B1062. GIOVANNI BATTISTA MENEGHINI. My Wife Maria Callas. New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982. 331pp. Index; Photos; DJ. - 0-374-21752-1
"Maria Callas met Giovanni Battista Meneghini over dinner in Verona, Italy, on 29 June, 1947. She was 23 at the time, a shy, myopic, overweight, insecure young singer, nervously anticipating her first major operatic engagement, LA GIOCONDA at the Verona Arena. Meneghini was a wealthy, 51-year-old brick manufacturer, a nondescript man with few prepossessing qualities or cultural interests beyond a passion for opera. They made a distinctly odd couple, but their attraction was mutual and instantaneous. From that moment, and through the following 12 years, 10 of them as husband and wife, Callas and Meneghini remained virtually inseparable.
In most subsequent accounts of Callas' stormy life and career, Meneghini invariably supplies the comic relief: a doting but ineffectual husband and meddlesome bore who controlled his wife's every move as she transformed herself from ugly duckling into the world's most glamorous, courted and controversial opera singer. Even at the beginning, no one had access to Callas except through Meneghini, who soon gave up bricks and devoted his full energies to orchestrating the Callas career and legend. As her manager, troubleshooter, protector, factotum and hard-nosed negotiator, he exasperated everyone. Meneghini annoyed Rudolf Bing so much that the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera once handed over the diva's hefty fee in rolls of $5 bills. 'ill-nature was about the only thing that saved Battista from insipidity', Arianna Stassinopoulos wrote in her Callas biography. She also described him as 'an efficient manager with more than his share of vanity and self-importance'.
In 1959, Callas abruptly abandoned her husband for Aristotle Onassis. To his dying day, Meneghini never understood why, nor did he ever recover from the shock. Deeply wounded by his wife's inexplicable desertion, Meneghini went into seclusion and rarely made public comments, even after Callas' death in 1977. Apparently the clownish portrait that Miss Stassinopoulos drew of him was even more than this stolid man could stomach. Shortly before his death on 20 Jan., 1981, Meneghini decided to present his side of the affair. The memoir was left incomplete, but Renzo Allegri, music critic of the Italian magazine Gente, was able to compile the final chapters from taped conversations, notes and diaries. In Meneghini's view, his life with Callas was nothing less than a beautiful, if ill-fated, love story.
And perhaps, in a strange way, it was - this oddly touching relationship that for a while at least catered to the special emotional needs of both parties. To prove the depth of Callas' attachment, Meneghini quotes dozens of her letters to him, mostly written in the early days of their years together when the soprano found it necessary to travel alone.
These may not be passionate love letters, but they come from the heart. Many observers still insist that the relationship was purely platonic, although after her wedding Callas wrote how she closely watched the calendar in order to conceive the child she always wanted but could never have. From the evidence presented by Meneghini, this was indeed a complete marriage between two people desperately dependent upon one another and, in their fashion, genuinely in love. After all, it was as Maria Meneghini Callas that the world first learned of this extraordinary singer, and she used her husband's name throughout the most significant years of her career.
Meneghini does not dwell exclusively on a justification of his marriage. His book sheds new light on many other fascinating aspects of Callas' life, her artistic ambitions, her volatile personality and her collaborations with Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Tullio Serafin, Erich Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini (who was to conduct Verdi's MACBETH at La Scala in 1952, until both he and Callas became the victims of 'some internal machination' at the opera house). Given his limited powers of perception, Meneghini fortunately sticks to a straightforward account of the events as he experienced them, rather than offering interpretations, even when the facts show him in a bad light. There are humorous interludes too, such as Callas' audience with Pope Pius XII in 1954. The Pope's nephew, Marcantonio Pacelli, was president of Pantanella Mills, a firm that claimed credit for Callas' miraculous weight loss through a diet of Pantanella pasta. His Holiness had obviously arranged the meeting to dissuade the soprano from a legal action against Pantanella that would embarrass his family, but Callas obstinately refused to budge, even for the Pope.
Incredible as it seems, Meneghini never once sensed that his 'perfect' marriage was about to dissolve in 1959. He literally went to bed one night, believing himself a happily married man, and woke up the next morning a deceived husband. The reasons were obvious to everyone but Meneghini. Now a beautiful woman at the height of her vocal powers and the toast of international society, Callas had clearly become bored to death by the drably unimaginative man at her side.
Perhaps the most ironic twist of all, and another point missed by the disarmingly honest but hopelessly obtuse Meneghini, was that Callas' tragic vocal decline dates precisely from the time she left her husband. Callas yearned for the tinsel glitter of Onassis' pleasure-loving circle, but as an artist she needed the care, Spartan regime and stability that Meneghini had provided. Who knows? Had she not taken the course she did, Callas might have extended her career by another decade. Instead, she soon burned out her voice and her spirit, retiring to a lonely Paris apartment, where she died under circumstances that still remain mysterious. Meneghini's loving account of his life with a woman he never really knew is a poignant document, a much sadder one than this bewildered man ever realized."
- Peter G. Davis, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 21 Nov., 1982