Eating and Drinking in Opera: and the Callas Diet
Abstract and Keywords
This article explores how food and drink in opera convey meaning, define relationships, trigger psychophysical reactions, and denote dramatis and singers’ personae. It proposes a basic theoretical foundation of “operatic gastromusicology” by outlining five primary functions of food in opera: social, intimate, denotative, medicinal, and dietary. These five functions are exemplified through the analysis of gastronomic signs in Verdi’s Traviata. The opera and its performance history illustrate how the production of this opera reflects the changing culture of food and the body. Luchino Visconti’s production in Milan’s La Scala in 1955, with Maria Callas as the consumptive protagonist, was in this respect a watershed in the history of opera. The singer’s rapid and prodigious weight loss prior to this performance triggered an epochal shift in opera culture toward an unprecedented conflation of the dramatis and singer’s persona.
Pheasant with Ketchup
Don Giovanni’s last supper is one of the most memorable scenes in opera. The libretto explicitly prescribes a lavishly set dining table with servants, including the wealthy libertine’s loyal factotum Leporello, waiting on him at table and musicians providing musical entertainment during the meal:
Act 2, scene 12. Sala.
Finale. Don Giovanni, Leporello, alcuni suonatori, una mensa preparata per mangiare.
(I servi portano in tavola mentre Leporello vuole uscire).
Don Giovanni: Già la mensa è preparata,
Voi suonate amici cari,
Già che spendo i miei danari,
Io mi voglio divertir.
Leporello presto in tavola.
Leporello: Son prontissimo a ubbidir.
Act 2, scene 12. Hall.
Finale. Don Giovanni, Leporello, some musicians, a set dining table ready for supper.
(Servants are bringing food to the table while Leporello wants to leave).
Don Giovanni: supper is ready,
play some music, my friends,
since I spend my money,
I want to be amused.
Leporello come by the table
Leporello: Ready to oblige you.1
During his meal, Don Giovanni will eat game, namely a pheasant (some of which his servant Leporello, excluded from the table, will steal). If served with its distinctive long feathers on, this would make a beautifully presented and immediately recognizable dish. The choice of this particular food item is relevant, for pheasant is there to signify the womanizer’s aristocratic status, as well as his nature as a hunter of women. Don Giovanni will also drink wine from the North of Italy (Marzemino). In Spain, where the opera is set, or in Prague and Vienna, where the opera was first performed, this would have been perceived as an expensive imported item.
Don Giovanni: Versa il vino. (Leporello versa il vino nel bicchiero)
Eccellente marzimino [sic]. (Leporello cangia il piat[t]o a D[on] Gio[vanni] e mangia in fretta etc.)
Leporello: (Questo pezzo di fagiano
Piano piano vo’ inghiottir.)
D[on] Gio[vanni]: (Sta mangiando quel marrano
Fingerò di non capir).
Don Giovanni: Pour the wine. (Leporello pours the wine in the glass)
Excellent Marzemino. (Leporello changes the dish for Don Giovanni and eats quickly etc.)
Leporello: (This piece of pheasant
I want to swallow very quietly.)
D[on] Gio[vanni]: (The rascal is eating.
I’ll pretend not to notice).2
His supper, sweetened by table-music, or Tafelmusik,3 will be interrupted twice, first by one of his deceived lovers, Donna Elvira, who rejects Don Giovanni’s spiteful invitation to join him at the table, and second by the statue of the Commendatore, whom the debauched libertine murdered at the beginning of the opera after sexually assaulting his daughter.
In opera, scenes involving eating and drinking define relationships, personality, behavior, and identity. What, how, or whether the inhabitants of any opera eat or drink, and whether or not they share, or accept or reject an invitation to share, are all signs laden with meaning.
The meaning conveyed by these signs, like every meaning, is context-bound, but, as Jonathan Culler brilliantly put it, “context is boundless.” 4 In opera there are boundaries that are hard to ignore or remove, because they are tangled in interconnected systems of signs woven in a thick net of textual, visual, and musical codes. In his 1989 production of Don Giovanni stage director Peter Sellars represented the protagonist as a Harlem thug who, for his last meal, consumes McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chicken “McNuggets” and drinks soda rather than wine, not on a lavishly set dining table waited on by an army of servants but in the middle of a street, assisted solely by Leporello. Sellars feels free to disregard or subvert directions provided in the libretto because, as radical a director as he may appear, he remains deferential to the hierarchic system of textual authority. This system ranks at the top the notes in the score, which are untouchable, and immediately below the words in the libretto under the notes, for they could be at least mistranslated in a modern bilingual edition of the libretto or in the super- or subtitles. At the bottom of the pyramid are the stage indications in the libretto as almost irrelevant, as they do nothing but limit the artistic creativity of stage directors. Disregarding the interdependence of these layers, however, leads to inconsistencies that are often hard to hide. Leporello still sings about fagiano while eating chicken nuggets, and Don Giovanni still sings about Marzemino wine while drinking soda, exposing the incongruence between text and performance. The result is twofold. On the one hand, because fast food is usually not consumed in ritualized banquets, the fact that Don Giovanni does not share his McDonald’s feast no longer signals his own misdirected appetite and selfishness. In this case, the original meaning is lost. On the other hand, the type of food he consumes fits his new identity as a low-class street criminal. In this case the original meaning is redirected and redefined. This example shows that gastronomic signs are often so intimately embedded in the dramatic fabric of opera that they cannot be completely discarded or modified without leaving traces of their aroma that might not go well with the newly introduced ingredients, like eating pheasant with ketchup.
Claude Lévi-Strauss maintained that in human culture there are five basic codes corresponding to our five senses. Eating represents a privileged code because “not only does cooking [cuisine] mark the transition from nature to culture, but through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with all its attributes.”5 Cuisine also marks the transition from culture to art, insofar as by “art” we mean a technology or craft (technê) through which the art-maker manipulates, with purposeful aesthetic awareness, matter present in nature in order to express or trigger sensory, emotional, and intellectual reactions during structured rituals of art consumption. Aliments in fact can trigger psychophysical reactions and can be prepared and served as an aesthetically motivated alteration and combination of natural substances, resulting in ephemeral products consumed within a limited time frame, even though recipes can be reproduced any number of times. When enjoyed in public, consumption takes place in structured rituals, shared according to codified behaviors (table manners), and often served in accordance to a syntax regulating their sequential order (courses). If we replace “aliments” with “music,” “natural substances” with “sounds,” and “courses” with “movements,” we have half-cooked a working definition of Western art music: this definition of high cuisine corresponding to art music may be fruitful in the emerging field of the study of food and music, which I call gastromusicology. It may examine, among other things, analogical patterns of composition/cooking, hearing/tasting, and rituals and representations of music/food consumption.
The Five Functions of Food in Opera
In the case of operatic gastromusicology, we need to take any analogy between food and music with a grain of salt. As a form of theatrical spectacle, opera engages directly with only two of our five senses, which means that taste, smell, and touch can be stimulated only indirectly, through hearing and sight. Food in opera is meaningful but flavorless, often odorless, and obviously texture-less. Eating and drinking scenes in opera convert food and drinks into insubstantial gastronomic signs.
Notwithstanding its limited ability to stimulate the human senses, opera combines and manipulates a broad variety of audible and visual resources. Wagner’s conception of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” which was already embryonically formed in the minds of earlier opera theorists, stems from opera’s omnivorous appetite for different codified classes of signs and expressive domains: music, sung poetry, acting, and choreographed movements (dance), stage sets, and lights.6 Opera also processes codes that must be taken into account in any comprehensive opera theory, such as fashion (costume and furniture design), weaponry and armed fighting, smoking, the body and its shape and gestures, and, last but not least, eating and drinking. The opera scholar of the future will have to confront this protean monster without cutting any of its tentacles. Even by focusing solely on one code—in our case the gastronomic code—one should not ignore other expressive domains that unavoidably intersect and interact.
We begin by sketching a theory of operatic gastromusicology by defining what food is doing in opera.
Food in opera has five primary functions: social, intimate, denotative, medicinal, and dietary. The first and most common function is public, which is to say social and political. We see this function in convivial situations (conviviality literally means “to live together”—cum vivere—and companions means “those who share bread”). This is also evident in the case of toasts made to seal pacts and alliances. “Sharing food,” as anthropologist Gillian Crowther points out, “is instrumental in creating social groups, and it forms loyalties and obligations.”7 In opera, banquets and toasts are represented and dramatized musically as joyful social harmonizers.
The second function of food in opera is intimate. In this case, sharing food may express a union between two friends, family members, or lovers. It can be used for seduction or—when not shared—denotes a selfish appetite (as in the case of libertines like Don Giovanni, Falstaff, or Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca).
While the first two functions define relationships, the third denotes identity. Certain kinds of food or drinks, but also silverware, china, table manners, and so on, may strongly characterize a group or an individual by defining their social class (peasants eat onions, which upper-class people despise), ethnicity, nationality, gender (American male gold-miners in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West drink whisky and some smoke cigars), age, personality, or a temporary state of mind or health (the old Sir John Falstaff drinks hot wine as a cold remedy after having been thrown in the river).
The fourth function of food in opera is medicinal. This is the power of food or drinks to directly affect a character’s health or behavior. Powerful dramatic catalysts of this type can quickly change the course of events: love potions and other magic potions (as in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as well as in Götterdämmerung), medical remedies, caffeine and chocolate, alcoholic beverages that visibly and audibly intoxicate characters, drugs (a rare case of drug abuse is in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess), and deadly poison (a popular snack in opera).
The fifth function of food is dietary. It stands apart from the other four. It is real-life dieting as a form of body-shaping for expressive purposes. The real-life dieting of singers differs from the other four functions of food in opera noted previously because it is the only one that crosses in and out of the theatrical four walls. It shapes a dramatis persona through the actual body of the singer’s persona. The reason we include it operatic gastromusicology is because the singer’s body (and body mass) has become increasingly significant and meaningful, because people pay more attention to it than in the past, and because it conveys information and meaning, not just aesthetic value. The fifth function has increased in value since opera makers and audiences began to lose the traditional ability to separate their perception of the singer’s body from the body of the character. To understand this phenomenon we need to shift methodology from a study of the opera texts to the study of operatic culture.
Our case study is Maria Callas’s prodigious diet, which was a milestone in the epochal shift in opera culture toward the conflation of the dramatis and singer’s persona. In record time, Callas shaped her body in a way that allowed her to have the ideal persona for her landmark interpretation of the consumptive heroine of Verdi’s La traviata in a 1955 production for the La Scala theater of Milan, directed by filmmaker Luchino Visconti. Approximately one century before the Visconti-Callas production, Traviata premiered in Venice, in 1853. The opera presents a summa of all the functions of food in opera.
