Callas Casual: An Off-Duty-ish Day in the Company of La Divina

Ahead of the Release of ‘The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography,’ Follow Maria Callas on a Day Offstage

By Sophia Lambton
(Callas enshrouded in reporters. Credit: Maurice Zalewski/ADOC photos)


Vignettes of onstage outtakes are aplenty.

Daily shots of the soprano, less so.

Here’s a peek into Maria’s typical excursions—culinary and sartorial; social and cultural—on a work(not really)less day.

Coruscating like the crystalline intrusion of a cocktail dress’ brooch asparkle in a parking lot; a spotlight pooling blindness onto “Poliuto”‘s Paolina; paparazzi flashes flouting taste, a searing beam usurps the dreams of dazed Maria Callas. Lapsing petals tail its path on rambler roses clambering out of their vases on this June, July or August day; perhaps late May in Sirmione, Italy where the soprano maintains questionable peace. It’s ten o’clock and scorching chinks of sunlight have the temperature at a stunned ninety-five.

“I don’t usually sing in summer,” she would explain, “not because I’m so high and mighty but because, like everybody else, I suffer from the heat and my throat gets dry. I need humidity, like most singers.”

Glossy glossaries of travelogue-like walks and carefree talks and laymen’s costumes graced her offstage escapades. Her spectacles latched on to her before all else—“can’t see you without them,” the short-sighted Maria told an interviewer once—and contact lenses irritated her.

As a girl her habits had been short of culinary. “I hardly ever had breakfast,” she wrote of her teen years. “My mother used to run after me down the front steps because I would go off in the mornings without even having had a cup of tea or a piece of toast.” Strong coffee would revive her in La Scala years; at times a shot of dolci in a cookie and a chocolate chunk. Espresso’s zest could wrest out drowsiness in seconds; her low blood pressure allowed for ten cups daily.

Popping hops of phone calls sapped the energy out of her mornings. Select denizens were dealt a reprimand: “Bonjour, Monsieur!” crooned none-the-wiser Parisians. “Ce n’est pas un monsieur,” shouted Maria, “c’est la voix du matin!”: “This is not a ‘monsieur’, it’s the voice of the morning!”

Rarely did the artist have the time for totally luxuriating in a bath; a ritual for which she pined. The room—accorded disproportionate importance in the house—was, in the eyes of Shirley Verrett, “a real ladies’ toilette”: one that included a couch and a table and flowers. A haven of a haunt for its inhabitant, the singer filled it with the reams of scores. “It’s where I like to work the most,” she told vocal coach Janine Reiss.

Curated were her outfits. At the height of her “Regina della Scala” period the soprano sported gowns with giant polka dots and wide-brim hats of gossamer-like fabric; ballerina’s tight chignons; striped shirt dresses with huge bolero skirts. Then as the sixties loosened waists and notch lapel print shirts grew prevalent, she offered bouffant bobs of playful buoyancies; checked dresses and thick sashes at the waist.

Lest anybody think her own taste dictated selections, it was maestra fashionista Biki—or, Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure, step-granddaughter of Giacomo Puccini–who supplied sartorial augury. Maria adored wearing turquoise, emerald green and black. Her outfits came arranged from Biki’s atelier with matching numbers: blouse number 4 with no. 7 bag; dress 23 with no. 10 shoes. It was a must for this Vogue highlight who was guilty of possession of two hundred dresses and three hundred hats; one hundred fifty pairs of shoes and countless gloves.

Emerging into dove-drenched light one Sirmione morning, she was crafted with a gray Prince of Wales cloak with mother-of-pearl buttons; matching ear studs and a shark-hued skirt. Manolo Blahnik would ascribe one of his famed designs to Callas’ custom-made slingbacks.

