Looking for Maria Callas in Paris

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PARIS—This article is being written on December 2, 2013, the 90th anniversary of the birth of Maria Callas. This fact is widely reported on Facebook, where opera lovers are posting favorite video and audio clips of the soprano. Some opera-loving decision-maker at Google commemorated the day with an illustration of the singer on its home page.

I have been thinking, here in Paris, that this is the city where Callas lived her last years and died on Sept. 16, 1977 at the age of 53. It was not an age young enough that she would be paired with figures such as James Dean (24), Heath Ledger (28), Marilyn Monroe (36) or Elvis Presley (42), about whom it was wondered what they might have still accomplished.

The body of Callas's work had been created well before her death. Her last opera performances were in the 1960s, including her final execution of the iconic aria, "Casta Diva," from Bellini's Norma, which she gave in Paris on May 29, 1965. She did some concerts with Giuseppe DiStefano in the early 1970s and that was it.. And yet, 53 can seem very young. Her voice and image were very much alive in the memory of millions of people who saw her live or owned her recordings. I note with sadness that my colleague, Marion Lignana Rosenberg died suddenly last week at the age of 51. She was a Callas specialist and the prematureness of Marion’s passing had great resonance for me today.

I recalled that there is a Place Maria Callas in Paris and decided to take myself there today to see if anything was happening. The French are very good at the commemoration of artists and thinkers, especially those who had a connection with France. In 1999, for example, I attended a recreation of Chopin’s entire funeral at the Church of the Madeleine. The same music was played at his actual funeral in this place exactly 150 years earlier.

Before embarking on this search, I did some research online. In the Wikipedia article (and I should note that Wikipedia is not a source I consider reliable enough to cite on any topic), there is a traditional blue and green Paris street sign as an illustration, which led me to think that there would would be such a sign at the Place Maria Callas.

I knew from my maps and walking in this area through the years where the Place Maria Callas would be. It is just down the street from the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where I often attend performances. It is at the Alma-Marceau metro station, a very chic place where the Avenue Montaigne, Avenue Georges V, Avenue de President Wilson and Avenue de New York all converge. It is right on the Seine and the Eiffel Tower looms large just across the river.

It was here that Callas lived out her last, lonely years and I imagined the faithful might have gathered here just as they had in cyberspace. To my dismay, there seemed to be a total lack of awareness that one of the greatest divas in opera history was strongly associated with this spot.

There are four newsagents in close proximity to where I thought the place would be. The first three I asked had never heard of it. The fourth one, who wound up being only steps away from the site, told me, “I think it is just over there, but it is not marked in any way.” I walked around and around in the spot where the map indicated, crossed the street, looked at nearby corners, and there was no marker or plaque.

Wikipedia reported that this piece of land, just where the Avenue de New York converges with the Pont de L’Alma, was dedicated to Callas on July 24, 1997, almost 20 years after her death. I quickly figured out why Callas has been forgotten here: In the tunnel immediately beneath the supposed location of the place, Diana, Princess of Wales, was in the accident that would claim her life on August 31, 1997. A mere five weeks after this place was dedicated to Callas, the area under became the focus of worldwide attention for another reason.

Today, the square (really small patch of land between three trafficky streets), has a small wall on one side that is scrawled with Princess Diana graffiti and memorabilia. There is no marker whatsoever that I could locate for Callas. Quel dommage! Paris seems to remember Callas in other ways. There were two articles today in Le Point one about her impact as an artist, the other about her sad final years.

When I think of Callas in Paris, it is of Callas Forever by Franco Zeffirelli, a film fantasy about a career comeback when she had no voice left. Her somewhat slimy manager, played by Jeremy Irons, decides that because she had recorded Carmen but never performed the role on the stage, a sort of “virtual” performance in which she might move about and mouth the words could be created. Or, perhaps, a Carmen movie with Callas acting while being dubbed with her own voice. Fanny Ardant was wonderful as Callas. She was, to my taste, the best of all the Marias in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class, which she acted in French.

Because there are now very few people around who heard Callas live, she is fading from memory as a performer and is now being built up as a myth and an icon for people who are attracted by her temperament at a time when most artists of all types seem so detached. Who could, for those who wonder at what Callas meant, be the parallel example for young audiences today? No one really, certainly not among opera singers. But as someone who set a style and tone that reflected her times, perhaps Amy Winehouse. Tony Bennett, a man I admire whose artistry I respect, observed that Winehouse was one of the very greatest singers he ever worked with. And she had a look, to be sure, and an hypnotic hold on her  fans. Whom would you choose?

Readers, Weigh In: Given Maria Callas’s vivid life story, which great opera composer would you select to write the music for an opera based on her life, and why? My pick would be Hector Berlioz, who would get the sweep and the passion, in addition to the whole sense of Callas’s Greek heritage.