Greeks aim to bring Callas collection home

Her relationship with Greece may have been as tempestuous as her love affair with Aristotle Onassis, but three decades after her death Greeks, it seems, cannot get enough of Maria Callas. So much so, that the cash-strapped Athens government has unprecedented plans to snap up the last great collection of paraphernalia associated with the singer when it goes under the auctioneer’s hammer on December 12.

“The sale of all these items interests us hugely,” Panayiotis Kakoliris, a senior adviser to the Greek Culture Minister, said. “Right now, we are looking into how we can raise the funds, to both buy and bring them here.”

At stake is a fabulous array of intimate letters, jewels, evening dresses, furniture, paintings, photographs, unseen stage notes and annotated musical scores released by the estate of Callas’s husband, the late Italian industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini.

The material, which allegedly unlocks every aspect of the soprano’s life with the much older Meneghini, whom she was to drop in 1957 for Onassis, is expected to fetch well in excess of a million dollars when it is auctioned in Milan.

Comprising 330 lots, the collection, which also includes the couple’s engraved, gold band wedding rings, is so voluminous that Sotheby’s had to put aside a day for the sale.

“The items may be less valuable now but they are very intimate. What is quite obvious is that Meneghini, though 28 years older than Maria, never stopped being in love with her,” said Esmeralda Benvenuti, the deputy director of Sotheby’s in Milan.

“He kept all her letters and, having read them, I can say they are really very passionate. A lot of her belongings, after her death, were put up for auction in Paris in 1978 and he bought those as well which is why the collection is so big.”

Since Callas’s premature death, at the age of 53 in the French capital, interest in the woman who would come to be known as La Divina, has never waned, with fan clubs proliferating worldwide. Strangely, however, international adoration has failed until this year to be replicated in Greece, the country Callas most identified with — requesting that her ashes be scattered in the Aegean — but one she avoided when, in her late 30s, her voice cracked and her often stormy relations with her family worsened.

At the last auction of Callas memorabilia in Paris seven years ago, Greek devotees rushed to buy the singer’s personal effects, but Athens’ town hall, which had also dispatched buyers, was unable to keep up with the bidding war. As a result, admirers in Athens have had to make do with a Maria Callas museum whose exhibits include little more than a wig, a set of gloves and photographs of the singer playing with her favourite pooch. “Of course, we would like to have more but tell me how when there’s always been the issue of money,” said Loulis Psychoulis, who runs an Athenian conservatory dedicated to La Divina.

Augmenting the country’s paltry Callas collection has become a priority for a government that, this year, has also gone out of its way to celebrate the great dramatic singer with a series of recitals, concerts, exhibitions and shows.

But the desire to repay a debt of gratitude, long overlooked, may have come too late. When the bidding starts in Milan — the home town of La Scala where much of her career was made — the Greeks will be up against the Italians who also see Callas, their favourite opera star, as one of their own. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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