Blue frosted sheets of about seventeen by fifteen inches would comprise the Callas stationery for a time. “Give also my regards to Carlos Pani and Sara,” she would write in one of her expected salutations. “I would like to hear from them, and tell them I wish them the best with their new baby.” One telegram wished fellow soprano Antonietta Stella a speedy recovery after surgery; another mezzo Giulietta Simionato great success for her La Scala “Mignon.” Maria would ask after one friend’s “dear father & mother, brother & escort,” in the case of gay opera aficionado friend J. Warren Perry; she would call on fans to visit her—including the whole family of one appreciative twelve-year-old.

Leisurely pleasure was afforded hordes of magazines: Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the French L’Officiel; Elle and Italian Annabella. Void of roiling takes on her interpretations, these editions lavished her with calm: disarming tension to invite her to find recipes she pasted into scrapbooks. One stab at hatching Greek desserts resulted in disaster in the words of friend Giovanna Lomazzi.

Compiling lists of their ingredients was a different kind of art.

“I could cut out something I saw the other day and send it to you—” offered radio host Harry Fleetwood back in 1958.

“Oh, thank you—I’d love it,” Maria enthused. “I love to read recipes.”

“I come across a cooking column—Clementine Paddleford, do you ever read her columns?”

“Yes, I do,” Maria stretched the discourse. “So you cut them too? Why?”

“Well, I cut them out and send them on to people,” confessed Fleetwood.

“Well, there you are, so then it’s not—” she cut herself off with a chuckle.

Toil embroiled her consciousness even on off-days. “There is a great deal to be done in the mind: you do not always require a piano…” she’d avow. “The poet talks of the mind’s eye: there is the mind’s ear.” Friend and music critic Stelios Galatopoulos stopped by her Milanese home, Via Buonarroti 44, to take a parcel she was sending to her mother figure cum vocal coach, soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. He stumbled upon seeing her decked out as Violetta in “La traviata”’s second act escorting out Toti Dal Monte: the onetime legend now a short old lady with a parasol.

A few months before debuting at La Scala in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” she attended a play based on the English queen’s story. A volte-face followed her unwanted close encounter with the truth—prompting Maria to conclude: “You can’t say that it’s a normal thing to do also because for instance, Anne Boleyn is quite different in history than what she is in the opera. I couldn’t bother with history after because it really… completely ruined my insight of it. So I had to really go by the music.”

Other occasions would invite a tightly controlled attitude to contractors arrived to renovate her domicile. At her Lake Garda villa in Sirmione she would oversee the installation of adorning nurseries: acacias and abelias and viburnum; araucarias, magnolias and camellias and hydrangeas and azaleas courting junipers and daffodils and hyacinths around her house.

Domestic domineering done, Maria would take refuge in her Milanese days in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: shopping at its costliest. Parading through the “grandi magazzini”, she would stop at every window to enquire and examine and determine if the purchase was a right fit. Hours would be passed before displays till she alighted at the object of her quest and exited the premises “all fresh and smiling,” in the words of friend Lomazzi.

Kitchen gadgets and confectionery were her thing; Maria forked out handfuls for the sake of merchandise discardable: the bric-a-brac of “five and ten” stores; a prestigious phone that had an extra number with its own upstairs extension.

Suspending this compulsiveness for lunch, the restless singer would eat generously or modestly depending on the era. In her days of limitless gustation she described a meal of “risotto with butter, two eggs with butter; fennel, fruit salad, bread, coffee—all for fifty-five lire. I’ve never paid a bill that low.”

Confronted with a hunt for verisimiltudinous perfection nonetheless, she eventually condensed midday (or twilightish) consumption to a fillet sprayed with greens, on one occasion with “some grated raw carrot then a grated apple for dessert,” as critic William Weaver scribed.

During her first meeting with auteur Count Luchino Visconti—already renowned for films Rocco e i suoi fratelli and La Terra Trema—Maria came to the Rome home of Maestro Tullio Serafin at Via Monti Parioli 54. Seated there was the great cinematic master next to Franco Zeffirelli, bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni and Milanese aristocracy. “Chaliapin was a great singer, but also a great actor,” Serafin pondered aloud. “Maria, how about we make a little music?”

