March issue #180


Maria Callas and her eyebrows arrive in New York
Mike's Pith & Wind
Maria by Callas
Our grandmother had an indifferent opinion of Maria Callas. ‘She shouts a lot,’ she complained – but then she said the same thing about the American and Australian comedians she listened to on the radio as she played cribbage by herself in her downstairs flat. She didn’t like people shouting generally, but ironically her bad hearing meant that most people were compelled to shout at her to make themselves understood.
(On the same subject, it is an irony worth remarking upon that it’s when hearing is at its most acute i.e. as a child or juvenile delinquent, that boisterous groups of youngsters can be observed - and heard - from a great distance yelling and screaming indiscriminately at one another. A double irony because at this age they don’t have anything noteworthy to share with the rest of the world. Except the joy of living, of course. God, I’m a sad old bastard).
But, back to Maria Callas. Perhaps it was my grandmother’s low opinion of her singing that led to my not actively seeking her out. I must’ve heard her singing occasionally on the fabled green plastic radio but not nearly enough to form an opinion of my own. Maybe I just wasn’t interested enough in opera and classical music, but given the timing of her career, coinciding as it was with a surge in music record sales and combined with the fact that she was an enormous celebrity in her day, I couldn’t have been totally unaware of her – in fact I’m sure I remember seeing photos of her wearing the inevitable fur and looking glamorous in Pix and Australasian Post magazines for instance.
(My) Maria and I trekked into Carlton to see the Tom Volf doco on Maria Callas at the Nova Cinema, very aptly called Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words, which consists of numerous interviews - an in-depth grainy David Frost TV interview threads through the entire movie – with stunning live performances by Maria (of admittedly variable sound quality), home movies, unpublished memoirs and letters.
Maria Callas certainly didn’t look anything like the traditional perception of an opera singer - that is actually enormous, wearing a horned helmet and a breast-plate over an unflattering rustic smock and carrying a spear. None of the stereotypes apply and despite being quite overweight early in her career the famous version of Maria was an extremely elegant and astonishingly slender woman – you might even describe her as slight – and to witness her over and over again deploy that enormously powerful voice is akin to witnessing a recurring miracle.
Her stellar career began in earnest at the insistence of her overbearing mother at the tender age of thirteen. She was actually born and raised in New York and the family relocated back to Greece when she turned thirteen to further her singing lessons there, initially under the guidance of Maria Trivella at the Greek National Conservatoire, followed by redoubtable Elvira De Hidalgo from whom she learned her bel canto skills.
She spoke a number of European languages, but I got the impression from the film that she was most comfortable speaking French. Oddly enough, although qualifying as a New York native by birth, she didn’t appear to have anything resembling a Brooklyn accent. She might’ve deliberately lost it, but, in any case, she spoke English in a thoughtful and fairly refined trans-Atlantic fashion with a detectable Greek accent.
On being asked endless personal questions by countless interviewers she always spoke thoughtfully and even analytically about herself and never simply trotted out some well
rehearsed media fodder. The omni-present cameras reveal that she always dressed to the hilt and was careful to wear a smile – not an always convincing smile mind you, which I think betrays a self-awareness verging on self-consciousness. But there was very good reason for that.
She was indisputably a very famous woman for at least thirty of her forty years in the public eye and although she was married early on in her career to (Giovanni) Battista Meneghini she was basically on her own in a time when women’s rights were yet to be formulated. In public she was always surrounded by endless hordes of men; her husband Battista looking after her affairs, policemen and security escorting her to and from appearances and interviews, agents booking her for (and ‘severing’ her from) seasons at famous venues like the Met (singing a repertoire she was thoroughly over), swathes of reporters pushing and shoving and smoking and spitting in her face – it must have been extremely daunting for her.
She became known for being a difficult woman, a diva in fact, but she was just trying to make the point that she wasn’t going to be bullied and pushed around. She used the only weapons she had to defend herself with – she might turn down prestigious offers if they were badly paid or even the threaten to cancel scheduled performances if the conditions were unbearably bad. It was sad to see how quickly her public turned against her on the odd occasions she was unable to appear because of illness and so it wasn’t a tactic she used lightly, but ultimately she had to demonstrate she wouldn’t be treated like some compliant cash-cow.
Acting was just as crucial to the Callas performance as the prodigious vocal technique she brought to bear on her singing. Rather than simply acting it appeared as if she was actually channelling Tosca herself when she sang Vissi D’Arte, one of the greatest ‘woe-is-me’ arias in the repertoire - and coincidentally the point where M and I both dissolved into tears.
Her heart-rending singing and the public’s fascination with her glamorous public and private life, most famously perhaps her failed love affair with Aristotle Onassis, made her arguably the most mesmerising female singer of any genre in her time on the planet..
If you can’t stand operatic singing I don’t recommend you see this very fine documentary, because no matter how much her singing is admired and how much the critics and fans adore it, it’s still operatic singing and you will leave the theatre early shaking your head and wait for your wife at Brunettis over a strong coffee.
