Gandhi in heels? Maria Callas statue hits the wrong note

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Aristidis Vafeiadakis/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Aristidis Vafeiadakis/Shutterstock

Drama in life, drama in posterity. For Maria Callas, Greece’s greatest diva, there is, even 44 years after her death, no let up from the artistic wrangling that was her lot.

But this time the uproar is focused on a statue erected at the foot of the ancient Acropolis, opposite the Roman theatre where the world-renowned opera singer made her debut.

The 1.8 metre-high work, created in honour of the soprano by fans who regard Callas as one of the country’s most overlooked assets, has been criticised for being kitsch, unbecoming and, even worse, bearing no resemblance to “La Divina”.

The golden sculpture was unveiled by Kostas Bakoyannis, the mayor of Athens, last week, and ever since it has been ridiculed in cartoons and generated a social media storm. Its opponents have described it as “Gandhi in heels” or likened it to an Oscar statuette without the attendant Hollywood glitz.

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For Michael Moussou, a former opera singer and artistic director of the Athens festival, held every summer in the Herodes Atticus theatre where Callas first performed, the work commits the cardinal sin of getting her posture wrong.

“Nothing could be less representative of Maria Callas, as no opera singer, not even a second-grade student at music school, would ever adopt such a pose with crossed arms in front of their chest,” he said, noting that to do so would “block voice production”.

“Opera is about singing and … freeing up the voice,” he said. “If Callas were to try singing, in real life, in the stance conceived by the sculptor, the result would be like a violinist trying to play on a broken violin.”

Callas at La Scala opera house in Milan in 1959.
Callas at La Scala opera house in Milan in 1959. Photograph: Erio Piccagliani/AP

Created by Aphrodite Liti, professor of sculpture at the Athens School of Fine Arts, the statue was several years in the making. Approval from the ephorate (council) of modern monuments and the country’s powerful archaeological watchdog, the KAS, was required before it was erected alongside the cobbled Dionysios Areopagitis boulevard before celebrations designed to mark the centenary of the artist’s birth in 2023.

Liti was inspired by photographs of the singer provided by the Maria Callas Greek Society, the group of devotees that commissioned the work. A picture of the soprano in costume for a performance at Milan’s La Scala opera house stood out to her “because of its Greek features, Doric style, and simplicity”, and it was on this that she ultimately modelled the work, said the sculptor, responding to the furore.

“I was given the joy of studying a unique personality and [the ability] to speak of her through emotion,” Liti, who has donated the piece to the nation, told the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini.

Few performers have revolutionised opera as much as Callas. Born to Greek immigrant parents in New York, she was christened Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos before returning to Athens and rising to stardom.

But admirers have long complained that, while lionised for her vocal range abroad, the great dramatic singer has remained inadequately recognised at home, where she is better known for her ill-fated affair with the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and by extension her tempestuous relationship with Greece, than for any of her supreme operatic skills.

A four-storey museum constructed in her honour and set to open within sight of the Acropolis six years ago remains an empty shell.

By contrast, the Italians, who also see Callas as one of their own because of her marriage to industrialist Giovanni Meneghini and her long sojourn at La Scala, named streets after the opera singer years ago.

Liana Skourli, who founded the Maria Callas Greek Society and helped raise funds for the statue, described the criticism as “totally unfair”.

That a work in Callas’s image had been erected at all, she insisted, was testament to “the blood and tears” of the hardy few who wanted to see the singer given her due.

“The whole philosophy behind this statue was about promoting her Greekness,” she said. “Conveying the inner passion of any celebrity is always hard for any sculptor. We expected a bit of noise, a bit of fuss, but nothing like this.”

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