At the time the would-be La Divina hadn’t yet performed “La traviata”. Bashfully embarking on “È strano,” she unleashed slick spears of top notes that sparked tremors in a terrified Murano chandelier; unhinging glasses and their teacup neighbors on the table till the clan sat speechless.

Travel would unravel into a near-constant. “I had a lovely trip back, thanks to your company,” she described a long flight in a note to James Flowers, a fan. Eight thirty in the morning was the setting for a press-crowned entrance at the Gare de Lyon in Paris that Maria exited accoutered with red roses, struggling to escape with her beloved poodle Toy into a presidential Simca. Hours later she was crouched agog before a window at the Ritz hotel: “Look at those diamonds!” the little girl in her exulted breathlessly.

Just minutes later she was welcoming a batch of three hundred reporters to her lily-bestrewn suite.

In the sixties she could let her spirit linger in idyllic idleness at sea… when she imagined she deserved it. Her longtime boyfriend Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, the Christina, had been furbished with a Steinway manufactured to withstand its damp. Its guests would rise at noon and bathe in sun-illuminated pools; take walks around the many suites named for Greek islands.

Maria would take turns to slide down rubber slides into the ocean laughing like a child then turn abruptly stern and solemn at the sight of the piano. It was 1964, and in the words of Michel Glotz, Pathé-Marconi’s (later EMI France’s) director, “Life was deliciously and paradoxically simple… Onassis would steer the vessel; he was really a man of the sea.” Training would amount to five hours a day according to the latter’s step-niece Marilena Patronicolas. The Christina captain recollected a predictable duet: Maria’s poodles lyrically accompanying her with their implacably crude yapping.

Swiping her attention from their midst, she’d swivel back to Glotz; unwrapping long discussions on the score of “Carmen”—a begrudged role for too long—and details found in source text’s Mérimée’s novella; previous interpretations of the part; pronunciation of the French and the true motives of the cigarette girl.

“Singing or being an actress or things like that—takes so much time, you know—your subconscious, your conscious, everything, it—even when you relax, actually the mind, I think the subconscious doesn’t even relax. It works,” she would surmise in 1970.

Effulgent peacefulness lent dayfulls of a more assured passivity. Awander across Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House in summer 1959, the soprano chanced upon a stagemate—Australian Joan Sutherland—onstage in rehearsal singing “The Bohemian Girl”’s “I dreamt that I dwelt in the marble halls.” Maria had hung mistletoe around the House’s Christmas tree with Joan’s help during a repose from their November 1952 series of “Norma”s.

“She has learnt very well how to copy me!” she observed—not offending but pleasing her rival. Turning to Lomazzi, she expressed her awe: “Just think, Giovanna, this girl sang the Adalgisa to my Norma. Look how many strides she’s made!” and she approached the future Dame to let her know, “You’re really good; you have what it takes to be a truly great soprano.”

Lunch with Walter Legge unmasked some contradictory analysis. “She will have a great success tomorrow and make a big career if she can keep it up,” Maria precised. “But only we know how much greater I am.”

And still she regularly spied on colleagues’ outings on the boards: catching Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a concert of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” and the last scene of his “Capriccio” in 1954; evading chilliness with a chinchilla coat at a La Scala “Dialogues des Carmelites” in January 1957. One later-in-life performance featuring Marilyn Horne, Rossini and superfluous coloratura left her cold.

She played along nevertheless. After whispering disdain in Janine Reiss’s ear all night Maria fake-smiled and applauded. “Clap, chérie,” she told her friend, “They’re looking at us.”

Midnight or thereabouts would exile Cinderella from her onstage magic to her supper. Suspect motives of reporters faded after dark; Corriere della Sera’s editor Mario Missiroli liked to trail his foodmate in pursuit of a good “piatto di pasta” and favorable wine.

