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Podcast Summary:

“Anyway, I’ll Drink to That” is a Boozn Sam’s production, exploring the fun, quirky, and fascinating tales of drinks (Maria Callas in this episode) that define culture, history and the world. Every drink has a story to tell, and I’m going to tell it…as true as I can. Hosted by Sam, from Boozn Sam’s. Saddle up with a good cocktail and give me a few minutes of your time for a mystery surrounding a drink that changed the world.

Episode 2 Details:

A Prima Donna, Love, Abuse, Drugs, and a Famous Drink 

Maria looked out into the bright lights, which highlighted all of her heavy set, 5’ 8 1/2” tall, 200 plus pound frame, and sang in a way that surprised everyone. No one expected anything from her. They never had. they expected all of the rest. The love affair with Aristotle. The family that abused and used her. The unexpected death.

Transcript of Podcast:

*This is the entire podcast episode in written form. Do not read if you want the audio version to be spoiled.

Maria looked out into the bright lights, which highlighted all of her heavy set, 5’ 8 1/2” tall, 200 plus pound frame, and sang in a way that surprised everyone. No one expected anything from her. They never had. That was one of the best things she had going for her. The element of surprise. The underdog card. Until she didn’t.

The year was 1959. The city Venice. And beneath the lights, on stage tonight, was a woman, Maria, who took on the unthinkable – to fill the role of Elvira in a dramatic soprano tone and stretch herself to the vocal limits. Now, that might not make much sense to you. I’m going to be honest. I had no idea what that meant at first either.

So, for context. Maria, while also in the middle of training her voice for an entirely different octave range and singing style, with six days notice, was able to adapt her voice to a completely different type of performance. Critics called her attempt, just the fact that she would attempt such a thing as the “grandest folly.”  

Yet, when the performance of The Puritan ended, and the last notes fell upon a stunned and silent crowd, no critic could do anything but speak in words of praise for her achievement. This young woman, Maria, born in Manhattan to Greek immigrant parents, forced to entertain Italian  and German soldiers during World War II at her mother’s behest in order to bring home their daily bread, had come a long way.

Some would consider this the pinnacle of her achievements, but those would not know her other finest achievement. She was a goddess, capable of a new operatic sound, one filled with emotion and an instantly recognizable voice that either thrilled or disgusted all who heard it. 

And aside from being “The Bible of Opera,” Maria invented a drink now served in dive bars, fancy establishments, fine dining restaurants, and as a shift drink to bartenders. But, back when she was 13 and starting her singing career both of those accomplishments must have seemed like impossible dreams.

She was daughter to a mother that hated her for not being a man and wouldn’t look at her baby girl for the first 4 days she was alive. Her mother wanted to replace the little boy she’d lost at the age of 2 from sickness. Instead she got an ugly duckling. Fat. Clumsy. Unpopular. Not at all like her beautiful, slim sister. So, Maria grew up feeling ugly and unwanted, devoid of a childhood and forced to work a young age on to support the family. Then everything changed once more. 

Her father’s wandering eye, and groin, finally became too much for mom, not to mention his lack of ambition and desire, and she up and took her two daughters back home to Athens.

Maria was 14 at the time. Ripped out of her house. Moved across the world. And settled in a country that was home, but entirely foreign and not at all feeling like home, right before the start of World War 2.

The warring years were hard on Maria, and caused more strain with her mother. Time magazine wrote about it, fascinated with the hatred that seethed within Maria for her mom. Understandably so, though. For what could be worse than being unloved by the ones you expect unconditional love from?

This absence eventually drove her into a marriage of convenience and, at the age of 26 she married Giovanni, who was 53 at the time. Giovanni had what she needed, in the things that mattered to her at that time. No, he didn’t have much hair. Wrinkles covered his round face and were punctuated by a pointed, long nose. But, he had money. And to a girl forced to earning her bread with soldiers, this was something. 

As it turns out. It was a lot, as Giovanni’s money helped her pursue her ambition of singing. And Giovanni, the ever supportive, and wealthy industrialist and husband, fed her ambition. Which eventually brought her to the stage in Venice in 1949, to a performance she was not prepared for six days ago, but, with a sipper offstage of a now famous drink, a sigh, and a head lifted courageously, stunned the audience.

From there Maria would go on to perform throughout all of Italy, including making her home at Italy’s most famous opera house in Milan. From there she went to South America and, eventually to the United States.

With her, every step of the way, was this drink in a green bottom, cloying and strong tasting, but softened with a leaf that would eventually usher in an entirely new beverage and product line for this Italian company. 