Carnival and Lent in Verdi’s Traviata
Giuseppe Verdi recollects that his teacher of composition, Vincenzo Lavigna, concert master of Milan’s opera house La Scala, made him study, analyze, and learn almost by heart Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which Lavigna produced in Milan in 1814.8 That would explain why Verdi’s music dramaturgy is so close, in conception, to Mozart’s.9 And perhaps that is also why food and wine are so plentiful and so meaningful in Verdi’s operas, most of all in Traviata. The plot of this opera outlines a dramatic trajectory from feasting to fasting. The protagonist, “the fallen one” (for that is the meaning of the word traviata), is a party animal who loves wine, food, and sex and ends up dying of consumption after renouncing her own possessions and selfish appetites. The libretto’s literary source, La dame au camélias by Alexandre Dumas was a novel and a play inspired by the real-life courtesan (at the time called grisette or lorette). Her name was Alphonsine Plessis, alias Marie Duplessis. She died of tuberculosis at age 23 in 1847.10 In Huart’s treatise on the Physiologie de la grisette (1841) these women are described as craving “marrons, babas, galettes, vin chaud, bischoff [cookies] et autres refraîchissements analogues,” among other pleasures of the flesh. In order to court a grisette, Huart instructs his targeted male audience, one needs to offer her food, as she loves oranges and chestnuts better than flowers (namely camélias).11
In the original contract between Verdi and the Venice opera house La Fenice the commission was for an opera “to be produced in this theater during the coming 1852/53 season of Carnival and Lent.”12 The gastronomic narrative trajectory of Traviata reflects the ritualized dietary trajectory from the feasting in Carnival to fasting in Lent. This obvious fact, which has passed so far unnoticed, is of tremendous importance to the understanding not only of the dramatic fabric of this opera but also of the ritualistic nature of this opera. Feasting and fasting on stage reflected in fact—at least in the original intention of the composer and librettist—a ritualized diet affecting the audience as well. It is worth recollecting that in Catholic countries, like Italy (where this opera was first performed) and France (where its dramatic action takes place), Carnival is the time one is allowed to indulge in food and drinks and other pleasures of the flesh before the forty days of fasting in Lent, preceding Easter Sunday, when the meat of the redemptive sacrificial lamb is consumed in a ritualized meal that Christians borrowed from the Jewish Passover. The term Carnevale comes from Medieval Latin expressing either “farewell to” (“vale”) or “eliminate” (“levare”) meat and carnal pleasures (“caro/carnis” in Latin and “carne” in Italian, have this double meaning). In La traviata, carnival is explicitly represented in the second-act masked party at Flora’s, where a chorus of men dressed as bullfighters sing a bacchanal about the parade of the “fatted ox,” a typical French carnival ritual. This song evokes the theme of sacrifice when, in Violetta’s final death scene (Act 3, scene 4), the off-stage choral bacchanal clarifies that the fat ox makes every butcher proud.13
The contract between Verdi and La Fenice for the 1852–1853 season of Carnival and Lent does not specify which opera was going to be performed. For a Carnival and Lent opera Verdi could not have chosen a most fitting, albeit controversial, subject. The librettist Piave explained to the secretary of the La Fenice that Verdi was “in love” with the subject of La dame aux camélias, which was then provisionally titled Amore e morte (Love and Death).14 The first interpreter of the role of Giorgio Germont, the baritone Felice Varesi, expresses vehemently the consternation for the “very dangerous” subject based on the life of a real high-class prostitute (“puttana Lionne”).15 For that reason the negotiations with the censors was not an easy process, which, due also to delays in the composition of the music, deferred the premiere to Lent, namely on March 6, 1853, a date well after Ash Wednesday that year.
The choice of a story based on the life and death of a grisette for a Lent opera may seem strange; traditionally, Lent operas have been based on stories of saints or other spiritually edifying subjects. The understandable perception that Verdi’s choice was absolutely outrageous is contradicted by a careful reading of Dumas’s novel. Dumas makes clear in fact that his story is to be understood as spiritually edifying. As he writes toward the beginning of the novel,
Christianity is ever-present, with its wonderful parable of the prodigal son, to urge us to counsels of forbearance and forgiveness. Jesus was full of love for souls of women wounded by the passions of men, and He loved to bind their wounds, drawing from those same wounds the balm that would heal them. Thus he said to Mary Magdalene: “Your sins, which are many, shall be forgiven, because you loved much”—a sublime pardon which was to awaken a sublime faith.16
In a review of Dumas’s play, a journalist called the protagonist a “sainte pécheresse” (“saint sinner”).17 In more recent times, Linda and Michael Hutchon offered an insightful description of the protagonist of Verdi’s opera as “the disembodied, spiritualized woman [who] manages to be sinner and saint in one.”18
At the beginning of the opera, Violetta is represented more as a sinner than as a saint, and yet, unlike pure operatic libertines, she offers and shares both food and wine. In the end, as she dies in her sickroom after sacrificing herself to save the honor of her lover’s family, the only objects in Violetta’s room (according to the libretto) are a dressing table that reminds us of her past life; an oil lamp, symbol of vanishing life; medicines that are useless remedies against her disease; a crystal glass; and a carafe of water, symbol of death and purification.19
Verdi represents the disembodiment of the protagonist through a radical contrast in the orchestral texture, which at the end becomes extremely rarefied. This textural contrast is so central that Verdi emphasized it programmatically already in the orchestral prelude but in reverse order. The overture begins, in fact, with the diaphanous sound of solo violins that we hear again in the death scene. The body of the string section is fibrillated by splitting it into solo, divided violins (soli divisi), whispering (the dynamic indication is ppp), in the very high register, a minor triad that transforms through a melodic ascent to a major one, while the third in the lower part of the initial chord lightens up in a void open octave in the following chord configuration. Listeners who might miss this subtle and fleeting initial harmonic gesture, which happens in the first two measures of the whole opera, will not miss the analogous macroscopic shift from the disembodied first section of the orchestral prelude to its second half, where a waltz rhythm is marked by the basses, while the violins quote the melody from Violetta’s Act 2 scena “Amami Alfredo.” In the excerpt recalled in the prelude, she expresses her desire for Alfredo’s love before renouncing him, with both nostalgia and determination. It is a bittersweet sensation, like the last bite of prohibited food on a Mardi Gras night.
Dumas makes purposeful use of the gastronomic sign, but the differences between the novel and the opera are striking. The young lover, Armand (Alfredo), who is also the narrating voice, recollects his first encounter with Marguerite (Violetta) at the opera theater, the Opéra Comique, where he offered sugared raisins to the woman, “who ate her raisins without paying any further attention to me.” Two years later he notices an old count also offering sweets to Marguerite at the theater.20 In both cases the sweets denote her as a fickle courtesan (she takes food offered from everyone) and a selfish libertine (she eats her raisins without sharing or paying attention to the people around her, including her lovers). Later, he and three other friends have dinner at her apartment, where Armand recollects, “we laughed, we drank, we ate a great deal at the supper party. Within minutes, the merriment had sunk to the lowest level,” until the fun is spoiled by Marguerite’s violent fit of coughing, foreshadowing her death.21 The reader is aware of Marguerite’s tragic destiny, as the novel starts from its conclusion, with a horrid scene of the exhumation of Marguerite’s body. The eater is now eaten; the shroud covering her is “completely eaten away at one end,” revealing the body whose “eyes were simply two holes, the lips gone.”22
Verdi’s opera begins more merrily, with the dinner party at Violetta’s. Here the protagonist is immediately characterized not as an avid eater of sweets but as a generous hostess. As the curtain rises we see “a table richly set for a lavish feast” (“tavola riccamente imbandita”). All the sources are adamant about the immediate presence of food. Verdi, in his autograph sketches for the opera, titles the scene “dinner” (“cena”).23
At Violetta’s dinner, food, from the moment we first see it on stage, denotes class identity. When following the indications in the libretto, the kind of food that is typically presented in the staging of this scene, the setting of the table (tablecloth, precious china, and silverware), the presence of waiters even at a private house, and the table manners of the guests typically indicate the high class of the hostess and guests. This corroborates Pierre Bourdiou’s theory that what and how people eat denotes their social class. In real life and in actual opera productions, what people eat manifests itself in their bodies, to the extent that the body becomes a signifier, in fact “the most indisputable materialization of class taste.”24 We soon return to the representation of the body in Traviata. For now, let us see how Verdi’s music completes but also confers complexity on the function of food as a definer of social class.
In the banquet scene we hear a polka rhythm. As Emilio Sala points out, this dance was introduced in Venice and Paris only a few years before the composition of Traviata, precisely in 1848.25 Polka was associated with the young generations, which also meant a generation fully immersed in the fiery political struggles of the 1848 revolutions. Today the social critique appears mild in Traviata, but it could not have escaped the notice of contemporary audiences. High-class gastronomic signs (high-table manners, china, silverware, and food) clash with the use of the Polka as a topos for the new generation trying to disentangle themselves from old class logics. This clash echoes the ambivalence of the position and perception of the protagonist and her profession as a grisette. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Huart rejected the definition of grisette imposed by the “old men of letters,” who defined the grisette “with irreverence” as “a young woman of mediocre condition.” Huart maintained that definitions change across the class spectrum, as grisettes were perceived differently by the bourgeoise, the aristocracy, and so forth. Socially, the grisette is a wild card, as she is “defined differently by different classes,” and, morally, she could be either or both an “angel” or a “devil.”26
In the dinner scene, the number of guests in Verdi’s opera is much larger than in Dumas’s novel. This is more a banquet than a simple intimate supper. It is a semipublic event. Here the function of food as a public and political social harmonizer (its first function) is obvious, as this banquet—like most—functions as a socially cohesive event.27 The banquet, however, also unveils the divisions that it is supposed to mend. The guests at this party are in fact introduced as two divided groups. Some, who are already in Violetta’s salon, are waiting for others, who have been gambling at the house of her friend, Flora, delaying their arrival at the supper. As soon as latecomers arrive, Violetta’s group playfully reproaches Flora’s group with hungry mock anger, and the latter apologizes for the delay. Violetta then invites them to drink “fra le tazze è più viva la festa” (“the party is livelier, among the cups”), which works as a sign of cohesion and a reliever of tension. As she does so, the music of the orchestra stops for a quarter-note pause, marking this moment as an important point of dramatic articulation. After this remark, and after three other Epicurean lines praising the curative power of pleasure, the chorus is temporarily reconciled and therefore answers as a unified group: “Sì, la vita s’addoppia al gioir” (“Yes, life is doubled by enjoyment”).
Soon more divisions emerge with the entrance of Alfredo and his friend Gastone, marked by a modulation away from the initial A major, by the thinning down of the orchestral texture, and by the appearance of a new lyrical theme. Here we recognize the second function of food in opera, the more intimate, erotic one. In this case it is not a clear shift away from the first but rather a superimposition and intersection of a new layer of meaning. As Alfredo arrives, waiters appear to be busy at the table (“Servi affaccendati intorno alla mensa”), anticipating the approaching moment of food consumption. As Alfredo kisses Violetta’s hand, the waiters complete their task. At this point, Violetta asks if supper is ready, and a servant nods. The orchestral music stops again to signal another important moment of dramatic articulation. Here Violetta invites everyone to sit at the table (“Miei cari sedete”). Immediately after she sings in a solemn, descending melodic line, encompassing an octave, accompanied only by the long notes of the strings: “È al convito che s’apre ogni cor” (“at the table all hearts are opened”). The chorus answers in an even larger and unified group, and the tonality rapidly returns to the initial A major.
As everyone is seated, the dishes start to circulate among the guests.28 From this point on, the relationship between Alfredo and Violetta strengthens throughout the supper, at first by a comparison between the gallantry of Alfredo and the clumsiness of his rival, Violetta’s “sugar daddy” the Baron Douphol, who confidentially tells Flora how much he dislikes Alfredo. Douphol refuses to lead the toast—an antisocial if not openly hostile gesture—and Alfredo takes his place. In a gesture that seals their union, Violetta pours the wine into Alfredo’s glass and his alone.