Adventurousness of this kind was richer in her heavyset days: platters laid out with Greek meatballs full of tender ground meat juiced with onion rolled in milk-soaked breadcrumbs. Rice-stuffed tomatoes ringed with vine leaves and zucchini made for savorable hors d’œuvres.

Willpower swept her gluttony away to keep her dying roles from blooming in their illness. “Maria ate little, very little,” Georges Prêtre remembered, “[but] she did like to pick at food on other people’s plates: ‘Georges, what’s that, what’s this; let me have a taste…’”

Notoriously she gnawed on bloody steaks invariably rare or tartare. One journalist remembered spotting her removing her big spectacles to see the ruddy prey.

Though likely wide awake under the covers after one a.m., she could be found elsewhere on some occasions (when not in rehearsal). One evening she and husband Meneghini had arrived at Visconti’s Via Salaria house for after-dinner drinks.

Maria was “practically a non-drinker, maybe a little wine but my friend provide all the spirit I need,” but her sweet tooth got the better of her in the form of both brandy and vermouth cassis. That night she was “comfortably sprawled on a shawl-draped sofa, heaped with cushions, very D’Annunzian,” William Weaver recalled.

In other intervals she stayed unvocal. “One is when she was staying with my family at Salice Terme and she spent time enchanting my father by playing Chopin after dinner,” Lomazzi related, “or playing cards with us girls, talking about everyday things.”

“Late” was subjective for this semi-insomniac. I Love Lucy reruns were her palette cleanser; other times she would sit watching talks shows or procedurals or westerns. “Because it relaxes me,” she would explain. “Because the infantile side each person has—I don’t hide mine. I have even remained very young, in that respect. Our profession is very serious. That kind of thing helps us. It’s funny.”

“I like the leisure of going to bed at night, of slowly wandering round the room and gathering together the various thoughts and happenings of the day, of being thoroughly idle in my own way,” Maria would aver in 1959. But “leisure” meant embracing the eternally elusive score—even on free days. “I usually study when I am in bed with my husband sound asleep beside me, and my two poodles, Tea who is seven and Toy who is three, dozing away in a corner,” the singer would recollect.

An opera-loving friend—Mademoiselle magazine editor Leo Lerman—would watch her in intense appraisal of “Lucrezia Borgia: an almost obsolete work among Donizetti’s opus she would never realize onstage:

…she was gone, completely immersed in the score. Occasionally, she looked at me and she smiled, but she didn’t see me. This went on for a very long time, and I was enthralled… Maria took off her glasses, closed the book, put down the pencil, looked at me, and said,  “It’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful.” And I said, “Do you know it all now?” And she said, “Well, you know, you have to know it all, so that when you go out on the stage for the first rehearsal, you know who you are. Then I am free to breathe onstage.”

A control freak in her search for consummate performance, she was at a loss to nix subconscious plights. And so Maria would parade around the house or yacht in late-night phone calls, sometimes sipping Ouzo. “When you feel passionate about something, anything, like how I feel about my music and the way it should be performed, don’t settle for less…” Here we go again,” a friend remembered. “She was like a broken record about not settling for less…”

In Mexico during her Toscas she had lain awake to see the clock strike half past eight.

“I live for all this, believe me,” she gestured to her house before an interviewer to explain in 1954. “I live for my husband and our life together. For my piano, which I love. For my television, which I like to watch. I love parties but I adore my work still more, and my home and especially my privacy – which is why I am sometimes called a recluse.”

Clueless when it came to ousting mental tic(k)s, the muse coped with a mind unstill.

The Callas Imprint: A Centennial Biography will be released on her birthday, 2 December.


Sources in order of sequence:

M.J. Matz, “We Introduce Maria Meneghini Callas,” Opera News, 3 December 1956.

