Maria Callas -La Diva & Fashion Icon
DM Life & Business Magazine Writer
Maria Callas, the Greek-American diva known for her passionate portrayal of operatic heroines, astounding personal metamorphosis and tormented love life, has proved one of the most enduring style references for Italian fashion, from Valentino to Dolce & Gabbana. Whenever a cape or winged-sleeve dress appears on a runway, you can bet the designer has been listening to a Callas aria in his spare time.
Now — even almost 45 years of her death — she’s still shaping a new generation of style influencers.
Exhibition, “Private Callas,” are opened in a beautiful Museums and Palaces all over the World. Before Covid started,I visited the one in Palazzo on the Via Durini in Milan, with the goal of looking beyond the public facade of the soprano whom Italians call “La Divina.”
Several of Callas’s gowns in the exhibition. The show also included the star’s lesser-seen personal attire, like items bought in department stores, as well as glittering bespoke pieces.Credit...Daniele Fragale, via Collezione Maria Callas, Fondazione Progetto Marzotto
“The question we asked ourselves is how to make sense of such a private trove?” said Gabriele Monti, who curated the event, on display until March 3, with Maria Luisa Frisa.
“Collectors rarely assemble by theme, and so we decided to mix the high with the low.”
They focused on the star’s lesser-seen personal attire — think items bought at French department stores or a beach cover-up — alongside glittering bespoke pieces like a pair of Christian Dior tourmaline necklaces in green and blue hues and golden jewelry by the Italian costume designer Piero Tosi, including a crown that you could imagine Beyoncé wearing in a future video.
Ferdinando Businaro, managing director of the Fondazione Progetto Marzotto, a Marzotto family foundation that preserves artworks, recalled the thrill of opening the singer’s trunks with his friend Giovanni Bonotto, owner of the namesake luxury fabric house. (The Marzottos are the textile moguls who owned Valentino from 2002 until 2007.)
Giovanni Bonotto, owner of a luxury textile house, provided a textile scenography with posters of some of the soprano’s famous performances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.Credit...Daniele Fragale, via Collezione Maria Callas, Fondazione Progetto Marzotto
Mr. Businaro acquired the Callas collection after the 2012 death of Bruno Tosi, founder of the now-defunct Maria Callas Cultural Association and a former journalist and press agent. Mr. Businaro said he actually didn’t realize the full extent of what he’d bought until boxes upon boxes started arriving; he hopes to open a museum in Verona to house the vast collection permanently.
Mr. Bonotto, in turn, invited Mr. Businaro to use his company’s showroom for a display. And inspired by Callas to create a scenography of sorts, he also commissioned his artisans to craft an array of tapestries and luminous wall-hangings to enrich the impression that visitors to the exhibition are entering the diva’s personal quarters.
Callas’s trunks included a remarkable assortment of items: tarot cards; a 19th-century gold-leaf mirror adorned with sirens, a gift from Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who was her lover for around 10 years; a photo album from Marlene Dietrich; and a pendant necklace with fish charms from Turkey, a memento of filming “Medea” from Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed her in the 1969 movie. But as revealing as such memorabilia can be, they come second to the outfits.
Maria Callas as Violeta Valery in La Traviata
A reproduction of Callas’s gown in “La Traviata.”Credit...Daniele Fragale, via Collezione Maria Callas, Fondazione Progetto Marzotto
A wispy printed silk-crepe dress, for example, is far removed from the style of Callas’s elaborate stage outfits. But as one of the many pieces by the diva’s dressmaker, Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure, known as Biki, it reveals how instrumental the long-forgotten Italian couturier, a granddaughter of Puccini, was to the soprano’s remarkable metamorphosis from naïve singer to sophisticated jet-setting global star — which included a 70-pound weight loss.
Also by Biki: a plain black evening cape in wool crepe that Callas wore at the December 1970 opening of the Teatro alla Scala season in Milan and a simple but statuesque floor-length dress with a silk satin collar and cinched by a satin belt that the singer wore in 1973 during a farewell concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
Biki’s great-grandchildren, the fashion photographers Aline and Jacqueline Tappia Reynaud, lived with the designer in her Via Sant’Andrea home and atelier in Milan until her death in 1999 — and still live there today. The sisters, who are twins, said their great-grandmother — who met Callas in 1951 at a dinner organized by Wally Toscanini, Arturo Toscanini’s daughter — would prepare the diva’s luggage for overseas trips, accompanied by meticulous notes detailing the coordination of each ensemble to protect her protégée from a sartorial faux pas.
“Callas lacked the savoir-faire to put things together at that time,” said Anna Gastel, Luchino Visconti’s niece and president of the MITO annual international music festival held in Milan and Turin.
According to Rufus Wainwright, a singer who is a friend of Biki’s grandson, Jacques Reynaud, a noted costume designer, Callas’s “transformation is one of the greatest of all time. It was a Faustian bargain because it came at such a price” — between her professional debut in 1947 and her final opera performances in 1965, she had many health and voice problems. She died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 53.
“It’s an illustration of the all-encompassing and treacherous nature of artistry,” Mr. Wainwright said.
And, perhaps, fashion.
Inside a glass house, reproductions of Callas’s costumes in “Tosca” and “La Traviata.”Credit...Daniele Fragale, via Collezione Maria Callas, Fondazione Progetto Marzotto
Next to a gaudy damask violet and gold-silk Moroccan caftan and an embroidered Christian Dior style that reflects Callas’s latter-day associations with the world’s most luxurious watering holes, a simple muslin Saint Laurent Rive Gauche caftan worn on vacation with Mr. Pasolini looks like catnip for a contemporary designer.
For those who can’t make it to Milan, “The Definitive Maria Callas: The Life of a Diva in Unseen Pictures” was prepared and released in September by Roads Publishing.
It portrays the singer’s life through private letters and photographs, creating a visual biography of her changing style and offstage life, even including a handwritten recipe for Callas’s custard cream.
And on 1stdibs, the online marketplace for fashionable antiques, a portfolio of eight Callas photographs shot by the fashion photographer Horst P. Horst in 1952 are listed at $15,000.
The Callas revival doesn’t end there.
Sofia Coppola’s production of “La Traviata” by Verdi, inspired by (among others) Callas’s performances at La Scala during the Luchino Visconti years, is concluding its run at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain. (It was introduced at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma last May).
And “Callas,” a Hollywood biopic starring the Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, is still in preproduction but scheduled for this year.
Just imagine the red carpet possibilities.