The brindisi “libiamo” (Act 1, scene 2) is a typical specimen of this genre of drinking songs, structured as a ritualized toast.29 Written in triadic rhythm with a sweeping waltz rhythm, the piece is a celebration of both communal and intimate pleasure and joy. It alternates lines sung by Alfredo, Violetta, and a unified chorus. The lovers sing to each other but without the exclusion of the group of friends who approve and espouse their words. The censors made numerous cuts and changes to this piece (eventually the original version was restored). For example, they emend Alfredo’s invitation to “intoxicate the fleeting hour with voluptuous pleasure” (“e la fuggevol ora / s’inebri
s’inebbrii a voluttà”), replacing it with “più lieta scorrerà” or “the fleeting hour will pass more pleasantly.” The censors also disliked the invitation to “drink to the sweet shivers that love arouses” (“Libiam ne’ dolci fremiti / che suscita l’amore” where “amore” ["love”] is replaced with “licore” [“liquor”]). Likewise, they banned the invitation to drink and enjoy “warmer kisses” while drinking (“ più caldi caldi baci avrà” replaced with the innocuous “cerchiam felicità” or “let us seek happiness”). Alfredo’s reference to the cross (“ croce e delizia” or “cross and delight”) was also censored and replaced with “pain” (“duolo e delizia”).30 In a letter to his friend, the sculptor Vincenzo Luccardi, Verdi understandably complained, “the censors destroyed the meaning of the drama. They made Traviata pure and innocent. Thanks a lot! So they marred every situation and character. A whore must be a whore, always! If the sun would shine in the night there would be no night. They don’t get it.”31
The fourth function of food in opera—to visibly and audibly intoxicate the characters—is potentially, but not actually, conveyed by the libretto through the presence of wine (which does not always and necessarily make people drunk), but it is, or at least could be, reinforced by the music. The musical phrasing of the theme of this brindisi is slightly irregular, encompassing an unusual number of measures—ten rather than the typical eight.32 These ten measures are grouped as 6+4, with the first group presenting more extended, lyrical note values than the second. The effect is like an unsteadily progressive hastening of the phrase, which could be dramatized as a song performed by casual and mildly inebriated partygoers. In this case, admittedly, the score is not conveying a strong sense of inebriation, as happens in the drinking song of Verdi’s Otello. The actors and the stage director instructing them have the final say on whether and to what extent they should act tipsy.
The banquet scene with brindisi in Traviata, as we have seen, perfectly exemplifies the first four functions of the gastronomic sign in opera. After this scene, the fifth function, concerning the body shape of the singer, emerges more and more powerfully as the drama unfolds. The consumptive body of the heroine becomes an essential aspect of the music-dramatic fabric of the opera, represented in both the libretto through the reference to her medical condition and in the music score through the thinning down of the orchestral texture toward the end of the opera. The fundamental question is whether the body of the singer should fit the body of the consumptive character.
“It Ain’t Over ’Til the Fit Lady Sings”
Singers’ bodies are often expected to fit a particular role or role type in cases where specific physical features, like ethnic traits, age, and body sizes, are essential features to the role. One might think of the black African Othello, the young Japanese woman, Madame Butterfly, the short Alberich and Mime, the tall Fasolt and Fafner, the children Hansel and Gretel, the corpulent old Sir John Falstaff, the sensual gipsy Carmen, the slender Violetta and Mimì. Actors, of course, not always need to look in real life like the character they interpret on stage. Nevertheless, slenderness is one trait that cannot be comfortably simulated using makeup, costumes, body gestures, and special effects. Squeezing opera artists into tight costumes is not going to help their singing. In Dumas’s novel, the protagonist is described as “tall and slender almost to a fault.”33 In the play, as in the opera, being tall is not required, and a short actress, one can imagine, could as easily interpret the role. But her body mass could not be as easily disregarded because the disease affecting the consumptive heroine, like Mimì in Bohème, invariably results in a substantial loss of weight.34 Would impresarios and audiences allow a corpulent singer to interpret these roles?
The issue of the suitability of a singer-actor’s body to a particular role exists only in a theatrical culture that expects some level of congruence between the appearance of the dramatis persona and actor impersonating it. This issue touches on a central problem of opera: realism, or the genre’s ability to represent perceived reality. Because opera was created by Neoplatonist Renaissance academicians, for a long time there was a common understanding that they were more interested in metaphysical or supersensible reality than in physical reality perceivably through the senses. Robert Donington states that opera’s metaphysical birthmark produced a long-lasting gap between the psychological and the phenomenal: “opera, more than most forms, depends on [ … ] artistic indirection, trading as it so often does a minimum of outer plausibility for a maximum of inner credibility.”35 The implication of this axiom is that opera dramatizes psychological states and reactions, moral values, and abstract ideas to the detriment of concrete physical reality. The endemic incongruence between inner and outer reality would allow the audience to forgive the incongruence between the actual body of singers and the fictional body of the characters they impersonate. This position has been challenged by Gary Tomlinson, who shows how in Renaissance Neoplatonic thought, especially in Italy and therefore in early opera, there was no dualism of sensible and supersensible realms, no separation of physics and metaphysics. The perceived and the supersensible appears in fact part of a unified cosmos, so that “the boundary between the two realms is so permeable as almost to be no boundary at all.” This leads Tomlinson to claim that, “in keeping with its blurring of the borderline between substantial and non-substantial worlds, Renaissance thought is not dualistic. It locates the human organism at the border of the two realms, but also posits it as the bridge making them one.” The history of opera appears as a history of “shifting, shimmering metaphysics.”36 The process of bridging the gap between physical and metaphysical reality, as a matter of fact, started with the birth of opera. While medieval sacred drama or Renaissance allegorical plays and dramatic madrigals often allowed the impersonation of one single character by a whole chorus, in opera the single body of the singer always coincided with the single body of the character. If this revolution in theatrical culture marked the first step of a march toward closing up, rather than widening, the gap between inner and outer realities, by no means did it create a form of realistic theater as we intend it today.
For centuries operagoers did not lose their ancestors’ ability to suspend their disbelief. They readily accepted implausible plots, costumes, staging, and voices, such as sopranos and altos, mostly castratos, singing the roles of grown-up male heroes. Once castratos disappeared, during the early-nineteenth-century Bel Canto era, it became common to cast female singers en travesti as male heroes. This was at first hard to digest in modern theatrical culture as Bel canto operas reentered the repertory. Philip Gossett recollects the time when Claudio Abbado conducted Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 1966 at Milan’s La Scala, rewriting the part of Romeo for a tenor, which was originally written for a female mezzo-soprano, in order to avoid the embarrassment of staging two women as Romeo and Juliet. He also reports that in 1988, in a more “authentic” American production of Rossini’s Bianca e Faliero, with Faliero interpreted by a female singer, he overheard two ladies commenting: “‘Do you see what I see?’ one whispered to the other, ‘two women–making love?’” At about the same time, many lesbian women enthusiastically received the female singers interpreting male roles, especially when engaging in love duets.37 One wonders why, during Rossini’s time, cross-dressing in opera did not shock anyone or make anybody laugh. According to an illustrious eye witness, the Marquis Massimo d’Azeglio, people paid a great deal of attention and had a blast when, during the 1821 Roman Carnival, Rossini himself and the star violinist Niccolò Paganini both dressed up like women and played guitar duets at different parties.38 Clearly female singers dressed as men on the opera stage and male musicians dressed as women off stage, even during Carnival, belonged to different ritualistic contexts that made the actual body behind the mask less or more visible.
Let us now shift the focus from gender to body size. The singer Gertrude Righetti Giorgi, for whom Rossini created the title role of Cenerentola (1817), looked dramatically different from Disney’s sylphlike Cinderella (1950). Her portrait (Figure 1) emphasizes her plumpness, rather than hiding it, and this is not a caricature but a serious celebratory etching: the inscription under the image declares the purpose of this printable portrait, “So that the world will know her and love her.”
One could imagine that Righini’s feet, as well as her girth, were larger than average, based on the fact that the librettist eliminated the stratagem of the lost “little glass slipper,” which was so central in Charles Perrault’s fairytale titled Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper).39 The comparison between Rossini’s and Disney’s Cinderella tells a lot about the change in body-type aesthetic. As Peter Stearns points out in his Fat History, it was precisely with Cinderella that the Walt Disney Company “adopted an impossibly willowy form for heroines.” The trend continued with Pocahontas and up to thinner and thinner princesses that are now imposing an impossible ideal of slimness to a vast global audience of very young women. These are only some of the symptoms of what Kim Chernin has defined as the modern “tyranny of slimness.”40
When, in 1816, Righetti created the role of Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the original libretto pointed explicitly to her full figure, suggesting that, at least in the more realistic genre of opera buffa, people were in fact paying attention to the body on stage as existing in the world of the staged drama. In the recitative before the duet with Rosina, Figaro draws a flattering portrait à la Ingres of her, by calling her “bella assai” and “grassotta” (i.e., “very beautiful” and “chubby”).41 This was not an oxymoron. Plumpness was, at that time, aesthetically appealing, at least as much as slenderness if not even more.42 If this were not the case, this word grassotta would have not made it into the printed libretto. At this time, when the prima donna ruled unchallenged, offending a diva like Righini would have been the kiss of death for the impresario, the composer, and the librettist.43 Clearly, Righini did not mind a line that directed the spectators’ eyes to her plump body. Likely, in fact, it had the positive effect of boosting her sex appeal. In a 1989 MET production of The Barber with Kathleen Battle as Rosina the word grassotta was replaced with magrotta. The suffix –otta produces a slight oxymoron, “chubby-and-lean,” familiar to opera goers, as Da Ponte coined it to make it rhyme with grassotta in Leporello’s catalogue aria. In the English subtitles of the commercial DVD, magrotta is simply translated as “beautiful and slender.”44 This change has entered the tradition. I have repeatedly witnessed the use of the replacement word magrotta translated as “slender,” most recently at the 2013 MET production of Il barbiere, featuring Joyce DiDonato. The aesthetic values audiences attach to body has changed so remarkably as to allow producers to tamper with the text: a taboo that, as we have seen, not even the most irreverent modern opera director, Peter Sellars, had the nerve to break.
Casting a slim Rosina has become much easier these days, in fact almost inevitable. In a review of the 2009 Salzburg festival, correspondent Vanessa Thorpe of The Observer announced, “It’s all over for fat lady singers as slimline divas triumph.” After pointing out that “three of them together would fit inside the voluminous costumes once worn on stage by great singers such as Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé,” Thorpe paraded the new Salzburg “sylphs”: Danielle de Niese, Marina Rebeka, Elina Garanca, Anna Netrebko, and Magdalena Kožená.45 We could extend the list considerably to include Patrizia Ciofi, Joyce Didonato, Anja Harteros, Marlis Petersen, Natalie Dessay, Angela Gheorghiu, Isabel Leonard, and Renée Fleming, the presenter of the MET live broadcasts. Thanks to these and similar broadcasts of operas live in movie theaters, audiences are becoming accustomed to watching opera projected in high definition on giant screens, where bodies and facial expressions are unrealistically magnified. Opera live becomes film opera without the production commodity of shooting different takes.
When interviewed by The Observer on the origin of the triumph of slim-line divas, John McMurray, responsible for casting at the English National Opera in London, provided a straightforward answer: “the question of weight came up when Maria Callas slimmed down and returned to sing in Visconti’s revival of La traviata at La Scala in 1955.”46 Before returning to this crucial event, let us consider the first Violetta, almost exactly 100 years earlier.
The premiere of Traviata—as the story goes—was a not a sweeping success, notwithstanding this opera became one of the most popular in the canonic repertory. Verdi himself expressed his surprise to his friend Luccardi, who on the other hand saw in Traviata a sublime work. In another letter to Luccardi, as well as in letters to the conductors Emanuele Muzio and Angelo Mariani, Verdi complained bitterly about the big fiasco (fiascone) but never blamed the interpreter of Violetta, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, because, as the composer admitted, there was no way to be certain whom to blame for the failure of the opera, whether the opera itself or the way it had been performed. Two careful Verdi scholars, Marcello Conati and Julian Budden, suspect, on the basis of lack of extant negative reports on the opera’s premiere, that Verdi even exaggerated the extent of the failure and that the opera was not a fiasco after all.47
Yet many scholars have uncritically accepted that the premiere of the opera was a disaster, and some still believe that the main problem was the inadequate body size of Violetta’s first interpreter.48 It is important here to examine the documentary evidence and compare the perception of two early interpreters of the role: the slender Marietta Piccolomini, a later interpreter of Violetta, and the allegedly rounded Fanny Salvini-Donatelli. When we look at the reception history, it appears that the body shape and size of the first Violetta, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, did not bother the critics, who focused their attention exclusively on issues of music, drama, voice, and acting. The local newspaper’s review (Gazzetta di Venezia) records that at the first night of Verdi’s opera at La Fenice (Venice, March 6, 1853), Fanny Salvini-Donatelli was the only singer to be applauded. If the opera failed it was not because of her but in spite of her. In fact, if anything, she saved the show. As in the case of the first Rosina and Cenerentola, her body mass does not appear to have affected her confidence or the audience’s appreciation of her performance and stage presence. The long review does not hint at any complaint about her lack of physique du role. Rather it expresses a positive opinion of the first act of the opera and its interpreters, particularly in the opening scene of the cena and graziosissimo brindisi (“dinner and very lovely toast”), as well as the ensuing duet between Alfredo and Violetta. The critic highly praises Fanny Salvini-Donatelli for the agility of her performance and technical perfection, reporting that “she stole the show, and the audience literally submersed her with an ovation.” (“ella rapì il teatro, che, alla lettera, la subissò d’applausi”). From the end of the first act, though, it all went downhill. During the second act people started shouting “voce, voce, voce,” for they could not hear the singers’ voices. Nevertheless, we are told that the audience came to appreciate the opera after the first night, and the replicas went quite well, especially thanks to the Salvini-Donatelli’s “agility and confidence” (“agilità e sicurezza”).49 The Gazzetta Musicale di Milano published a very similar report.50 To the best of my knowledge, it is only in the Encyclopédie de la musique by Lavignac, published in 1914, that we learn, for the first time, that the protagonist’s corpulence represented a problem. Lavignac writes that her embonpoint made her interpretation grotesquely unrealistic (“grotesquement invraisemblable”).51 It is not by chance that the myth that Salvini’s size was the cause of Traviata’s fiasco was generated in concomitance with the emergence of a modern, cinematic sensibility.
