Once upon a time, it was not uncommon to see Maria Callas wandering on the Liston, the stylish promenade in Piazza Bra. It was the late 1940s, the war had only ended a few years ago and there was an air of rebirth and hope in the city, an atmosphere that was enlivened even further by the wonderful sight of the international opera star walking through the city’s streets.
The young lady with the black hair would soon add her name to those of Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli and Nicola Rossi Lemeni, becoming a global star. Maria Callas arrived in fair Verona, city of art, love and beauty, from New York.
She was discovered by the artistic director of Verona Arena whilst in the USA looking for new talent for the opera festival. He convinced her to come to Italy and in August 1947 she made her début in the Arena singing La Gioconda by Ponchielli. At that time she was neither rich nor famous but Zenatello saw her potential.
Love and Success in Fair Verona
Another person who believed in Callas was her first husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a well-to-do Verona businessman who supported her more than anyone else at the start of her career.
Thanks to her remarkable gifts and the support of her manager, "La Divina" was catapulted to huge success in just a few years. She was invited to sing in all of Italy’s biggest cities and further afield, eventually performing at La Fenice in Venice and the Scala in Milan. The couple’s marriage lasted ten years, enough time for the people of Verona to get to know her and fall in love with her voice.
Her performances in the Arena were unforgettable. In the Roman amphitheatre, she performed La Gioconda by Ponchielli and Turandot by Puccini, as well as many famous arias.
During her time performing in the Arena, Callas lived in the city and loved it dearly, especially its food, which she learned to cook from her sister-in-law. She loved to cook for her husband and friends, serving up traditional local dishes such as lesso misto con pearà (boiled beef in a peppery sauce) and risotto col tastasal (risotto with sausage). In short, she left her heart in Verona!
On the Trail of Maria Callas
I have discovered some of the places where Callas lived and went on holiday.
The first place I was told about was the Padri Filippini church in Verona. This is where she married Meneghini, in a sacristy with only two witnesses, because she was Orthodox and, at the time, mixed marriages were rather more of a delicate matter than they are now.
The second stop on our Maria Callas trail, marked with a commemorative plaque in her honour, is the house at Via Leoncino, 14 in Verona where she would stop off between tours. The places she loved the most, however, where she spent her happiest days, were without doubt her husband’s family villa in Zevio and their house on Lake Garda at Sirmione.
Some people in Zevio still remember when Maria Callas would rehearse in the garden and everyone would crowd round to listen. It is really remarkable to think that in the quiet Veneto countryside you could stumble across the greatest soprano in history delighting the curious villages with her incredible voice!
“Everyone would thank me afterwards. Not ‘well done’ but thank you. The one thing I know how to do is sing, I think that maybe this brings a bit of beauty into people's lives, making them feel better." Maria Callas
The people in Sirmione also remember her as a down-to-earth and friendly person. She would spend summer holidays there with her husband, far from all the chaos and worries of the world. Today, you can still see the villa where Callas spent some of the happiest and most peaceful days of her life and where she loved to rest after international tours, cooking her own version of “Paradise Cake”, a soft sponge cake, the notes for which have been found in the villa overlooking Lake Garda.
“That voice put a spell on us, a wonder that you could not define it in any way, you could only listen, captivated by that spell, by a turmoil that had never been previously explored. It is impossible to convey the storm of emotions that her voice stirred in anyone hearing it for the first time. Because Maria is a gift from God that cannot be defined by time: Maria has always been there and will always be there. Franco Zeffirelli