- Reading time
- 5 min.
The legend of Maria Callas was born a hundred years ago, on 2 December 1923. ‘La Divina’ travelled the world with her iconic voice and gained a special place in the collective memory thanks to her many recordings. But did you know that she also performed in our very own theatre of La Monnaie? Let’s take a look back at a piece of Belgian music history.
7 March 1958
The New York-Milan transatlantic flight makes a stopover at Melsbroek airport, on the outskirts of Brussels, at 9 a.m. One name on the passenger list explains the hordes of journalists and photographers in the terminal at this early hour: Maria Meneghini-Callas, back in Europe after a series of performances of La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor and Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera. Among those waiting for her is Joseph Rogatchewsky. The then director of La Monnaie (1953–59) has an ambitious mission: he wants nothing more than to get hold of the Greek-American star soprano for a concert in his theatre. According to Het Laatste Nieuws, Callas answers in the affirmative: ‘If Brussels wants me, I want to come on my own terms, so as to avoid any difficulties’ (8 March 1958), a reference to her then contractual issues with the Scala of Milan.
A slightly more elegant reception awaits her at the town hall of Ixelles, a building that was once the home of French-Spanish soprano Maria Malibran. After a speech by Ixelles mayor Charles Janssens, Callas lays down white arum lilies by the bronze statue of her idol and makes time for an extensive autograph session. She and her husband (and manager) Giovanni Battista Meneghini then dash back to the airport, but the Brussels audience can cherish a hope of seeing her perform, according to an article in De Zweep: ‘While waiting for her to perform in Paris and Brussels after Madrid and Lisbon, lovers of the great art of singing will have to content themselves with listening to the many phonograph records that “La Callas” has already gifted her audience in large numbers. However, we are convinced that the Belgian public will be able to see and hear her in person during this World’s Fair year in Brussels.’
11 July 1959
The inauguration of the Atomium and a performance by Callas? This proves too much of a good thing for the Belgian capital in 1958. A year later, however, this hope is fulfilled when the philanthropic circle La Pléiade manages to organize a gala concert in favour of the charitable works of the Association of the Order of Leopold. The star of the show is La Callas, who uses the opportunity to put together a small tour of the Low Countries. When she performs at the Holland Festival with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 11 July, Belgian opera fans also eagerly look forward to this performance, which, because it shares the same programme, heralds her passage in Brussels.
Because the Amsterdam gala concert is broadcast on Belgian television, there are rumours that the concert at La Monnaie will also be broadcast live. La Pléiade quashes those rumours immediately, however. Le Peuple reports on 9 July:
12 and 13 July 1959
Travelling from Amsterdam, Callas arrives in Brussels two hours behind schedule. At the invitation of La Monnaie, the press has been waiting for her at the Hotel Amigo, where she is staying. However, after it becomes clear that all interviews are cancelled, the Brussels correspondents, already peeved at the lack of a live broadcast, dip their pens in gall:
The following day, Callas is invited by Brussels mayor Lucien Cooremans to the town hall. Her arrival and departure become a news item, with the newsreader unable to resist drawing attention to Callas’s much-discussed weight loss and her preference for champagne over whiskey: ‘For a throat like that of La Callas, only nectar is fitting. Mr Meneghini, who is always on hand, did not reveal the secret of this waistline that has shrunk so much in so little time.’
14 July 1959
Luxurious programmes – cum gift bottles of Dior perfume – and an exclusive dinner at the Hotel Amigo afterwards: Callas’s long-awaited Belgian debut turns into a true society event.
The orchestra pit at La Monnaie is covered to increase auditorium capacity. Nicola Rescigno, Callas’s conductor on this tour, stands before the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie, which has to play in complete darkness at Callas’s request. Only small reading lights illuminate the musicians’ scores so that, after the overture of Cherubini’s Medea, all the spotlights are on La Divina:
The concert does not go off flawlessly. During her last aria, a technician apparently drops something in the wings, which, according to journalist Henry Lemaire, does not escape Callas: ‘The noise echoed and bolts of lightning flashed in La Callas’s eyes. But this incident had no unpleasant consequences. Controlling her nerves, the singer ended her very fine recital without making a mistake.’
As regards the beauty of Callas’s performance, the critics are not unanimous. According to Le Soir, Callas ‘breathed new life’ into the character of the diva and enchanted her audience. La libre Belgique praised her ‘exceptional, strikingly homogeneous timbre’ while also noting her dramatic talent: ‘Nothing she sings has not first been well thought out, the effect being achieved by an astonishingly well-considered and appropriate posture and facial expressions.’ Other correspondents, however, wrote that Callas had ‘failed to captivate her audience’ (Jacques Stehman in La Lanterne), that the fatigue she had accumulated in Amsterdam was audible and that she was met with polite applause (Gazet van Antwerpen).
2 December 2023
A hundred years after her birth, we look back on this unique event in the history of La Monnaie with great interest. Unique because a planned second Callas concert in Belgium never happened. Thanks to the many press cuttings and photos from the rich archives of our opera house, we can get a glimpse, across the chasm of time, of the impression La Divina must have made on audiences at the time. Or we can consult one of the last living witnesses to this concert, the hostess Margaret Jacquet-Overzier …
This article was produced in collaboration with the Archives of La Monnaie and drew on the book Maria Callas in Nederland en België by Karl H. Van Zoggels (Walburgpers, 2007).