The slender Marietta Piccolomini, like the more robust Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, was also a controversial, but acclaimed, interpreter of Violetta. Her body did not pass unobserved. However, we must not generalize about the aesthetics of the body at this time in history. In Victorian England we encounter a different body culture than in Risorgimento Italy. In England slenderness was consistently associated with high-class status. Piccolomini had her share of detractors, who complained about the scandalous subject of the opera (defined in the Times as the “apotheosis of prostitution”) and, related to it, of Piccolomini’s sexually explicit interpretation. Yet (or because of this sort of criticism) she also had many admirers.52 In period illustrations published in The Illustrated London News (Figure 2), Piccolomini is portrayed as Violetta in her defining act of celebrating at the table.53
In this image she is portrayed in the first-act dinner and brindisi while raising the goblet next to a full plate of food. Her waist is squeezed to an impossibly tight waist, her expression is rather melancholy, her half-shut eyes are penetrating and seductive, like her slightly tilted head. The image of Piccolomini toasting at the dining table is similar to another illustration for the stage music composed for Dumas’s La dame aux camellias, as performed at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in 1852 (Figure 3). The frontispiece of the toast song (“Ronde”) composed for this play shows the heroine, with her small waste in full view, sitting at the dinner table during the toast.54
The article in The Illustrated London News accompanying the picture of Piccolomini at the dining table emphasizes her aristocratic status. The author of the article notes that she is related to “illustrious patrician families of Rome.” He presents her as a heroine in a Romantic novel by recounting how Piccolomini decided to be an opera singer “despite the tears and entreaties of her noble relations, […] urged by an invincible impulse.” We read that “rank, position, fortune, [and] family traditions were of no avail against the mighty tide of song that surged within the gentle breast of this girl of seventeen summers.” He does not neglect to mention that she is of “considerable personal attractions.” Piccolomini, in the way she is represented as Violetta, breaks perceptions of women’s appetites in Victorian England while she is still represented as a noble-looking, slim lady. On dieting in Victorian England Joan Brumberg—who has focused on dieting and anorexia in the Anglo-American world—writes, “indulgence in food” was an “emblem of unchecked sensuality” as well as “a sign of social aggression [ … ]. Control of eating was eminently desirable to women and slimness in women was also a sign of social status,” as well as a sign of “intelligence, sensitivity, and morality.”55 In Brumberg’s words, the saying “you are what you eat” in Victorian England should have been changed into “you are what you don’t eat.”56 With these things in mind, we can appreciate the shock of having such a slim, classy young woman as Piccolomini playing the role of a feasting courtesan.
What emerges from this overview is that during the nineteenth century there was no global tyranny of slimness but rather a plurality of body types. A variety of different body types and sizes were accepted in opera because different aesthetics of the body coexisted in different countries where opera was disseminated. This does not mean that audiences were size blind or that there was no value or meaning attached to the body. On the contrary, there is a proliferation of meanings and values when we experience the coexistence of different bodies. As anthropologist Mary Douglas’s symbolic theory of the body suggests, there is a continual exchange of meanings between the social body of shared values and norms and the actual physical body, with the former shaping the latter and the latter mapping the former.57
With the rise of global cinematic culture, slimness became a universal model even in different cultural contexts, and yet the body did not cease to project meaning and value—in fact quite the opposite. Beginning with the economic boom of the 1950s, aggressive anti-obesity campaigns became increasingly charged with health, moral, social, and aesthetic values. The fashion and movie industries reaffirmed slimness as the basic criterion of female beauty during a time of extravagant availability of food, especially in America. This paradox generated enormous pressure on a woman to practice self-control, even though she was still expected to be in charge of preparing and serving food.58
The case of Maria Callas is emblematic. She gained considerable weight after World War II in America, in her native New York, where she had returned to her father after suffering from poor nutrition in Greece, her family’s country of origin. In the United States she indulged in cheeseburgers, pizza, pancakes, and all the goodies that were within reach in the Big Apple. In her diary she recorded that she weighed 218 pounds.59 In her own, published autobiographical sketch, Maria Callas confessed that while in Greece and New York she worried too much about her weight, considering she was a tall woman.60 Her official height, recorded on her ID card, was 173 cm. (5′6″), which means that today she would be diagnosed as obese by current American medical standards.61
In 1947 Maria Callas moved to Italy. Five years later she started to slim down at a sensational speed, acquiring the ideal body shape and size for the role of the consumptive Violetta in the 1955 Visconti production of Traviata. The fact that Visconti, a major figure of twentieth-century film history, was responsible for that crucial production of Traviata at La Scala, is significant. That production became a groundbreaking event for the ongoing process of cross-fertilization between operatic and cinematic cultures.
Since the 1950s, the Italian fashion industry, in order to be competitive on a global scale, abandoned previous ideals of plumpness as a symbol of fertility and motherhood and shifted to a practice of hiring models whose body type has since ranged from slender to emaciated. Yet, at least in the 1950s, the kitchen remained largely a female kingdom, and women were still expected to be good cooks.62 In this historical context, Maria Callas’s transformation from plump to slim appeared as a rejection of the past model of the plump housewife and the fat soprano, which dominated during the Fascist era, in order to embrace the new cinematic model of the slender, independent diva. What was at stake was much more than a question of “look” but also of gender politics. The Callas diet is a story that sheds light on a crucial moment for the redefinition of cultural values associated with the representation of the body, both on stage and off stage. After all, Callas was a sweeping celebrity, and tabloids were responsible for making her private life more public than her singer’s persona. The body of Maria Callas became a battlefield on which opposite generational ideologies clashed, allowing the divina to give birth to a new season of opera in which the gap between inner and outer reality was for the first time victoriously bridged.
A Body Changed Into a New Form
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most influential literary works in opera culture, is, as the Roman poet declares in the programmatic opening, a monumental poem about “bodies changed into new forms.”63 In its third book there is a poetical account of an extreme case of slimming. The nymph Echo falls madly in love with a handsome boy with a “slender body,” Narcissus, who, being in love with his own image, scorns and rejects the nymph. Echo does not take the rejection lightly, and Ovid recounts that she “started to waste away” until “the lovely bloom of her flesh lost its moisture and nothing remained of her but voice and bones, then only voice.”64
The metamorphosis of Maria Callas through her diet became the turning point in her numerous vitae. The narrative of transformation emerges early in a biographical account of Maria as an ugly-duckling teen, recounted by Callas’s first voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. The first time de Hidalgo met the young Maria in 1939 in Athens, she “had a round face smeared with pimples,” she was “tall, big, wearing heavy glasses,” was badly dressed (white cap and apron), and “waddled around heavily.” As soon as she started singing, however, de Hidalgo “recognized” the voice she had been “secretly awaiting.” She closed her eyes so as not to see the body that was producing it. She describes the voice as a “violent excessive cascade of sound, uncontrolled, but dramatic, touching.”65 Callas’s intimate friend Giovanna Lomazzi was asked in a recent interview about Maria Callas’s metamorfosi, of which she was a close witness. Lomazzi remembers how Callas turned in a matter of months from “fat, ugly and badly dressed” to a slender and elegant diva, allowing her to reach “complete maturity, both vocal and physical.” The Callas diet had aesthetic implications with long-term consequences. By slimming down, Lomazzi continues, Callas inaugurated a new season in the history of opera, as it happened “at the end of an era of fat and ugly singers. She was the first to understand that there was a need for aesthetic truth.”66 Stassinopoulos introduces her monumental biography of Maria Callas by stating, “The life of Maria Callas was both tragedy and fairy tale. As completely as anyone outside mythology, she transformed herself from a fat, awkward girl into a woman of magnetic beauty and personality.”67
The way Maria Callas changed her body into a new form is a story clothed in myth, recounted in different fashions. One of the most detailed accounts is in a memoir written by her husband, Battista Meneghini:
When Maria made her formal debut at La Scala in December 1951 she weighed 210 pounds; three years later, when she opened the 1954–55 season, she had dropped to 144 pounds. Her physique had undergone a drastic change, which in turn influenced her entire way of life. She seemed to be another woman with a different personality. One could say that this change was fundamental for Maria Callas’s life and for her artistic activity. Her shedding of all those pounds made opera history. From a kind of clumsy, encumbered whale, Maria was transformed into an elegant woman with the figure of a model.68
Meneghini also recollects how “in the middle 1950s, especially among women, Maria was more famous for her mysterious weight loss than for her singing.”69 La divina—as she was called in the media—became a heroic fasting woman, acquiring the aura of a secular saint.70 As one story goes, Maria Callas went on a diet after resolving to look like the svelte Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953).71 Another anecdote is reported by Biki, a Milanese leading fashion designer, granddaughter of Giacomo Puccini, who gave her this nickname, short for birichina (“naughty girl”). Biki reported that when she first met Callas, the soprano appeared “big and clumsy” and—worst of all—“badly dressed.” As Callas asked her for advice Biki agreed to become her fashion guru but told her that first she needed to lose weight. After Callas did so, Biki completely renovated her wardrobe. Callas acquired more than 200 dresses, many by Biki, 150 pairs of shoes, 300 hats, and many more items.72 A photograph taken at Biki Atelier in 1958 shows Maria Callas in a dynamic pose, resembling a fashion model, between Biki and an unidentified man, probably a tailor in the act of trying out one of Biki’s creations (Figure 4).
Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, in their book about representations of bodies in opera, also identify Callas’s diet as a pivotal moment in the history of opera for it triggered a major change in the representation and perception of the singer’s body. They observe that Callas, after her weight loss, acquired the power “to focus public attention on the relation of the body to the voice.”73 In other words, audiences, unlike de Hidalgo who closed her eyes to be able to appreciate the voice of the young Callas, started to keep their eyes wide open on the changed body of the transfigured divina Maria.