A shot before she went on stage. Washed down with a refreshing hint of something extra. A routine. Performed time and time again, on stages throughout Europe, South America and the United States. And then she sang in that velvet, rich voice as strong and unique as the drink she consumed before hand.

During the 1950s she evolved not only as a singer but as a person. She lost 80 lbs within a year and became every part the Prima Donna, complete with ferocious anger, graceful beauty, and stunning voice, that has become synonymous with the term today. But, this weight loss and the gorgeous new figure she cut on stage came at a cost, and her voice started to fail her. Her body simply couldn’t support the rich tones, the timbers, wobble free high notes and un-bottled quality that would transpire later. 

All of this came to a head within the span of a year, and, so typical of most of Maria’s life, she went to opposite extremes in a very short time. In 1957 Maria was the darling of the Milan Opera and by 1958 she was the most hated villain. After a masterful performance, urged on by the special drink that had now become her signature she was lauded. She followed this up with several cancelled performances and then got things back on track.

There she was, on stage in 1958, January 2, Maria started her performance like all the others. A drink backstage, washed down with a refreshing nip of something extra. Then, with the lights on her, all eyes, including the president of Italy and most of Rome’s high society, she simply walked off stage and did not reappear. 

Perhaps it was sickness. Or, perhaps, as others claimed, it was just the diva putting on a performance once more, like she always did. But, years later, the truth would be unveiled, and some semblance of restitution would be provided to Maria, if not in this life, at least in the next.

Until that time though, Maria would keep on going, trying her best to persevere and bury all of the sins done to her beneath something so that she could continue living. And living she did. In explosive fashion. 

As it was also around this time that she carried on an affair with the powerful, handsome and charming, shipping industrialist known as Aristotle. But, this Aristotle was no philosopher. Far from it. He was wealthy, attractive, and a womanizer.

And the torrid affair soon led to the divorce of Maria and her husband Giovanni. Talk of children and a family filled the newspapers. After all, Giovanni was an old man by now, too old to have children. But, Aristotle, now he was a stud. 

Until he abruptly left her and married Jacqueline Kennedy that same year. In this way, the tragic story of Maria Callas, who is considered one of the most influential and important opera singers still today, but better known through obscurity for the drink she invented and never profited from, started it’s end. 

Maria’s career had ended by now. No more sips of that herbal alcoholic drink infused with mint before performances. Now there was the coping of a life of being Maria Callas.

Her mother blackmailed her. Her former husband, Giovanni, stole from her and Aristotle drugged and assaulted her. Yet, such is the way of some of the rich and powerful. The lure of money blinds them from the things that matter. Such as a good drink with a loved one. The sound of a voice that deserves to be enjoyed and shared with the world for the emotion it creates within you. 

But, Giovanni Meneghini choose instead to wield his gift of Maria’s love with manipulation for the fortune he wanted. And Aristotle Onassis, already being the richest man in the world at the time, cared only to conquer her, to know that he could. 

And they, and Maria’s mother, left behind a broken woman who hated being Maria Callas, not for the fame it brought, but for the suffering the name carried, which no one knew about.  

Perhaps the real story, the one that everyone missed, was of a young woman who held so much promise in her breast but was thwarted at every turn by a world filled with a few despicable men and power and hatred directed toward her. 

A woman that found solace in the sweet concoction of a drink that tastes like black licorice and mint at the same time, a drink that the Fratelli Branca Distillerie produced in the 1960’s, after Maria Callas had made it famous and tied it to her opera career and dramatic life. This drink, which is still cited today as being the creation of Maria Callas, is still, no doubt, not attributed in any way monetarily to her estate. But, that doesn’t matter at this point either. 

Maria’s estate, after her premature death was greedily grabbed by Maria’s mother, before it was stolen by her ex-husband, and finally carved in half by the two rivalry parties that cared only for what Maria could produce, and not who she was. 

And in death, when her ashes were stolen and finally recovered, was Maria Callas able to find peace scattered among the Aegean Sea, as the sharks of her life still nibbled at the bits of her wealth, and consumed every ounce of her spirit they could. But, you see, they left something behind that holds the spirit and frightful streak of raw beauty that is Maria and her voice. 

Branca Mente. 

Not finding a drink to her preference, she made one. A drink of Fernet Branca with a few mint leaves to create the unique herbal, mint, black licorice tastes that is now a cult classic throughout America.

A drink created out of a tragic life looking to cope and find the courage to step on to the stage once more and bare her soul to an audience, in the hopes that her unexplainable gift, her voice, could lighten the hearts, if even only for a time, of those who heard her sing.     

Anyway, I’ll drink to that.