Maria Callas : Afterall, what is the legend. The public made me.


I’ve been researching Maria Callas recently through performance videos and interviews and when I heard Callas say that the public made her, it resonated with me.  She was coming off of a controversial farewell tour with Giuseppe di Stefano in 1974 and it was clear to her that her legendary voice had not survived the years.  It was a shell of its former glory.  She precedes the above quote like this, “Of course, nobody really expects what I used to be 20 years ago.  No one of US are like we used to be 20 years ago.”  Sad, but true.

You know, it’s the same with legendary perfumes.  Their status is not permanent.  They can suddenly be made less than legendary, by the public, if the perfume companies aren’t dedicated and rigorous in keeping the fragrance as faithful to its inspiration as possible.  Perfumers sometimes create great perfumes but legendary perfumes are always made by the public.

When I think of legendary perfumes, I think of Chanel No. 5, Shalimar and Eau Sauvage.  Although they all seem to have suffered slightly recently, they are holding up well enough.  But what about Joy by Jean Patou?  L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci?  Vent Vert?  Miss Dior and hundreds of other really beautiful perfumes?  Not so legendary.

How does a perfume become a legend?  I would say that longevity and quality are absolutely key ingredients.  A legendary perfume must endure the passing of time… and the quality has to remain excellent and consistent as long as the perfume is on the market.  I think this is where the vast majority of perfumes run into trouble.  Angel by Mugler just celebrated its 25th anniversary and I would say certainly well on its way to becoming a legend.  But, there are so few legendary perfumes now.  The new formulations have pushed them into mythical territory, something that Maria Callas knew and experienced all too well.  When I think of Joy or L’Air du Temps or Vent Vert or Miss Dior, I think more mythical than legendary.

Meryl Streep says that Maria Callas was the greatest artist of the 20th century.  In this video, she makes a good case for her argument.  I’m not so sure, but Maria Callas would certainly be in my top 10.


I wonder which perfumes these three women wore?

The aunts

You see, these women are not strangers to me, they are three of my grand-aunts, my father’s aunts.  Cecile Donato (top left) was my godmother.  Marie is top right and the eldest of the family, Mica, sits in the front.  I would date the photo to the 1920s.  Of the three, Marie would be the most likely to wear perfume, she was the most fashionable… at least from what I remember.

Whenever a wedding was planned, I can still remember my mother being greeted at the door by Marie and being dragged to her sewing machine, Marie exclaiming passionately, “Look at this material I bought!  I went all the way to St. Hubert Street.  And look at the pattern I chose!  I start tomorrow!”  Nobody seemed to care about who was getting married.  I don’t think it mattered much… attending a wedding was an excuse to make a new dress.  I remember looking at the design on the pattern cover and wondering how Marie would fit into a dress that appeared to have a 1-inch waist!  And because shoes were expensive, she would dye an old pair to match the dress.

Mica worked as a seamstress in a factory.  In those days, the women made the entire dress… no piece work.  It would have been demeaning to them to do only sleeves or only backs.  By the time she was in her 60s, Mica’s back was deformed.  It must have been a very hard life.  Marie was “une drapeuse” which I assume means she worked on creating the patterns with a dress designer.  Could you imagine making dresses all day and then making a dress for a wedding on your spare time?  Of course, this was a generational thing.  Today, I have to smile when I hear about the “maker” movement where young people are making things.  The pre-television generation made things out of nothing!  Another Donato sibling, François, made a violin… a violin, I tell you!  And then he taught himself to play it.  He and his brother, Joe (we called him ti-Joe), would sit on the balcony on Joliette Street in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district and play music.  Joe played the mandolin.  I still wonder what the neighbours thought of those crazy Italians playing traditional Italian songs on the front porch after supper.

If all the Donato girls were to be photographed, my grandmother, Eugenia, would have been there as would Jeanne, the youngest.

So… when I look at this photograph I wonder if they wore perfume.  Perhaps not.  In the strict Italian-Catholic upbringing, perhaps perfume was not permitted.

I’ll end this post with my grandmother’s favourite song… the tearful Ernesto de Curtis waltz, Non ti scordar di me (1935), which has since been sung by every tenor I know.  It’s a favourite.  What does it mean?  Do not forget me.


Another tuberose?


When Catherine handed me the scent strip of Ralph Lauren Woman and said, “c’est la tubéreuse”, I thought, another tuberose?    How many has that been now… Twilly by Hermès, Bloom by Gucci and now this one… all launched in the span of a couple of months.  Of course, I’ve been around perfume long enough to wonder what is actually going on here and I suspect that a new, inexpensive molecule which smells like tuberose has hit the market and so we have three major houses getting on board.

Now… this is not to say that they are bad or even mediocre.  At first sniff, they all smell pretty good but they shouldn’t be confused with the really big tuberose powerhouses that we know… Fracas, Poison, Fragile, Tubéreuse Criminelle, Carnal Flower or even Madonna’s Truth or Dare.  These are soliflores… mostly tuberose with a few other notes.  The latest launches are tuberose-centric, more complex, definitely less floral.  In fact, if someone were just to walk by wearing any of them, I might be hard-pressed to pick up the tuberose note.

So… if you love tuberose, I wouldn’t recommend this latest generation but if you “sort of” like tuberose, by all means, try out these new ones.

For next week, I’ll compare two of the new generation and get back to you.  I’m not sure people at the office will be very happy with me smelling like a bouquet of hot house flowers but, what the heck.  We just changed the hour here in Montréal and it’s going to get dark now at the end of the afternoon, so a blast of summer flowers might be a good antidote.

Have a nice week!


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