The myth of the Callas diet, conflating opera and real life reveals how, in the frame of Lévi-Strauss’s theory of mythology, “empirical categories” based on food, such as food intake, fasting, consumption of raw or cooked food, and the offering of food can be “conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas.”74 In biographical accounts of Callas’s diet, gastronomic signs are deployed in the testimonies of the people who were in direct contact with the singer according to categories that are similar to the way eating and drinking function in opera. After all, the people who produced these narratives were fully immersed in the culture of opera, revealing the porosity of the divide between the stage and real life in sectors of society that share and value an artistic culture. On the basis of this porosity one could refer to “opera people” analogously to the way Amiri Baraka referred to the “blues people” to identity African American communities that shared African-rooted music culture, showing markers of that culture even in situations that do not involve music at all.75
The Traviata myth, with which we started and will conclude, remains a privileged point of reference. The personal story of Callas appears indeed analogous to the story of Duplessis. The basic narrative is one that moves from feasting to fasting, from Carnival to Lent, but with a twist. While Violetta turns from sinner to saint, as consumption liberates her spirit from her flesh, Maria Callas has been canonized in worldly popular media and best-selling biographies as a woman who turns from good wife to a fallen woman,” a “traviata. After she acquired the fame of a super-diva and the body of a model, she left her husband to pursue an infatuation with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. In 1968 the billionaire decided that the singer whom he had been dating and living with was not going to be a suitable wife. He married instead Jackie Kennedy, the widow of the recently assassinated President Kennedy. In 1977 Callas died virtually alone in her Paris apartment, like Marie Duplessis.76
Meneghini, in the personal diary he kept during the months of his wife’s betrayal leading to their separation, recounts the dramatic episode of the night Onassis and Maria Callas paid him a visit at his villa in Sirmione. They arrived at 8:00 p.m. on Monday August 17, 1959. “His breath”—Meneghini remembers—“smelled of alcohol.” As the driver told him aside, he had already drunk a full bottle of whisky during the two-hour drive from Milan to Sirmione. Maria was also acting strangely and her husband suspected that she had been drinking too. Dinner was ready at 9:00 and “Maria behaved like a silly, stupid child. She wanted a fire lit in the dining room fireplace.” Because August is the hottest month in Italy, the purpose of the fire was to set the stage, but the result was that it made the dining room as hot as hell, like the end of the dinner scene in Don Giovanni when the flames raise to devour the libertine. Meneghini recollects, “I was sweating like a donkey and I was unable to eat.”77 In this story, the lovers share drinks, while the old husband neither shares food nor participates in the drinking scene with them, just as is the case with the Baron Duphol in La traviata. The intoxicating effect of booze, as often happens in opera, is catastrophic.
Meneghini’s account of his first encounter with Maria, 20 years before, deploys bodily and gastronomic signs in a very different but equally meaningful way. He introduces the story of his encounter with Maria, a girl 27 years younger than him, by confessing that “ballerinas—so thin and all skin and bones—are not my type. Titianesque, fleshy women appeal to me more.” As a man born in 1896 he shared the aesthetics and values conferred by the culture of Fascist Italy on the female body. He recounts his first encounter with the plump Greek American soprano who stole his heart at a dinner party during the summer of 1947. As in Traviata, in this story the love relationship is defined through nourishment and the sharing of food:
The group had almost finished eating, but [Tullio] Serafin said that everyone would stay and keep me company. He asked what I would like to eat. “I am not that hungry. I’ll just have a veal cutlet,” I said. Sitting across from me at the table was a young girl whom I didn’t know, with a plump face and sweet features. She said in perfect Italian, but with a trace of an accent: “Sir, if you don’t mind I would like to offer you my cutlet.”78
In Maria Callas’s own account of the same episode, location and circumstances are consistent with her husband’s story. The difference is that she does not mention her size at all, nor does she note the offering of the Milanese cutlet.79 In the same article from the magazine Oggi, in which Callas recounts her life, there are two large photos of the soprano in her kitchen, which attempt to portray her as a good housewife (Figures 5 and Figure 6). The caption of the first photo reads, “Maria Callas’s favorite hobby is cooking sweets. Here she is in her kitchen, beating the dough for a ring-shaped cake (ciambella).”
The caption of Figure 6 reads “Milan: Maria Callas in her very modern kitchen, polishing with great care one of her silver dishes [ … ] Callas is an excellent housewife; she loves cooking, taking care of furniture, shopping for trinkets. Usually, while attending to the house chores, she prefers to wear a pair of old pants.” However, what Maria Callas says in the first-person account of her life published in the same article does not confirm the information provided in the caption, nor she is wearing old pants but a rather fancy dress. The pictures used for the service are in fact carefully staged and rehearsed (some of the originals are preserved in the Callas Archive and Museum of Zevio). The silver dish she is holding supposedly to polish is deliberately used as a mirror, as in the myth of Narcissus, reflecting how Callas wants to appear: not the housewife in the kitchen, but herself, the divina Callas, seen from below, towering proud, as a prima donna at center stage seen from the main floor of the opera house. And yet, as in other staged pictures, her arms are hairy to an uncanny extent, considering the amount of cosmetic care she paid to the rest of her body and face, as in almost contemporary portraits of Frida Kahlo. The effect is repeated in other photos taken in her house, like the ones of her in the act of applying makeup (Figure 7) or studying at the piano (Figure 8). What we see outside the mirror (the house) stays outside the mirror. What we see in the reflecting dish does not seem a specular image of the world surrounding it but a window into a different reality.
The Callas Diet
Newspapers and tabloids made up stories about Callas’s diet, from her having injected a tapeworm on purpose in a glass of champagne, to the fabrication, for commercial purposes, that she switched from regular pasta to dietetic Pasta Pantanella (Callas successfully sued the company for that falsehood). Allegedly Callas wrote a document about her diet to dispel legends, which is consistent with Meneghini’s account: “she never ate any kind of pasta, subsisting on grilled meat and raw vegetables, which she ate without seasoning or oil, like a goat. She didn’t drink liquor, and only took the smallest amount of wine. She never ate desserts.”80 Her war on dessert had already started in 1949, when she wrote a letter to her husband from Buenos Aires in which, after repenting for having “been eating like a wolf,” she pledged to go on a diet. “So if you don’t want me to look like Caniglia,” she wrote, “you should not let me eat much, only grilled meat, raw vegetables, etc. Do not dare to insist. Only three or four weeks and you will see how I will go back to my ideal weight. Promised? And no sweets!!! My dear, I want to look beautiful for you, you know!”81 It seems implausible that Callas wanted to look beautiful for her husband, considering his predilection for “Titianesque, fleshy women.” Probably that is why in the letter she asked her husband “not to dare to insist” and to support her proposition to slim down.
The inconsistency between what Callas was cooking and (not) eating after she started her ascetic diet is striking. She titles one of her autograph recipes “peperata,” probably intending to write “pepata,” which is the Italian term for the Venetian “pearà.” This is a succulent gravy used in a Veronese dish called “lesso con pearà” (boiled beef with sauce of bone-marrow gravy). According to Callas’s handwritten recipe:
Mix 30 grams of marrow in about a liter of good broth and when it starts simmering add breadcrumbs until it looks like it’s the right texture. Add then a nice handful of [grated] Grana [parmesan cheese], pepper and a spoon of butter. Let simmer for two hours. Serve very hot.82
Hypercaloric bombs like this are unlikely to appear in health-food recipe books nowadays, nor were the other dishes that her mother in law taught her to cook, such as duck or baccalà with polenta.83 As her husband recollects, “after having spent so much time in the kitchen preparing a particular dish or dessert, Maria would not even taste it if her diet did not permit it.”84
The idea that Callas was so generous that she would suffer hunger while cooking hearty meals for her husband and guests is charming, but it is not convincing. Evidence begins to emerge suggesting that the public image of Callas’s domestic life was fully staged, like a theatrical role, making one wonder whether she ever spent any time in the kitchen at all. The image of Callas as a cook was probably constructed to fulfill the desire of the Meneghini family to project the image of a respectful wife. Although the Meneghinis were considerably wealthy, Maria’s mother-in-law sent her a dishtowel and an apron—two symbolic gifts.85 Likely the dishtowel and apron were probably passed to the maid. There are personal handwritten notes that the singer wrote to her chef, Elena Pozzan, in which she thanks her for the food and repeatedly instructs Pozzan to let her sleep.86 In a taped document, titled “Questionario,” Maria Callas (or more likely her fictional persona) declares, “I adore my kitchen where I spend many hours cooking succulent dishes.” And later she adds, “I do not follow any special diet: different kinds of healthy food, and that’s it. Healthy life, simple, far from the confusion and stress of modern society, in the peace of my own home, of my familiar affection and artistic occupation.” The document, as I interpret it, proves the opposite of what it says. It sounds like a bad forgery, a dictated confession. It is written in perfect Italian, in a very different style than Maria Callas’s letters and handwritten communications, and it is inconsistent with all the other evidence on her diet and lifestyle. It seems to have been composed by an anonymous librettist putting words in her mouth as a report for journalists to use.87 Allegedly, Maria Callas, if we can believe her friend Giovanna Lomazzi, was not able to cook at all, “not even an egg.”88 In February 2014, Callas’s personal chef, Elena Pozzan, for the first time revealed that Callas and herself were both repeatedly infected by tapeworm as a consequence of a high-protein diet based on the consumption of uncooked meat.89 If that is true, the tapeworm would be a consequence of her diet, not the cause. The legend of Callas self-injecting herself with the tapeworm in a glass of champagne would be then a beautified version of her real “barbarous” diet, which her husband emended in the public image by stating that she ate “grilled meat.” In this scenario Callas’s diet appears as the rejection of the cooked and the culture it stands for: the traditional image of the woman as “the queen of the fireplace,” the caretaker of the kitchen fire, the ideal, dutiful housewife, as repeatedly described in Fascist propagandistic literature. It is probably not by chance that the first role Callas explored as soon as she started losing weight was Medea, the Greek tragic heroine who kills her children to punish her husband.