Voices are so personal. Maria Callas herself burst into tears when she heard her voice recorded for the first time and there was no shortage of critics and fellow artists alike, ready to criticise her voice, her temperament, her looks etc. That’s the nature of fame. She was a resilient and driven woman who was singularly devoted to her art to the exclusion of a yearned-for ‘normal’ life as a wife and mother. She died at the young age of fifty-three from a heart attack while preparing for another tour after a long lay-off. If you can cope with the operatic singing I urge you to see the movie.
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Dick's Toolbox
Ouch! Damn & blast!

Nothing brings you back to reality as much as having the knife slide off the eggplant and into the tip of your thumb. Apart from the shock, pain and blood there is the realisation that modern bandages require two hands to open the package, extract the sterile contents and put on the bleeding wound. The wound, by the way, is possible teaming with bacteria from the knife and the eggplant – something you don’t think about until later. Putting on the bandage is not easily done by one person single-handedly and, in fact, almost impossible whilst swearing mightily and not having the use of a crucial thumb. You will have invariably taken out the wrong sized bandage – in this case the first one was too small – so the blood continues to drip merrily onto the bathroom floor and basin because you have also not been able to actually get it on sufficiently tightly to close the cut.
Thus ensues a battle between tissues to stem the flow of blood and various incorrect sizes of bandage until you find one that more or less fits and you can clean up the scenery which resembles out-takes from a slasher movie.
Anyway I am glad that it was repairable, or sealable, and now is just bloody sore and making typing very difficult. You need your thumbs for just about every activity.
So why did this happen? Well I am tired and this a result of one of the drawbacks of old age. Namely insomnia. When you are tired you get careless and careless I was. Perhaps I need some of the chain-mail gloves beloved of oyster-openers and slaughter workers in the future?
So do I need more sleep? I wonder if it is true that as you get older you need less sleep? Consulting Doctor Google the answer would seem to be in the negative.
An expert panel convened by the National Sleep Foundation in the US recommends seven-to-nine-hours sleep a night for adults up to the age of 64 and seven-to-eight hours for the over 65s.
One idea is that of changes in the processes underlying circadian rhythms as we age means that we misalign with the planets, stars and other astral projections. Is this a compelling answer? I was given tablets, I think serotonin, that were meant to alleviate this problem ….. with zero results. Which was not a compelling answer to misaligned circadian rhythms.
What we do know is that trying to sleep on long, lonely dark mornings, and finding yourself awake, but unrefreshed, is miserable and should be taken seriously. If only for the sake of your thumbs.
Anyway I have never needed all that much sleep - I once computed that at one stage I seemed to get by on around five hours a night or less – but I now have the time to worry about it which I didn’t then. So perhaps I should explain. When I was working I would think about work and all the multiple problems that I needed to deal with. Working in telecommunications on multiple projects meant there were always multiple problems that required multiple people to cooperate so I would lie awake trying to work out strategies to deal with the people because people are invariably the problem. Technical problems are eventually soluble usually by an engineer who prefers working on technical problems rather than talking to people. Sometimes this had caused the problem in the first place. The thought process starts somewhere with a deep dark thought in Dilbert’s brain that reconfiguring a large international router will lend an air of technical elegance to the network. Not speed, mind you - just elegance. And because it is self-evidently the right thing to do in engineering terms it should be done.
In most cases you would work out an answer to the problem or at least a way to get the assorted groups to cooperate and find an answer in such a way that they all thought they were heroes. Not an issue if they were all in the same building or even city but when they were in four different countries with four different time zones it was a bit problematic. A challenge as senior manager would say as they couldn’t solve it but you had to. As one charming gentleman said, “It’s not my problem Richard because I have made it your problem.”
Before that as a teacher in the northern suburbs, an area not known for the gentle, keen and eager school children one was so exhausted that you slept deeply only to awaken occasionally, bolt upright in bed with your body drenched with sweat, with the thought of thirty homicidal year ten students that were lying in wait for you the next day.
I should apologise for that remark as really the vast majority of kids were really nice – though the one or two homicidal maniacs were a bit of a problem.
Actually I made the previous paragraph up entirely but I thought it was what you would expect of the northern suburbs thirty years ago. It was in fact rather nice most of the time though in those days you had to keep the Greek and Macedonian factions apart or they would happily recreate their parents wars in the school yard. Where I taught was then on the fringes of the great basalt plains spotted with magnificent red gums and not covered, as they are now, with hundreds of hectares of wall-to-wall houses. The general population density was so reasonable that the public transport system actually coped. You could drive there without massive traffic jams. That’s how long ago that was.
But in a retired, but not semi-dormant state, the only things you worry about are pretty damned trivial. Will I wake up in the morning? Can I face the terror of the road outside my place for a 50 kilometre bike ride knowing that I was nearly killed a year or so ago on the same road? What will I have for lunch? Am I drinking too much wine?
If only I could learn, as other friends do, to have a Nanna/Grandpa Nap. That necessary break when you make the grandchildren go to bed around 1pm so that you can recover from the first six hours you have spent with them and their inexhaustible energy. But I can’t do that either really. I just lie there looking at the cryptic crossword wondering what the clues could possible mean.
Anyway the stew I was making was extra tasty for some reason.
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