Revisiting my Cautionary Tale and Mentor … in Verona

Maria Callas was neither the voice, nor the diva to me. To me, she was a mix of cautionary tale, and mentor. 

Here, in Verona, I first noticed the Maria Callas Exhibition during a house hunting trip back in May. Yesterday, I bought a ticket, slipped the audio tour headphones over my ears, and slowly progressed through each exhibit room at the Palazzo Forti Verona. Each display was mildly interesting, but two specific displays brought back vivid memories. 

One detailed the timeline of Callas’s relationship with Aristotle Onassis. The other, a room of manikins wearing dresses – Biki, Yves Saint Laurent – from her post-fat diva life. 

In December 1996, I was 24 years old, and just six months into my new career at a silicon valley semiconductor company. I flew to Boston and presented at a conference in Boston’s Copley center. My talk was on using configurable processors, simple chains of multipliers and adders, to implement filters commonly used in DSP algorithms. Applications ranged from radar communications to video manipulation. I was a green engineer. My talk was mediocre, and it was at a conference organized by the company my father was a director at. So my notions of grandeur were tempered somewhat. Still, I remember wanting to feel important, like a contributor to the Science. After the talk, to about nine attendees, in a small room off to the side of the convention, I didn’t feel terribly important. But – I didn’t feel small either. I’d answered most of the questions well enough, and a couple attendees said the presentation was informative. Good enough for me – I was on my way. 

My parents were staying in a room down the hall from me. I still felt like a college student – with my parents paying for dinners and chaperoning me around. One day, my mom noted that I dressed like what a college student might think a professional dressed like, and suggested we go shopping. She noted that I now had a silicon valley salary,* so why not spend it? I responded as I usually did with my mother: I tacitly agreed that it sounded a good idea, but I took no action. 

One night, my mom and I took in a play at Boston’s Wilbur Theater. It was Master Class by Terrence McNally. Faye Dunaway played Marie Callas. It was, if I recall correctly, the first time I’d ever heard of the opera singer. But I knew Faye Dunaway from Bonnie and Clyde. 

The story was set in Juilliard in the mid 1970s, at the end of Ms. Callas’s career. By then she’d lost her voice, as well as all the people she’d ever loved. She was unreserved and harsh as she dispensed curt advice to her students. She admonished them for childish notions such as sentimentality or not giving every performance the full measure of their hearts. As each student began a song, the stage would go dark, all except for a single spotlight on Faye Dunaway, and she’d reflect on her life. Two recurring topics were Aristotle Onassis and fashion. 

Numerous times, she referred to her role in her relationship with Aristotle as being that of a bird in a cage. She was his trophy, his prize to possess. She was on display for him. She filled this role easily, as she was the preeminent songbird of their time. 

I discovered, in the Maria Callas exhibition, that, prior to meeting Arno, she’d spent a couple years losing close to 40lbs. She’d cultivated a diva persona, and taken on the role of fashionista. To match the voice, she’d groomed her plumage to match.

Ultimately, however, there was a cage between Maria and her lover, and even as she hoped to be let out, she privately knew she never would. Confirmation came when reading the paper one morning. He’d married Jacqueline Kennedy. Faye Dunaway reenacted the scene on stage. It was heartbreaking to watch, but I couldn’t help but think she was an idiot all the same. Why would you choose to get your personal fulfillment by being someone’s bird in a cage? That imagery has stayed wth me for two decades. As has the motto of Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire**, “I always rely on the kindness of strangers.” Damned fools! 

Walking through the exhibit, I discovered new information about her relationship. For example, she renounced her US citizenship in order to be legally available to marry Mr. Onassis, should he ask her. He never asked her. Also, she had his child, but Homer failed to thrive, and only lived a few hours after birth. After Ari, and the death of her baby, she was never the same. From then on, a haunting emotion came through when she sang. Watch and listen to this 1973 performance in London.  The voice, the song, the feeling. Bellissima. And Gah – that gown. I love it. 

In the play, when she snapped back to coldly lecturing her students, she gave them her thoughts on fashion, being a diva, and how to make an impression on people. She advised wearing understated but well fitting and top quality clothing. And a scarf. A scarf that said who you were – that you could wear with purpose and conviction. She configured it through the class depending on her mood, and it somehow boosted her presence. 

The next day, my mom asked me if I wanted to go shopping. I readily agreed. $300 later I owned a new, perfectly tailored suit, a couple sleek blouses, and a scarf. To this day, I’m particular about wearing clothes that fit. I tend toward pieces that convey an understated message of confidence. When the air has a bit of a chill, I wear a scarf. I still have the scarf that I bought in Boston that week I saw Maria Callas.

*note: SI Valley salaries were high back then, but nowhere near what new engineers are paid today.

** Oh Marlon Brando. Swoon.