When asked about the reason she went on such a strict diet, Maria Callas provided answers that had nothing to do with good looks or health. She declared that it was for her interpretation of Cherubini’s Medea that she realized how important it would be to emphasize and use the angular lines of her face and chin: “My first instinct was to say that the face is too fat and I can’t stand it, because I need the chin for expression in certain very hard phrases, cruel phrases and tense phrases. And I felt, as the woman of the theater that I was and am, that I needed these necklines to be very thin and very pronounced.”90 Her diet was first and foremost motivated by artistic and expressive purposes, but the latter were not unrelated to personal and ideologically motivated positions. Her interpretation of Medea in the 1953 Maggio Fiorentino, right at the beginning of her slimming diet, was sensational, as it revealed Callas both as a great singer and powerful tragic actress. It is possible that Callas attended, during the same year, Visconti’s production of Euripides’s Medea in Milan, exchanging, indirectly, ideas on acting.91 After the tragic loss of her voice in the 1960s, Callas would conclude her career as an actress by playing the nonsinging role of the tragic Greek heroine in the equally sensational Pierpaolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea.92
The Year Maria Callas Became Violetta Valéry
Losing weight was only part of the effort that Callas made to reach an unprecedented and unsurpassed 1955 interpretation of Traviata, which appeared to many to be a real turning point in performance history. It was the twenty-second production of Traviata at La Scala.93 Callas had already played Violetta in ten previous productions over the past four years and recorded the opera once. Yet, unlike the flaky tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano (soon replaced), the divina never missed a rehearsal, notwithstanding that Visconti required an unusual high number of them.94 Her commitment to Traviata is quite astonishing when one considers how busy she was at the time.95
Visconti, a protagonist of the Italian neo-realistic movement in film, appeared to bridge the historical divide between inner and outer plausibility and mark a substantial shift away from neo-Platonic indirectness toward realistic directness. The first and fundamental move was to cast an actress perfectly fit for the role of Violetta. As Julie Kavanagh has observed, “Callas identified with Violetta to the point of obsession.”96 The orchestra conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, recounted how Callas, Visconti, and himself worked tirelessly to create the ideal rendition of this difficult character: “For three weeks, Visconti, Callas, and myself worked only on the Violetta character. Only after that did we start rehearsals. Visconti had the great ability to suggest ideas that an intelligent actress like Callas assimilated and made her own. In these three weeks the character of Violetta was created: La Callas became Violetta.”97 Callas-Violetta also became a model for other Violettas. As Visconti predicted to Maria Callas’s husband, who was serving then as her own art manager, “you see, our Traviata will last, whatever late comers and hopeless jerks could possibly say.” Visconti concludes, “thanks to the art of a great actress like Maria future ‘Violettas’ will be ‘Violettas-Marias.”98
Music critic Elvio Giudici, in his book on modern staging of Verdi’s operas, recollects his impressions of the legendary performance on Saturday night, May 27, 1955, which he personally attended. Giudici, like most of the reviewers of the Visconti production, was particularly impressed by the naturalism of the sets and by Callas’s new style of acting, which, as he puts it, gave him an “electric shock.” He describes the visual aspect of this production as something in between film and pictorial naturalism. This quality was achieved mostly thanks to wonderful sets painted by Lila De Nobili but also by a myriad of small details, like fresh flowers that Visconti picked personally and put in tall Chinese vases, or, in the Act 1 dinner scene, exquisite silverware that Visconti borrowed from his patrician family. Particularly realistic and “modern” were Callas’s movements, which Giudici defines as akin to early cinematic style (“da cinematografo”).99
The Visconti-Callas production was not universally applauded. Teodoro Celli of Corriere Lombardo denounced that the overbearing presence of the stage director’s touch seemed to overshadow the composer’s persona. He felt that Visconti’s realist approach (he speaks of exaggerated “verismo”) clashed against the spirit of Verdi’s drama,100 promoting instead the neo-realistic aesthetic that Visconti pursued in La terra trema (1948), a socially concerned movie denouncing the exploitation of Sicilian fishermen.101 Considering that Visconti was a radical leftist, it does not surprise that the communist newspaper L’Unità highly praised his production of Traviata. According to this newspaper’s music critic Rubens Tedeschi, “it represented the first turning point in the history of staging and set design, showing how opera could be cleansed from conventions and become a modern, live, believable form of performing art.”102 Tedeschi also points out that Verdi’s opera itself was a “big revolution” (“una grossa rivoluzione”) as it staged a real-life prostitute as the heroic protagonist. In so doing the opera scandalized the well-to-do people and challenged false morality. Callas and Visconti went a step forward by getting rid of sentimentalism. They rediscovered the real Duplessis in Violetta. At the same time, Lila de Nobili’s fin-de-siècle setting, recalling d’Annunzio decadence, unmasked luxury as a form of bourgeois selfish, empty pleasure. In the course of the opera Violetta no longer appeared as “a fallen angel” but “more and more a real woman as suffering matured her.”103
Notwithstanding the radical aspects of this production, when it comes to the representation of food in Traviata Visconti reveals an attachment to traditional values. He was in fact deeply immersed in the classical culture of the banquet as a socially cohesive ritual. Even though he was a socialist, he was born and grew up in a wealthy aristocratic environment for which the culture of opera was a staple. The Viscontis had ruled Milan for centuries and continued to be influential in the twentieth century. Luchino’s mother, Carla Erba, came from a bourgeois and extremely wealthy family. His grandfather was the founder of a successful pharmaceutical industry. Luchino’s parents were passionate about art, literature, and music (all the children received rigorous music training, and the family attended opera at La Scala regularly). As the film director remembered, on November 2, 1906, one hour before Carla Erba gave birth to him, the curtain went up at La Scala for a performance of Verdi’s Traviata, a performance that Ms. Erba had to miss.104
Dinner parties at the Viscontis were highly elaborate and ritualized events. Visconti’s awareness of the cultural values of food and its social consumption is apparent in all of his movies. The large dinner party scene in Il gattopardo (The Leopard), in particular, gives us a vivid idea of how Visconti understood a formal lavish meal—full of elegance but never rigid and stiff. The Renaissance intellectual Baldassarre Castiglione, in his widespread and foundational manual of good manners, the Book of the Courtier, postulated that the basic rule of behavior in high society is the so-called sprezzatura, which is the art of appearing natural and at ease, never artificial and stiff, especially at a banquet. The acting style in Visconti’s movies, even when actors portray common people, represents an attempt to modernize sprezzatura and extend it beyond the aristocratic and wealthy elites. The lavish table prepared for the dinner party in his productions of Traviata shows a resemblance with this later model from The Leopard, as one can tell from stage photographs. In the 1955 production of the opera he represented a real dining table with chairs on all sides (Figure 9), rather than opting for the traditional solution of leaving the front side empty as in a tableau of The Last Supper.105 At each side of the large table he located two smaller round tables with no chairs on the front. This allowed the actors to move in between the tables.
Visconti kept this solution in his later production of Traviata for the 264th production of Traviata at the London’s Royal Opera House in 1967 (Figure 10). In Visconti’s brindisi different groups that are spatially separated become unified sonically in the choral toast and are visually bridged as the protagonists walk between tables.
Visconti’s Traviata was especially influential on Franco Zeffirelli’s movie version of the same opera (1982). The decision to cast Teresa Stratas as Violetta was a more or less conscious attempt to evoke Callas, at least visually, for both Callas and Stratas were svelte singers of recognizable Greek descent. After all, Franco Zeffirelli was Visconti’s assistant and pupil, and early in his career he became obsessed with both Traviata and Maria Callas. After seeing Callas in his teacher’s production he pestered the soprano about making a film version directed by him. Callas never accepted, probably remembering Visconti’s vehement disapproval of opera on screen.106 It is also probably for this reason that no video recording of Visconti’s production is extant, but one could look at Zeffirelli’s film to gain a sense of his teacher’s approach to the gastronomic sign. In his Traviata Zeffirelli takes the representation of food and wine very seriously and consistently. At Violetta’s dinner party in Act 1, the only character that appears to be smoking rather than feasting is Alfredo’s rival, the Baron Douphol. In this case the director certainly understands the implication of the Baron’s initial refusal to lead the toast, motivated by his jealousy, which cuts him off from the cohesive group of friends and lovers.107
In more recent productions we see a clear break with traditional food values and meanings. In twenty-first-century productions food is often absent; its symbolic function may be ignored or subverted. As in the case of Don Giovanni, the gastronomic sign in Traviata when omitted or altered works as a cultural symptom pointing to the possible causes of its transformations or disappearance. In a 2011 video-recorded Austrian production of the opera, directed by Peter Konwitschny and with Marlis Petersen as Violetta, the whole “dinner” party takes place in front of the stage curtain with no table, no chairs, and no food. With the dinner eliminated, in this version the brindisi is preserved in a rather unconventional way, as champagne flutes are served by scantly clad waitresses (Figure 11).108
The same year, at the Festival of d’Aix-en-Provence, not only did the staging of this same scene dispense with food altogether but Alfredo (Charles Castronovo) also started the brindisi without a glass.109 The stage director, Jean-François Sivadier, conceived of the scene as a meta-theatrical moment, with guests sitting in rows of chairs playing the role of spectators and Alfredo’s friend instructing him on how to act and pose. During the brindisi people drink or smoke according to no apparent logic. In other words, their actions of eating, drinking, smoking, or restraining from all of these do not denote them as part of the group or as outsiders. Only Violetta (Natalie Dessay) drinks immoderately from a bottle of vodka. The gastronomic sign in this case is not neutralized but subverted. This gesture, absent in the original sources of the opera, is highly antisocial, contrary to the traditional socially cohesive function of the brindisi. Alfredo (Charles Castronovo) rescues his sweetheart by snatching the bottle away from her. The act of depriving his partner of her drink subverts another traditional function of the gastronomic sign in Traviata: that of establishing love by sharing food or wine.
It was Visconti who introduced the idea of Violetta drinking immoderately. Even Konwitschny’s radical production seems to confirm Visconti’s prophecy that his Traviata would last and that all future Violettas would be “Violettas-Marias.” In Konwitschny’s version, though, Violetta did not binge in front of her guests, which would not have been socially acceptable. Rather, she does so in her solo scene at the end of the first act. She overindulges in alcohol only after her duet with Alfredo. In this duet he suggests to her the idea that there is a higher form of love, which is not only about pleasure and fun. In the initial scene of her solo double-aria she reflects on Alfredo’s words, and we realize that they had a strong effect on her heart. Violetta opens the scene by repeating, unaccompanied, “È strano …!” (“how strange …!). She pronounces these words in a simple, descending three-note scale encompassing a major third, then repeats “È strano,” compressing the melody within a minor third to convey how Alfredo “sculpted those words” in her heart (“in cuore scolpiti ho quegli accenti! … ”). In the slow lyric section, marked “Andantino,” Alfredo’s words touch her heart even more, as she repeats literally his definition of love as the “heart-beat of the entire Universe, mysterious and stern/ … cross and delight” (“A quell’amor che è palpito / Dell’Universo intero / Misterïoso, altero / Croce e delizia al cor”). These ideas resonate louder within her as she remembers her youthful mystic experiences, when she imagined seeing a reflection of God’s beauty in the light beam breaking the sky. As she starts to convert to true love, in the transitional section (the so-called tempo di mezzo), she dismisses her thoughts and memories as follies (“Follie, follie”). Violetta subsequently embraces Carnival again, resolving to “end in the endless vortexes of lust” (“di voluttà nei vortici finire”). This resolution launches the last fast climatic movement of her double aria, the cabaletta sempre libera, in which she declares, “always free I must fly from joy to joy to experience every pleasure of life” (“sempre libera degg’io / Trasvolar di gioria in gioia, /Perché ignoto al viver mio / Nulla passi del piacer”). In the middle of her celebration of life’s pleasures, Alfredo, from down the street, starts serenading her again about that “mysterious and stern Love, heart-beat of the Universe, cross and delight … ” His serenade is accompanied by the harp, an instrument that evokes not only a simple guitar, traditionally used to accompany serenades but also heavenly music. His voice makes Violetta vacillate for a moment, but still, with desperate determination she reasserts her intention not to listen to her male siren.
Visconti, who was a religious man, a homosexual, and a Marxist, struggled to reconcile his spirituality, his sexuality, and his political views. He knew that Violetta needed a drink at this point, regardless of what the libretto or the score prescribe. He instructed Callas to drink from the wine glasses that her guests left unfinished on the table. Zeffirelli staged this scene in a similar way, as did Willy Deker in his 2006 production with Anna Netrebko. Elvidio Giudici recollects Maria Callas’s powerful interpretation of this scene:
During the Andantino she takes her jewels off, unties her hair, covers her shoulder with a white shawl, finally she kneels down in front of the fire taking her gloves off. She rises suddenly on “Follie,” runs to the table, sits holding the chair in balance while twisting her head backward. Then she stands up. Again she sits, this time on the dining table, balancing herself out by extending her arms backwards and her legs outwards. She takes her shoes off and swiftly throws them in the air. Frantically she starts gulping down many leftover wine glasses. She staggers a little, keeps herself steady by holding on the table. She hears the voice of Alfredo, uncertain if the product of her increasingly clouded mind is a result of her inebriation. She runs to the balcony on the right and stands there without moving, then comes back downstage appearing transfigured.110
A noncommercial audio recording of Callas and Visconti’s production was realized in 1956 when, due to the success of the previous year, La Scala programmed Traviata again with the same cast, except for Raimondi replacing Di Stefano. When one compares this recording to the commercial recording that Callas made in September 1953 for Cetra, the live recording typically loses clarity but reveals a greater dramatic vibrancy than the version previously recorded at the RAI auditorium in Turin.111 It would be deceptive to attribute to the version recorded live a spontaneity solely due to the presence of the audience and the nature of the event. The live recording has in fact more depth and substance, acquired through lengthy and careful rehearsals. It is exhilarating to imagine this cabaletta, requiring extreme precision in the coloratura passages, sung by an inebriated character. Callas presses against the rhythmic strictures of the pulse with rebellious fluidity but complete confidence, as a formula-one pilot driving her Ferrari after having too much to drink. In the cadenza on the word “gioir” her portamento is extreme, giving the impression that she is about to skid out of tune. She stretches the syncopated high As and Cs with nonchalance suggesting that Violetta-Callas does not care that she risks slipping out of tempo. The idea of having Violetta drinking before and during the cabaletta allowed a singer, a stage director, and an orchestra conductor to make a coloratura-packed cabaletta sound natural and truthful. Today we can better appreciate this rough recording if we are able to visualize the action of sharing food in the first scene and the effect of drinking too much wine in the last scene of the act. The effect of wine is not prescribed by the opera texts but is nonetheless pursued, albeit with great respect for the score, by the interpreter. As Maria Callas becomes Violetta Valéry, Verdi’s Traviata becomes also Callas’s Traviata.
