In the Verona fair: Walking in the footsteps of Maria Callas

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It is a hot and humid day at the start of this summer and here I am, a woman on a mission as I walk with determination through the streets of Verona in search of a church. Not just any old church, but a fairly specific one that I know is somewhere nearby.

where can i find it? No. Although I have visited this town many times and despite Mr. Google’s navigation aid, after 30 minutes of walking I find myself going in circles. I walk into a cafe.

“Mi scusi,” I say to the young man behind the counter. “Chiesa Padri Filippini?

He looks at me blankly.

“Maria Callas,” I say, hoping the famous name will jog his memory and point me in the direction of the local parish church where the opera singer was married.

He shrugs.

Back on the street, I had an idea. It’s an old local I need, someone who’s probably religious and also has enough years under his belt to identify the opera singer whose name is synonymous with this town. And so, by spotting a grandmother holding hands with a child and directing my question to her, of course, I get a result.

“Yes, Padri Filippini,” she says immediately and points to a street across the road.

Five minutes later, I walk through the door of the church where Maria Callas married her Veronese husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, on April 21, 1949.

Sitting for a moment on one of the pews in the welcome coolness of the church, I gaze at the lemon-washed walls and glittering statuary and try to imagine La Callas here with Meneghini and just two witnesses for her low-key wedding. — she being Greek Orthodox and he Catholic — on that spring day more than seven decades ago.

Having long been passionate about opera in general and Maria Callas in particular, I spent a few days in this part of Italy. It is a kind of pilgrimage because I follow in the footsteps of the opera singer who spent a lot of professional and personal time in this part of the world, both in Verona itself and also in the small town of Sirmione on the lake neighboring guard.

I have always loved Verona. It’s a very walkable town with all sorts of delights and a place that has much more to offer than its most important attraction – the tourist-crowded cul-de-sac where you’ll find Juliet’s “balcony” of Romeo and Juliet celebrity.

Avoiding it like the plague this time around, I head straight back to Piazza Bra, just inside the ancient walls, where the Arena is. Sitting in a cafe across the street, you’ll get a great perspective of this ancient Roman amphitheater, now one of the most important opera venues in the world.

This is where Maria Callas made her debut in Ponchielli Mona Lisa shortly after arriving in Italy from New York in 1947. It was an appearance that sparked a host of performances here and at other famous Italian opera houses, from La Fenice in Venice to La Scala in Milan.

While married to Meneghini, the wealthy industrialist who became her manager, the couple’s main residence was in the countryside beyond the city, but Callas often stayed in Verona itself – often in the Due Torri or Accademia ( always hotels) and also in a house on Via Leoncino.

Having whetted my appetite for more Callas touchstones, I say goodbye to Verona and leave for the station to catch the next train to Desenzano del Garda.

I had passed through Desenzano countless times over the years on a train from Milan to Venice or vice versa but never stayed there. This time I booked a few nights in a small three star hotel right next to the lake itself. The hotel – the Piroscafo – and the town itself are a delight.

Early the next morning, I find myself one of the first passengers queuing for the ferry from Lake Garda to Sirmione. Great service and inexpensive, it’s a relaxing, car-free way to explore the small towns dotted around the lake.

A young English couple sitting ahead of me on the upper deck planned their day with military precision, stopping in different towns and allowing themselves some time in each before catching the ferry for their next port of call. My trip to Sirmione only takes 20 minutes.

I had read how revered Maria Callas was in Sirmione. I had also read that it was kind of a tourist trap in the summer. Both snippets of information turn out to be accurate. Yet it is a place of extraordinary beauty, postcard style, with small cobbled streets, craft shops, a castle and an idyllic setting on the peninsula.

Once off the ferry, I head straight for Caffè Grande Italia, sit in front and order a caffè macchiatone (a bigger macchiato). A little before 10am is far too early for an aperitif, although obviously that’s what brought Maria Callas to this historic cafe, strolling here in the early evening with her husband from their villa a few minutes away. of the.

Everywhere in this small town you’ll find references to the opera singer, from a lovely park named after her where I find elderly locals sitting chatting and enjoying the morning sun, to a Palazzo Callas exhibition center near the ferry dock. Spotting a road sign pointing in the direction of “Villa Maria Callas”, I stroll through town, past the shops and past the spa (thermal waters are big business in Sirmione), towards the villa where Maria Callas lived for a decade.

Suddenly, on my left, there it is, a large and beautiful ochre/yellow residence, once the singer’s much-loved summer residence and now divided into several high-end apartments. A plaque on the wall tells me “in this house lived Maria Callas”.

Then, as I walk back to catch the ferry, my mind is full of this extraordinary woman; her incredible voice, her poise, her passionate love affair with this corner of Italy. And I also remember the great sadness of her life, the betrayal of Aristotle Onassis when he abandoned her for Jacqueline Kennedy, and the fact that she died alone, and far too soon.

Suffering from a heart attack at her home in Paris 45 years ago this week, she was just 53. Yet she is still remembered so fondly in the Italy she called home.

This Friday, on the anniversary of the day her magical voice fell silent forever, I will be playing a recording of Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma’ and listening to that rising voice, I imagine her strolling through the gates of her golden villa, along the lapping waters of the lake and through the streets of the charming town of Sirmione, the place she herself described as “an earthly paradise”. .

Getting There

  • Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin to Verona three days a week until the end of October, then less frequently throughout the winter.
  • The four-star Accademia in Verona offers double rooms from €174 in October, €99 in November. hotelaccademiaaverona.it
  • Three-star Piroscafo in Desenzano del Garda offers double rooms from €75 until the end of October. The hotel will reopen mid-March 2023. hotelpiroscafo.it
  • The 4-star Hotel Sirmione offers double rooms from €138 in October, €118 in November. termdisirmione.com
  • A photographic exhibition – La Voce Delle Mani: Maria Callas and the Italians by Cristina de Middel and Richard Kalvar of Magnum Photos – runs until November 6 at the Palazzo Callas exhibition center in Sirmione. sirmionebs.it
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