“From Our Special Correspondent: Mme. Callas on Opera,” The Times, 22 June 1959.

Cassidy, “Pride and Honesty: Shining Traits of Maria Callas,” Chicago Tribune, 21 November 1954.

P. Meneghini, “Sette anni con Maria” in Tosi, Giovane Callas (Venice: Maria Callas Associazione Culturale, 1997), 111.

Callas, “Corrections of Time magazine article,” unpublished document, c. December 1956 [Collezione Fondazione Marzotto].

G. Lomazzi, “Volle Dimagrire Contro La Volontà di Meneghini,” La Settimana Incom Illustrata, 23 February 1961.

R. Allegri, “Edda Zoraide Casali: ‘I Miei Anni Con La Callas,’” Chi magazine, 8 December 2010.

G. Lomazzi, “Della Madre Preferisce Non Dir Niente: Tutta La Sua Tenerezza E’ Per Il Padre,” La Settimana Incom Illustrata, 5 March 1961.

J. Cruesemann, “Why They Call me ‘Tigress’—and why It’s wrong,” Daily Express, 6 April 1959.

B. Brentano, “Grandir avec Callas,” L’Avant-Scène, no. 44, October 1982, 123.

A. Tommasini, “Maria Callas: A Voice and a Legend That Still Fascinate,” The New York Times, 15 September 1999.

J.-L. Hees, Interview with Janine Reiss, Radio Classique, 4 September 2007. Accessed here.

H. Canals, Hommage Maria Callas: 1987 Musée de Neuilly Exhibition Brochure for 16 September–19 October 1987 (Paris: Musée de Neuilly, 1987), 2.

M. Scott, Maria Meneghini Callas (London: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 128.

S. Mariani, “‘Telefoni e Rose’ A Sirmione,” La Settimana Incom, 10 May 1958.

S. Whitelocks, “Time for new shoes Anna? Ms Wintour steps out in ill-fitting heels at Milan Fashion Week—but she’s been wearing the same style since the NINETIES,” Daily Mail, 23 September 2013.

Mariani, “‘Telefoni e Rose’ A Sirmione.”

J. Sierra-Oliva, “Callas in Mexico; Part I: May–June 1950,” The Maria Callas International Magazine, Issue 29, 28.

J.-J. Hanine-Roussel, Maria Callas (Paris: Éditions Carpentier, 2015), 458.

A. Signorini, “Ecco le lettere, i documenti e le foto che conservo della mia amica Callas,” Gente, 2 November 1992.

Callas to J. Warren Perry c. 1958, in J. Warren Perry, Correspondence and Autograph Collection, Mus. Arc. 3.3, University of New York at Buffalo Music Library.

G. Jellinek, Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna (New York: Dover Publications, New Edition, 1986), 306.

Matz, “We introduce Maria Meneghini Callas.”

Lomazzi, “Volle Dimagrire Contro La Volontà di Meneghini.”

G.B. Meneghini, Maria callas, mia moglie (Milan: Rusconi Libri, 1981), 110.

G. Lomazzi, “Volle Dimagrire Contro La Volontà di Meneghini.”

H. Fleetwood, Music Through the Night, WRCA New York, 13 and 17 March 1958

K. Harris, “Callas,” (Interview), The Observer, 8 and 15 February 1970.

S. Galatopoulos, Sacred Monster (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), 184.

G. Lomazzi, “La Tebaldi Rifiutò di Fare Pace Con La Grande Rivale,” 26 February 1961.

Lord George Harewood, Callas on Opera and Callas on Norma, ), BBC Television, recorded 24 April 1968 and broadcast 24–27 June 1968. Published on The Callas Edition: Volume Six, IMC Music Ltd., 1998.

Mariani, “‘Telefoni e Rose’ A Sirmione.”

Lomazzi, “Della Madre Preferisce Non Dir Niente: Tutta La Sua Tenerezza E’ Per Il Padre.”