Consumption and Assumption
For the last act, when Violetta dies of consumption, Visconti had the option of taking full advantage of the emaciated features of Callas. Yet it is puzzling that reviewers of that production did not record any observations about the new body and looks of Maria Callas, nor did they note how well she now fit the role of the consumptive heroine. Compared to Callas’s interpretation of the role in Mexico, before her diet (Figure 12), the stage pictures of the Visconti production seem taken from a neo-realistic movie (Figure 13).
What captured the attention of early critics was Violetta’s absurd way of dying. The Corriere Lombardo singled out the death scene as the most memorable, and also the most preposterous, notwithstanding that Violetta declares her intention to dress and go out. Admittedly, the libretto describes her inability to put her clothes on, which she is supposed to throw back on the chair with frustration after realizing that she is too weak to put them on (Act 3, scene 5). The journalist titles the article “Violetta Dies with Coat and Hat” and repeats two more times in the course of his piece that “Violetta passed away with her hat on and her coat all buttoned up!”112 By losing weight Callas’s body became more, not less, visible. The only resource Visconti had to make it disappear was to conceal it, so that Callas had recourse only to a feeble voice, whispered over the immaterial texture of the orchestra, to convey the idea of bodily consumption. For the second and last time in the opera, before dying, Violetta pronounces the words “È strano!” (“How strange”). Now, as is the case in holy anorexia, consumption liberates Violetta from the gravity of the flesh. What is strange, she observes, is that she no longer feels any pain. Her very last word, “oh gioia” (“Oh joy”) is an ascending leap of a sixth resolving half a step down. The point of arrival remains harmonically suspended as Violetta dies on a still unresolved major seventh chord, rather than on the closing minor tonic, to express that her death is not her end, allowing us to imagine her assumption into heaven.
Before this final vocal flight Callas, in her 1956 live recording, takes Verdi’s indication parlando (“speaking”) almost literally. Her half-sung, declamatory delivery resembles a Sprechgesang, the expressionistic mixture of speaking and singing adopted by Schoenberg in Pierrot lunaire. By covering Maria Callas’s body, Visconti decided not to take advantage of his singer’s slender body and to liberate instead her voice, as happened to Echo, when, as Ovid recounts, “nothing remained of her but voice and bones … then only voice.”
(1) Lorenzo Da Ponte, Il dissoluto punito, o sia il D. Giovanni. Dramma giocoso in due atti da rappresentarsi a Praga l’anno 1787 (Prague: Schoenfeld, 1787), 2/12, 74. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
(2) Da Ponte, Il dissoluto punito, o sia il D. Giovanni, 2/12, 75.
(3) For a recent study of the meaning of the music played diegetically during this meal see Nicholas J. Chong, “Music for the Last Supper: The Dramatic Significance of Mozart’s Quotation in the Tafelmusik of Don Giovanni,” Current Musicology 92 (2011): 7–52.
(4) Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982, 2007), 128.
(5) Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, translated from the French by John and Doreen Wightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 164.
(6) Polzonetti, “Opera as Process,” in The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Opera, ed. Anthony R. DelDonna and Pierpaolo Polzonetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 3–23: 21–23.
(7) Gillian Crowther, Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 152.
(8) Polzonetti, “Lavigna, Vincenzo,” in The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia, ed. Roberta Montemorra Marvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 234–235.
(9) James Webster, “To Understand Verdi and Wagner We Must Understand Mozart,” 19th-Century Music 11.2 (1987): 175–193.
(10) Julie Kavanagh, The Girl Who Loved Camelias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis (New York: Knopf, 2013). Emilio Sala, The Sounds of Paris in Verdi’s Traviata, translated by Delia Casadei (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 59–61, provides evidence that Verdi became familiar with Dumas’s play and its music while in Paris. Dumas’s play was also performed in Venice right before the premiere of Traviata. Because of its popularity Sala points out how the lady of the camelias was one of the most widespread myths of the time.
(12) Marcello Conati, La bottega della musica: Verdi e la Fenice (Milan: Saggiatore, 1983), 290–292, presenting a transcription of the contract signed by the president of the Gran Teatro la Fenice, Carlo Marzari, in May 1852. On this contract see also Fabrizio Della Seta in his forward to the critical edition of Verdi, La traviata, melodramma in tre atti, edited by Della Seta (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Milan: Ricordi, 1997), xii. The circumstances of the commission of Traviata have been summarized also by Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), vol. 2, 115.
(14) Letter of Francesco Maria Piave to Brenna, S. Agata, October 29, 1852, in Conati, La bottega, 302.
(15) Letter of Varesi to Brenna, Ascoli November 10, 1852, in Conati, La bottega, 303.
(16) Alexandre Dumas fils, La dame aux camélias, translated by David Coward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), chapter III, 17.
(18) Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 43. For a thoughtful study of the Christian message in Dumas and Verdi’s Traviata see Guido Paduano, “La Signora delle Camelie, il Moloch e il Vangelo,” Rivista di letterature moderne e comparate 65.3 (2012): 301–323.
(23) Francesco Maria Piave, La traviata, 1/1, in Luigi Baldacci (ed.), Tutti i libretti di Verdi (Milan: Garzanti, 1975), 296. Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata: Autograph Sketches and Drafts, edited by Fabrizio Della Seta, with facsimile reproductions of the sketches (Parma: Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, 2000), 105: “cena da Margherita,” as Violetta was originally named, after Dumas’s Marguerite.
(24) Pierre Bourdieu defines the relationship between consumption of food and class based not on quantity or nutritional values but taste; in so doing he also sketches a correlation between food and body shape. See his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 1984, 2010), 172–173, 188, 197–199.
(25) Sala, The Sounds of Paris, 71. On the identification of the opening music as a polka see Fabrizio Della Seta, “Il tempo della festa: su die scene della Traviata e su altri luoghi verdiani,” Studi Verdiani 2 (1983): 108–146: 112.
(27) George Armelagos and Peter Farb, Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 4.
(28) Traviata, 1/2: “Siedono in modo che Violetta resti tra Alfredo e Gastone; di fronte vi sarà Flora, tra il Marchese ed il Barone; gli altri siedono a piacere. V’ha un momento di silenzio, frattanto passano i piatti, e Violetta e Gastone parlano sottovoce tra loro” (“They sit down in such a way that Violetta is between Alfredo and Gastone; opposite to her, sits Flora, between the Marquis and the Baron; the others sit as they please. There is a moment of silence while they pass around the plates; Violetta and Gastone speak softly between themselves”).
(29) Polzonetti, “Brindisi,” in The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia, edited by Roberta Montemorra Marvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 72.
(30) Loose manuscripts sheets attached to La traviata: libretto con note della censura, Archivio Ricordi, Milano Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, LIBR01806.
(31) Letter by Verdi to Vincenzo Luccardi from Paris with no date but allegedly written after September 8, 1854, in Laura Genesio (ed.), Carteggio Verdi-Luccardi (Parma: Istituto di Studi Studi Verdiani, 2008), no. 42, 91–92: “La Censura ha guastato il senso del dramma. Han fatto La traviata pura e innocente. Tante grazie! Così han guastato tutte le posizioni, tutti i caratteri. Una puttana deve essere sempre puttana. Se nella notte splendeste il sole non vi sarebbe più notte. In somma non capiscono nulla.”
(34) For studies of the consumptive heroines in Traviata and Puccini’s Bohème that take the medical conditions and symptoms of tuberculosis (TB) into consideration see Arthur Groos’s three essays: “‘TB sheets’: Love and Disease in La traviata,” Cambridge Opera Journal 7.3 (1995): 233–260; “TB, Mimì, and the Anxiety of Influence,” Studi Pucciniani 1 (1998): 67–81, and “From Addio del passato to Le patate son fredde: Representations of consumption in Leoncavallo’s I Medici and La bohème,” Letteratura, musica e teatro al tempo di Ruggero Leoncavallo, edited by Jürgen Maehder and Lorenza Guiot (Milan: Sonzogno, 1995): 57–74. See also Hutcheon and Hutcheon, Opera: Desire, Disease, chapter 2, 29–60.
(35) Donington, The Rise of Opera (New York: Scribner’s, 1981), 30.
(36) Gary Tomlinson, Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 4–9.
(37) See personal and anecdotal evidence recorded, for example, in the collected volume edited by Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith (eds.), En Travesti: Women, Gender, Subversion, Opera (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), especially the editors’ introduction, 2–3, and Hélène Cixous, “Tancredi Continues,” 152–168.
(38) Massimo d’Azeglio I miei ricordi (Florence: Barbera, 1867), vol. 2, 146–147.
(39) Jacopo Ferretti, La Cenerentola ossia La bontà in trionfo, drama giocoso [ … ] da rappresentarsi al Teatro Valle degl’Illustrissimi Signori Capranica nel Carnevale dell’anno 1817, con musica del Maestro Gioacchino Rossini Pesarese (Rome: Puccinelli, 1817), 2/8, where instead of the glass slippers Cenerentola is recognized by a lost bracelet. On Perrault’s Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre as the source of Rossini’s opera see Marco Mauceri, “Da Cendrillon a Cenerentola,” in La Cenerentola ossia la bontà in trionfo, edited by Mauceri (Pesaro: Fondazione Rossini, 1999), xv–xviii.
(40) Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York and London: New York University Press, 1997), 71–97. For a similar but more politically charged account see also Kim Chernin, Womansize: The Tyranny of Slenderness (London: The Women’s Press, 1981), 106, in which Chernin claims that a woman suffers in order to change her body to adapt it to cultural expectations. See also Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1992) and the more academic Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 185–212. The latter conceptualizes gender differences in the present cult for slenderness. For a similar take, see also Susie Orbach, Fat is a Femininst Issue II (New York: Berkeley, 1982), 27–28, which denounces how in the late twentieth century “slimness has developed a life of its own. Success, beauty, wealth, love, sexuality, and happiness are promoted as attached to and depending on slimness. Slimness is made into a fetish and abstracted from what it is—just one particular body shape.”
(41) Cesare Sterbini, Alma Viva o sia l’inutile precauzione, commedia del Signor Beaumarchais di nuovo interamente versificata, e ridotta ad uso dell’odierno teatro musicale italiano [ … ] da rappresentarsi nel nobil teatro di Torre Argentina nel carnevale dell’anno 1816 con musica del Maestro Gioacchino Rossini (Rome: Giunchi e Mordacchini, 1816), I/4 [in fact 9], 27: Figaro: “Oh bella assai, / Eccovi il suo ritratto in due parole: / Grassotta, genialotta, [ …]”
(42) Francesco Luigi Mapes (ed.), La donna nella pittura italiana dell’800 tra ritratto e paesaggio, exhibition November 8–December 23, 2012, Milan, Ambrosian Gallery (Milan: Galleria d’Arte Ambrosiana, 2012).
(43) Susan Rutherford, The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 4.
(44) The video recording of the 1989 MET production of this opera featuring Kathleen Battle and directed by John Cox is available in DVD format (Deutsche Grammophon, 2010), emphasis added.
(45) Vanessa Thorpe, “It’s All Over for Fat Lady Singers as Slimline Divas Triumph: Opera’s New Breed of Slight, Scantily Clad Sopranos Take the Plaudits at the Salzburg Festival,” The Observer (August 15, 2009).
(47) Verdi’s letters to Luccardi dated March 9, 1853, from Venezia, and June 7, 1853, from Busseto, nos. 30 and 32 in Carteggio Verdi-Luccardi, 82–83. Budden, The Operas of Giuseppe, vol. 2, 123, Conati, La bottega, 325–327.
(48) Hutcheon and Hutcheon, Bodily Charm: Living Opera (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 148: “the heavy Fanny Piccolomini [sic] was laughed at in the premiere of La traviata precisely because she did not look like a thin consumptive.” This statement oddly combines two nineteenth-century singers with two somewhat different body types: Marietta Piccolomini and Fanny Salvini-Donatelli.
