if two sopranos find themselves together to undertake the same role. But they both followed their own paths, distant from one another, and there wasn’t any fighting.
The voices hinting at rivalry between the two divas came from the same opera fans who loved or hated, cheered or booed, La Callas.
Callas aroused opposing emotions and opinions: many loved her, but some said she had an ugly voice. I remember, after a Traviata, that someone threw a bunch of radishes and onions on stage during the curtain call and, as she was very short-sighted, she picked them up thinking they were flowers. When she realised what they were, she made a gesture to thank the person who had thrown them which provoked thunderous applause from the audience.
When Callas met Onassis
Lomazzi was at the centre of things when Callas met Onassis.
After their first meeting in the theatre, he invited Maria and her husband for a holiday on her yacht, but she refused because she had organised with me and other friends to go on a cruise in the Aegean. It was Meneghini who convinced her to accept the invitation because he liked the idea of being onboard with Winston Churchill and other celebrities of the day. It was Meneghini who unknowingly accompanied his wife into the arms of another man.
When Maria spoke of ‘Aristo’, as she called him, she was always sad, and cried a great deal. She was aware that her career was falling apart and knew that in part it was due to Onassis. With him she was totally adrift emotionally; he treated her badly and he didn’t care anything about music or opera. For him, Maria Callas was a trophy to exhibit, and he made her do many things which are not good for an opera singer: she would be out in winds on his boat, and he would make her stay up until late. Yes, Onassis certainly contributed to the end of her career.
When Maria came to my wedding in 1960, it was without Onassis. The story was still at its height but it didn’t cloud the day, but she told me, “I’m very sad for you.” Those words show how she viewed marriage and love. Pain had made her cynical.
It came to light after her death, that Callas had become pregnant with Onassis’s child.
Her only child was that with Onassis, but it was born prematurely and died soon after. Maria Callas never told me that she wanted a child, and I think that she wanted it only to cement her relationship with Onassis. He was against it however, and when she became pregnant he told the doctor that would pay any sum as long as it was aborted. She wanted to give birth to the baby however… she wanted to create a family.
She let herself die
Callas’s last opera performance was at Covent Garden in 1965, her relationship with Onassis waned and in 1968 he married Jacqueline Kennedy.
She never confided in me her feelings about that. She told me of her separation from Meneghini, saying, “I’m leaving Battista because I’m in love with Aristo.” You see, when her career began to fade she stopped calling and seeing her old friends. She isolated herself from everything.
By the time of her death in 1977, we seldom wrote to each other, but that August I was in Campania and decided to write on my return to Rome. It was on my return that I received the phone call informing me that she’d died.
I went immediately to Paris, but her housekeeper, who I knew from Milan, said, “I won’t let you see her, you must remember her how she was.” A heart-breaking phrase that made me imagine that she was bloated, deformed…
I exclude suicide. Callas at that point was a woman without a career, friends, or love. I think she dies because she didn’t have anything left that made her want to live.
She let herself die.
Giovanna Lomazzi was talking to Giulia Masoero Regis for La vita in diretta magazine.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.