'Champagne' or 'Cognac' - Which do you prefer?

Maria Callas; a life dreamed of by many, achieved by few. Her creative reputation outstanding, definitive; her personal life overshadowed by conspiracy. Whenever I studied pictures from her operatic career I wondered about the sadness in her eyes and decided to read beyond the performer, to learn more.
Callas described the theatre as a battlefield and she devoted her body and soul to her work, her ‘Art’. On a personal level she contended with the battlefield within that of a troubled family; ‘the mother’ who would often provoke publicity against her at every opportunity and particularly if she didn’t hand over more money. Throughout her life Callas’ actions, as well as her unhappiness, had some basic connection with the frustrations and loneliness that resulted from a lack of genuine maternal love. She grew up a shy, quiet girl and being short-sighted was bespectacled from the age of five, was well behaved and religious. She had a lonely life… practically no opportunities to make friends, as her mother discouraged her daughters from mixing with other children.

Her mother’s ruthless ambition was motivated by an effort not only to find fulfilment through her two daughters, but also to profit materially. A woman who contested Callas’ will, engaging in an acrimonious lawsuit, in order to get her hands on her daughter’s fortune. And whilst Callas acknowledged that it was her mother who first made her realise she had an extraordinary appreciation of music; she knew it stemmed from ulterior motive. ‘Infant prodigies are always deprived of genuine childhoods… a child should not be taken away from its youth for any reason – it becomes exhausted before its time,’ Callas said. Although she admitted it wasn’t a barrier to creativity: ‘It is the contradictions and the imbalances that make human beings, particularly highly creative artists.’

In Galatopoulos’ book: ‘Maria Callas – Sacred Monster’, he explains that Callas’ exasperation by the constant pestering of the media caused her to comment: ‘Our repertoire is different… well it’s like comparing ‘champagne’ with ‘cognac’, and the expression was born that has courted a certain controversy. It originated due to the rivalry created between Callas’ rich, bel canto, and Renata Tebaldi’s ‘champagne’, lirico-spinto, and their contrasting vocal qualities. A reporter then added ‘coca-cola’ to the mix!

The Callas supporters and ‘The Tebaldiani’, (Tebaldi supporters), were extremely vocal and known to disrupt theatre performances on the back of their loyalties. Listen to Callas sing ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma’ and feel the shivers run up the spine; then compare Renata Tebaldi singing ‘Oh! mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ and stop the tears from falling; could you choose?

Nowadays, operatic performers don’t seem so distant, they’re on twitter, have personal websites and their opinions can be read by anyone. We’re granted the sort of access which has gone a long way towards breaking down the elitism surrounding opera; an art form originally of the people before being commandeered by the gentry. In so doing, I wonder if we’ve not sacrificed some of the escapism? Escapism has enabled many, like myself, to survive similar childhoods. Opera provides an opportunity to set aside the mundane, forget about day-to-day distractions, much like books do, and day-dream in a more fanciful environment.

‘La Divina’, as Callas was known, died alone in Paris at fifty-three years of age. It was her ex-husband Meneghini who introduced the conspiracy angle when he raised a question mark over the circumstances surrounding her death, implying it may have been suicide. He states that if it was not, then she had certainly thought about it. In the end he felt it was the overwhelming solitude which killed her.

Despite the sadness throughout her lifetime it was only for her work that Callas wished to be remembered: ‘My memoirs are in the music I interpret'. And of course, any preference will be subjective, but when you raise that next glass, let it be, to her legacy.

Source material and for more information:
Maria Callas – Sacred Monster by Stelios Galatopoulos
My Wife Maria Callas by Giovanni Battista Meneghini