Mrs Meneghini

Gabriele Annan

Giovanni Battista Meneghini died exactly two years ago aged 85. He had been a deserted husband for 12 years and a widower for four. With the help of Enzo Allegri, a journalist on the staff of the Italian weekly Gente, he completed 16 chapters of the present book, and Gente published them in instalments. The remaining chapters were concocted from tapes and other material by Allegri after Meneghini’s death.

The first chapter seems to have been Meneghini’s last, written in October 1980, a few weeks before his death. It gives his reasons for finally agreeing to produce a biography of his wife when he had turned down many earlier offers, and it explains his decision to quote from the vast pile of Callas’s letters to him: he wanted to refute the account of the Meneghini marriage in Arianna Stassinopoulos’s book Maria: Beyond the Callas Legend, and to point out that although Stassinopoulos quoted what he is supposed to have said, she never saw him, corresponded with him, or even spoke to him on the telephone. She presented him as a mean-minded mercenary toad who coldly exploited his wife’s talent: he is out to prove that ‘for the entire period of our union Maria and I were profoundly in love.’ One is half-convinced they were, or at least that Callas was, in a desperate, panicky fashion. Meneghini still comes across as a toad, but a naive toad, in some ways, with inklings of princeliness: though it is doubtful whether they would have come to much even at the kiss of a princess. Anyway, though a queen on the stage, Callas was no princess back at the hotel. In vulgarity, embarrassment and nastiness this book exceeds even the one by Stassinopoulos: but she used these unattractive materials to construct, ‘beyond the Callas legend’, a Woman’s Own saga with a dash of Dallas – Meneghini, one feels, was at least trying to tell the truth as he saw it. One need not doubt his sincerity: but toads see through mud murkily.

About Callas as an artist there is even less here than there is in Stassinopoulos, except for one or two extraordinary (though not previously unrecorded) facts: for instance, that at the age of 24 Callas sight-read Isolde at an audition well enough to convince Tullio Serafin that she knew the part. A little later, she learned Elvira in I Puritani at eight days’ notice, while also giving several performances as Brünnhilde; and had a triumph in the Bellini role which lies at the extreme opposite end of the operatic spectrum from The Ring. Such musicianship seems almost supernatural. However, tours de force like the Brünnhilde/Elvira turn-around were largely responsible for the premature deterioration of her upper register – a decisive circumstance in the stormy decline of her career which Meneghini simply ignores. In his memoirs, The Tongs and the Bones, Lord Harewood suggests that at this point she could have turned to mezzo roles, ‘but she would have felt that she was in some way betraying an ideal if she had abandoned the taxing soprano roles she had learnt with Serafin, and compromised – as she would have felt it – with the mezzo roles which were an easier option.’ Meneghini does not distinguish between Callas wanting the best clothes from her couturier and the best singing from herself: to him it is all part of the same insatiable ambition. Harewood, on the other hand, understood that Callas ‘always aimed at something far beyond the normal: not just an absence of faults but the full achievement of what she believed the composer had in mind’. And he pinpoints what he calls ‘the heroic brilliance’ of her singing – a perfect description of its uniquely thrilling quality. Altogether his one chapter on Callas is more perceptive, sympathetic and informative about her art than Meneghini’s 26.

What you get with Meneghini sometimes reads like the libretto of a particularly lurid verismo opera, sometimes like a Greek-Italian version of The Golovyov Family, and sometimes like a psychopathological document, a folie à deux recorded by the saner member of the pair. Both Meneghinis come across as paranoid, but whereas her behaviour was obviously rooted in the deprivations of her horrible childhood, his seems merely the built-in persecution mania of the lace-curtain bourgeoisie. For instance, one of the reasons he gives for not marrying Callas until she threatened to leave him at the end of the second year of their relationship was that he feared what tout Verona might say. No doubt he heard in his ears the laughing song from Un Ballo in Maschera

E che baccano che ci sara
E che commenti nella citta
Ha ha ha, ha ha ha

for he was certainly an opera buff, even if his expertise may in part have rested on a self-confessed preference for ‘fleshy women’ over skinny ballet dancers.