(49) Tommaso Locatelli, “Gran Teatro La Fenice: La Traviata,” Gazzetta di Venezia (March 7, 1853), in Appendice della gazzetta di Venezia, vols. 9–10.36: 288–299. On the reception of the premiere see also Budden, The Operas of Giuseppe Verdi, vol. 2, 123–124.
(50) Gazzetta musicale di Milano XI/11 (March 13, 1853): 47–8, reproduced in Carteggio Verdi-Luccardi, 281–282.
(51) Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du conservatoire, directed by Albert Lavignac, premiére partie: “Histoire de la musique,” Vol. 2, “Italie—Allemagne” (Paris: Delagrave, 1914), 888.
(52) Susan Rutherford, “La traviata or the ‘Willing Grisette’: Male Critics and Female Performance in the 1850s,” in Verdi 2001: atti del convegno internazionale, Parma—New York—New Haven (Florence: Olschki, 2003), 585–600. See also Nicholas John (ed.), Violetta and Her Sisters: The Lady of the Camerllias: Responses to the Myth (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 231–244.
(53) “Maria Piccolomini, The Illustrated London News (May 31, 1856), 588–589. The image is based on a print by Colombari representing Piccolomini as Violetta in Siena, 1856: Bibliothèque nationale de France, department Musique, Est. Piccolomini M.003.
(55) Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 176–184.
(57) Mary Douglas, Natual Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (London and New York: Routledge, 1970, 1996), 69.
(59) Arianna Stassinopoulos, Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 56. Callas’s autobiographical sketch remains secret. Giovan Battista Meneghini, who has seen it, reports this information in his book, My Wife Maria Callas, written with the collaboration of Renzo Allegri, translated by Henry Wisneski (New York: Giroux, 1982), 105.
(60) Maria Callas, “Per la prima volta Maria Callas narra la sua vita,” [part I] Oggi 13.3 (January 17, 1957): 14–17.
(61) Maria Callas’s height as detailed on her ID card, issued on June 9, 1949, by the City Hall of Zevio, was 1.73 m. (5′6″). The ID is preserved in the Callas Museo and Archive of Zevio, folder G51/1. The body mass charts of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be accessed online at www.cdc.gov.
(62) Stephen Gundle, Bellissima: Feminine Beauty and the Idea of Italy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007); Piero Meldini, Sposa e madre esemplare: ideologia e politica della donna e della famiglia durante il fascismo (Florence: Guaraldi, 1975); Gigliola Gori, Italian Fascism and the Female Body: Sport, Submissive Women, and Strong Mothers (New York: Routledge, 2004).
(64) Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 345–398, transl. based on David Raeburn (London: Penguin, 2004).
(65) Elvira de Hidalgo, “La mia allieva Maria Callas, come la ricordo da ragazza,” Oggi XV, no. 40 (1st October, 1959): 23–24: “Quella voce, io, segretamente, la aspettavo, anzi la cercavo da tempo. Era come essere giunti a un appuntamento. Chiusi gli occhi. Era una violenta, eccessiva cascata di suoni, ancora introllati ma drammatici, emozionanti.”
(66) Giovanna Lomazzi, interviewed by Marco Cuggiari, “La mia amica Maria Callas,” Il Corriere di Como (Tuesday December 10, 2013), www.correrecomo.it, accessed on July 30, 2014: “arrivò quando finiva il periodo delle grandi cantanti grasse e brutte. Fu la prima a capire che serviva anche una verità estetica.”
(70) On the emergence of the “theology of pop culture” and appellation of popular stars as “divine” see Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007), 16–21, 36–40.
(72) Michael Scott, Maria Meneghini Callas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 106, 128. Items of Callas’s wardrobe, including some of Biki’s creations, can be seen in the catalogue of the 2000 Paris auction of objects from the collections of Nicolas Petsalis-Diomidis and Ilario Tamassia, Maria Callas: sourvenirs s’une legend (Paris: de Broglie, Cailes and Salit, 2000). A collection from Callas’s personal wardrobe, including dresses by Biki, is preserved at the Callas Museum in Zevio.
(75) Amiri Barraka [LeRoi Jones], Blues People: Negro Music in the White America (New York: Morrow, 1963).
(76) Nicholas Gage, Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis (New York: Knopf, 2000).
(79) Maria Callas, “Per la prima volta Maria Callas narra la sua vita,” [part I] Oggi, XIII no. 3 (17 January, 1957): 14–17. See the comparable biographical sketch published in Life (April 20, 1959).
(80) Meneghini, My Wife Maria Callas, 105. On the story of the dietetic pasta, see Ibid. 217–219. I am grateful to Renzo Allegri for informing me about Callas’s document in his possession about her diet, which is allegedly consistent with Meneghini’s description. The influence of Biki in Callas’s decision to loose weight is confirmed, among other sources, by Giovanna Lomazzi in the aforementioned interview.
(81) The letter is dated Buenos Aires, July 3, 1949, transcribed in Maria Callas, Lettere d’amore, ed. Renzo Allegri (Milan: Mondadori, 2008), 123, 140–141. Maria Caniglia was a heavy soprano twenty years older than Callas. She had been a successful interpreter of Violetta, in spite of her size. One can still hear the ovation at the end of her live recording of Traviata at the Covent Garden in London in 1939: Verdi, La traviata, with Beniamino Gigli and Maria Caniglia, 78 RPM recording (Camden: Victor 2EA7908-II, 1939), recorded on June 4, 1939.
(82) Bruno Tosi (ed.), La divina in cucina: il ricettario segreto di Maria Callas (Milan: Trenta, 2006), 102. The autograph is reproduced in facsimile.
(85) Letter of Giuseppina Cazzarolli Meneghini to Maria Callas without date, Callas Archive and Museum of Zevio, loose document marked as C/223-1.
(86) Un-catalogued material in the Callas Archive and Museum of Zevio.
(87) “Questionario,” un-catalogued in the Callas Museum, Zevio.
(88) Giovanna Lomazzi’s personal communication to the Callas archivist and collector Stefano Castellani, whom I thank for the information.
(89) I am grateful to Gianluca Brigo for passing to me this personal communication on June 11, 2014, especially since Elena Pozzan refuses to be interviewed.
(92) An impressive number of journalistic and critical reports on this controversial film are recorded in Laura Ceccarelli and Marina Cipriani, Medea di Pasolini: Cronache del tempo e ricordi dei protagonisti (Rome: Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, 2006). On the obsession of gay film directors for Callas (Visconti, Zeffirelli, Paolini) and of gay fans as well is a fascinating phenomenon, see Wayne Koestenbaum, “Callas and Her Fans,” The Yale Review 79.1 (1989): 1–20.
(93) A list of productions of Traviata at La Scala appears in the book accompanying the CD Verdi, La Traviata: Teatro alla Scala 1956 (Skira classica, 2010), 40–47.
(94) Maria Callas, “Maria Callas narra la sua vita,” 34–36. Here Callas accuses Di Stefano of never showing up on time at rehearsals and behaving like a prima donna. See also Scott, Maria Meneghini Callas, 153–155, 257–263.
(95) Only at La Scala, during the season of 1954–55, did Callas interpret the title roles of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor conducted by von Karajan (January–February), Gluck’s Alceste, played Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlos (April), and Giulia in Spontini’s La vestale (her first collaboration with Visconti, in December); in 1955, she was Maddalena in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (January and February), Amina in Bellini’s La sonnambula (her second collaboration with Visconti in March and April), Fiorilla in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia (April and May), and finally Violetta (May and June), ending the season with another of her favorite parts, the Druid priestess in Bellini’s Norma (December). In 1954–55 Callas also performed outside Milan in an impressive array of operas: Medea in Venice (February 1954), Tosca in Genoa (March), La forza del destino in Genoa (May), Boito’s Mesfistofele in Verona (July), Lucia di Lammermoor in Bergamo (October), Norma and Traviata in Chicago (November), and, in 1955, Medea in Rome (January), Lucia in Berlin (September), then back in Chicago for I puritani, Il trovatore, and Madama Butterfly (October and November). She also gave a number of concerts and recorded nine commercial recordings for EMI: Norma, I pagliacci, La forza del destino, Il turco in Italia, Madama Butterfly, Aida, Rigoletto, and two anthologies of arias. These data are from Scott, Maria Meneghini Callas, 263–266.
(97) Carlo Maria Giulini’s recollection, quoted in Caterina d’Amico de Carvalho (ed.), Viscontiana: Luchino Visconti e il melodramma verdiano (Milan: Mazzotta, 2001), 58: “Per tre settimane Visconti, La Callas e io abbiamo lavorato solo su Violetta; poi sono cominciate le prove. Visconti aveva questa grande capacità di suggerire dei pensieri che un’attrice intelligente come la Callas assorbiva e faceva suoi. In queste tre settimane di lavoro si è creato il personaggio di Violetta: La Callas è diventata Violetta.” Emphasis added. A list of rehearsal dates is annotated in pencil by Visconti: Fondazione Gramsci (Rome), Archivio Visconti, serie 2, U.A. 3.3. All cast members were required to attend rehearsals daily between May 16 and 26, while before then rehearsals were sparser. Presumably rehearsals with Callas took place in early May.
(98) Visconti, letter to Battista Meneghini dated August 13, 1956, in Renzo Allegri, Maria Callas: Lettere d’amore (Milan: Mondadori, 2008), 178.
(99) Elvio Giudici, Il teatro di Verdi in scena e in DVD (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2012), 413–417. Similarly, Fedele d’Amico describes Callas’s style of recitation in Visconti’s production of Traviata as influenced by silent film, in his essay “Luchino Visconti e l’opera,” in Viscontiana, 17.
(100) Teodoro Celli, “Violetta è morta in cappotto e cappello. Più Visconti che Verdi la Traviata della Callas,” Corriere Lombardo (May 31, 1955), in Caterina d’Amico Carvalho and Renzo Renzi (eds.), Luchino Visconti: Il mio teatro, 2 vols. (Bologna: Cappelli, 1979), vol. 1, 56–59.
(101) Sandro Bernardi, “La terra trema: il mito, il teatro, la storia,” in Il cinema di Luchino Visconti, edited by Veronica Pravadelli, 65–88 (Venice: Marsilio, 2000).
(102) Rubens Tedeschi, “La traviata torna giovane con la regia di Luchino Visconti,” L’Unità (Sunday, May 28, 1955): 3: “La rappresentazione della Traviata nel ‘55 con la regia di Visconti, le scene di Lila De Nobili e l’interpretazione della Callas [ … ] segnò la prima svolta nella regia e nella scenografia, dimostrando come il melodrama potesse venir ripulito dalle convenzioni e costituire uno spettacolo moderno, vivo, credibile.”
(104) Lawrence Schifano, Luchino Visconti: The Flames of Passion, translated by William S. Byron (London: Collins, 1990), 1–60; Lino Micciché, Luchino Visconti: Un profilo critico (Venice: Marsilio, 1996), 3–6; Polzonetti, “Ossessione: Visconti’s Obsession with Verdi,” Italian Journal 20.10 (2014), 22–25.
(105) Erio Piccagliani, stage photograph of Visconti’s production of Traviata, act 1 (dated May 28, 1955), “brindisi.” Rome, Archivio Visconti, serie 2, U.A. 3/41.
(109) Verdi, La traviata, directed by Jean-François Sivadier, with Natalie Dessay as Violetta, recorded live at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2011 (DVD Virgin Classics 730798-9, 2012).
(111) Verdi, La traviata, with Maria Callas (Violetta), Francesco Albanese (Alfredo), Ugo Savarese (Giorgio Germont), Ede Marietti Gandolfo (Flora), Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI conducted by Gabriele Santini (Cetra 425/3). The recording of the 1956 production of La Scala has been released in CD format in the series La Scala Memories, vol. 3 (Skira Classica, 2010).