Jellinek, 310.

Weaver, “Remembering Callas: Some Confessions of a Fan” in Tosi, The Young Maria Callas (Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2010), 75.

Callas to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, 10 March 1948 in Renzo Allegri, Maria Callas: Lettere d’amore (Milan: Mondadori, 2008), 97.

Weaver, “Remembering Callas: Some Confessions of a Fan,” 69.

Mannino, Genii (Milan: Bompiani, 1987), 97–98.

Callas to James Flowers, 30 September 1972 [Archives of the Juilliard School, New York].

P.-J. Rémy, Callas: Une vie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1997), eBook, Kindle location 3255. Accessed here.

H. Smith, “Callas takes centre stage again as exhibition recalls Onassis’s life,” The Guardian, 6 October 2006. Accessed here.

G. Lomazzi, “Perché Vogliono A Tutti Costi Che Io E Grace Siamo Nemiche,” La Settimana Incom Illustrata, 26 March 1961.

G. Prêtre, La Symphonie d’une vie: Entretiens avec Isabelle Prêtre (Paris: Écriture, 2013), 132.

M. Glotz, La note bleue (Paris: Lattès, 2003), 326.

Author’s interview with Marilena Patronicolas, Athens, 28 September 2012.

N. Nikolizas, “George Zacharias: Everything I experienced on the Christina,” Espresso magazine, 9 February 2019. Accessed here.

Interview with Michel Glotz on Hommages à Maria Callas, 16 March 1978 (Paris: EMI).

David Frost’s interview with Callas on The David Frost Show (David Frost), CBS, 10 December 1970.

Lord George Harewood, The Tongs and Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1981), 231.

A. Jackson, Start-Up At the New Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, 1966–1976 (Portland: Amadeus Press, 2006), 449.

Harewood, The Tongs and Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood, 231.

Lomazzi, “Perché Vogliono A Tutti Costi Che Io E Grace Siamo Nemiche.”

Schwarzkopf & W. Legge, On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge (London: Faber & Faber), 197.

“125 Moments: 096 Elisabeth Schwarzkopf,” From the Archives: Musings from the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, 19 July 2016. WordPress blog accessed here.

Jellinek, 179.

D. Fournier, La passion prédominante de Janine Reiss: La voix humaine (Arles: Actes Sud Editions, 2013), 5

Author’s e-mail exchange with Carola Shepard, granddaughter of Mario Missiroli, 10 February 2021.

G. Alzanese in Tosi, Giovane Callas (Venice: Maria Callas Associazione Culturale, 1997), 199.

V. Crespi Morbio, Maria Callas: Gli anni alla Scala (Turin: Umberto Allemandi, 2008), 9.

G. Fusco, Il gusto di vivere (Rome: Editori Laterza, 2014), 209.

Unsigned article, “The Reality of Maria,” Harper’s Bazaar, August 1971.

R. Sutherland, Maria Callas: Diaries of A Friendship (London: Constable & Co., 1999), 19.

J. Gruen, “I’m a very normal human being,” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 October 1971.

W. Weaver, “Remembering Callas: Some Confessions of a Fan,” 67.

Crespi Morbio, Maria Callas: Gli anni alla Scala, 130.

J. Jorden, Interview with John Ardoin, 17 December 1999. Accessed here.

M. Banzet, Trois jours avec Maria Callas, ORTF Radio, 5 February 1965.

Cruesemann, “Why They Call me ‘Tigress’—and why It’s wrong.”

L. Lerman ed. Stephen Pascal, The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman (New York: Knopf, 2007), 175.

D. Rivellino, The Malibu Cookbook: A Memoir by THE GODMOTHER OF MALIBU (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2007), 54.

Callas to Meneghini, 8 June 1950 in Allegri, Lettere d’amore, 162.

Matz, “We Introduce Maria Meneghini Callas,” Opera News, 3 December 1956.


Special Features