When the 24-year-old Callas appeared on the Verona scene in 1947, his friends described her as ‘a sack of potatoes’. Meneghini was then a dashing bachelor of 52 who had made a lot of money in the building trade and was on the committee of the opera festival. He had the proper Italian devotion to his family and had helped to bring up and establish his numerous younger brothers. In his view, they had all turned out greedy and ungrateful, and when they opposed his marriage – for reasons of self-interest – he broke with them, and what relations there were between them afterwards were confined to acrimonious squabbles about money. His one passionate attachment was to his mother: ‘I am a “mama’s boy” in that I believe a mother is the highest expression of mankind.’ Of course being a mama’s boy in Italy carries none of the implications it does in the Anglo-Saxon world. The only one of Callas’s many foibles that Meneghini could not take was her loathing of her own mother: he could not understand it, and finally made himself believe that it did not really exist – in spite of the fact that the two women were hardly ever on speaking terms and Maria said and wrote appalling things to and about her mother, who in turn published vile allegations against her daughter.

When Callas was engaged to sing La Gioconda at the Verona Festival in 1947 her American career had run into the sand. Everything hung on her making a success of this spectacular stroke of luck. Her clothes were shabby. She was penniless. Meneghini asked the sugar daddy question: ‘Didn’t you ever find anyone who was interested in you, someone to give you a helping hand?’ She understood only too well, replying: ‘But who would be interested in me, with my shape?’ Two days later, over dinner on Lake Garda, he proposed the following agreement to run for six months: ‘I will take care of all necessities – hotels, restaurants, wardrobe, everything. You will concern yourself only with singing and studying with the maestri I choose for you ... At the end ... we will evaluate the results. If we are both satisfied, we will draw up an agreement that will cover our future professional relations.’

Meneghini knew his way around and chose a competent maestro. Callas worked hard and made good progress. At this point in her life she was, according to Meneghini, a touching, helpless, docile pudding: but he was deluded about the gentleness of her nature, because at this very time she was merrily signing off a letter to an American friend: ‘Kiss your family for me and our friends, and shit on all our enemies from both of us.’ The Meneghinis were well matched in rancour and vindictiveness. They were both terrific haters, but she was the less diplomatic, the one who screamed insults, threw heavy objects, and kneed impresarios in the groin. Whenever anything disagreeable happened to another singer (like missing a top note) Callas put it down to the fact that God was on her side and compensating her for all the suffering she had been through. She was always praying for quick results of one kind or another, and shared with her husband a maudlin piety centred on patron saints and ‘special’ madonnas who had their interests specially at heart. Along with this went a starry-eyed worship of ‘old-fashioned family life’. At first, Meneghini seemed to his wife the embodiment of all the bourgeois virtues, a real old-fashioned gent. They were both prudish and censorious, but she was the more severe, banishing from their presence any former friend who got divorced. The moment she married she started playing house with all her might, decorating and redecorating, and buying enormous quantities of household equipment.

She plied Meneghini with food like a regular Mrs Portnoy, except that her food was uneatable because she had no talent for cooking. Her letters to him are full of injunctions to eat well in her absence – advice which his photographs hardly show him to have needed. She was obsessed by food – whether her own slimming diet or her husband’s input. At their last meeting, when she had sent for him to tell him that she was leaving with Onassis, ‘Maria had prepared something for me to eat. When I told her I had already had a bowl of soup, she turned into a Fury.’

It did not take him long to turn into another Fury. He retaliated to her betrayal by ‘speaking his mind’ to the press about it. She telephoned, threatening to kill him and he returned the threat. When later on she made her peace with various opera houses she had previously quarrelled with, he put it down to her desire to prove to the world that he had always been the one to make the mischief.

Still, one cannot judge a marriage by its break-up. Meneghini claims that for the 12 years of their relationship he adored his wife, and that when they went aboard the Christina for the fatal trip with Onassis they were still behaving like a honeymoon couple. She could not bear to be parted from this tubby little provincial 28 years older than herself who had to stand one step above her when they were photographed together.

It was not unnatural for my wife to try to locate me when I went out; she was always doing it, even for the silliest reasons. Sometimes it would concern something to eat. She would telephone and say: ‘They gave me this and I want to share it with you.’ Other times she would simply say: ‘I want you here with me, come back right away.’

After a few years Meneghini gave up his other business interests in order to devote himself entirely to managing Callas: from that time they were never parted; he even dressed and pedicured her. But until then, whenever her engagements took her away from Verona, if only for a few days, she would write – several times a day – grotesquely fervent letters of loneliness, longing and love. This famously ambitious woman was for ever assuring her husband that her career meant nothing to her compared to his love. The letters make extraordinary reading, even if one allows for translation from the Italian, where the word ‘suffering’, for instance, does not carry quite the intensity that it does in English, and even if one remembers that Callas lived in a milieu where over-reaction was the norm: when she fell foul of the Scala public, she found not only excrement smeared on her door handle, but a decomposing dog on the seat of her car. Whether what she felt was love depends on whether one thinks a shipwrecked sailor loves his raft: in a sense he does. To choose another metaphor – or rather, to borrow it from Pierre-Jean Rémy, who uses it repeatedly in his book on Callas: in her art she was like a tightrope-walker without a net. But at least from Verona onwards, she had a net in her private life and it was Meneghini.

Meneghini himself seems an even less consistent and explicable character than his wife. As a businessman and Callas’s agent he was by all accounts grasping, devious and ruthless. Yet he had a curiously naive streak and could believe anything (such as his wife’s love for her mother), and believe that other people could believe even more. He produces a very bizarre account of the events following Callas’s death. She died intestate in Paris while he was recovering from a heart attack in his villa at Sirmione. ‘One night Maria came to me in a dream and said: “Battista, remember the will!” She repeated that phrase three times.’ What Meneghini remembered was that one day before a Transatlantic trip his lawyer had drawn up wills for both of them – just one sentence for each marriage partner leaving his or her entire estate to the other. Meneghini had no idea where these papers might have got to, but by amazing chance he found his own will among the rubbish in his attic, and by an equally amazing coincidence a partner of the now deceased lawyer’s ‘had the same bizarre luck as I had had. He picked up an old folder and in it was Maria’s will.’ Meneghini – better now – rushed to Paris to have it proven.

He also went many times to pray and lay flowers by the numbered plaque commemorating Callas at the Paris crematorium. Like all good Italian bourgeois couples, the Meneghinis had put a lot of emotional and other capital into acquiring a cemetery plot (at Sirmione) where they would lie side by side. He intended to have Callas’s ashes transferred there.

Now, however, he discovered he had been playing the gull in a black farce. Not only had Callas’s funeral been arranged with indecent haste (‘everyone was amazed. Princess Grace of Monaco was unable to conceal her anger’), but there were no ashes behind the plaque where he had shed his tears. A mysterious stranger had had the body cremated immediately after the ceremony, ‘and then fate arranged the final chapter of the mystery: the scattering of Maria’s ashes over the Aegean sea – an indefensible act. Now nothing more remains of Maria.’

Still, he repossessed his wife as far as he could. In the Introduction the translator says that Meneghini donated a 16th-century altar-piece in her name to a church in Sirmione, and celebrated the second anniversary of her death by arranging for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem there (why not Verdi’s? Callas never cared much for Mozart); this was ‘followed by a lavish reception at the hotel for his invited guests, during which Callas’s recorded voice could be heard in the background’. Who knows, she might even have liked that.