France Info - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt delves into the universe of Maria Callas. »

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt loves words and he loves life. He’s a storyteller and a mythmaker. His fiction and plays were swift to make their mark on the literary landscape as well as in the realm of film and theatre. Testimony to that success are the many prizes and Moliere awards to his name. His books have touched, convinced and frequently consoled readers, books such as La part de l’autre (The Alternative Hypothesis) (2001), Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran (2001), Oscar and the Lady in Pink (2002), L’enfant de Noé (Noah’s Child) (2004) and Journal d’un amour perdu (Diary of Lost Love) (2019), a son’s outpouring of love for a vanished mother.

Schmitt’s epic saga, La Traversée des temps (Crossing Time) on the history of humanity, which runs to 5,000 pages in eight volumes, has now been followed by La Rivale (The Rival – Albin Michel editions, 2023), a personal tribute to Maria Callas and the spirit of the Opera House La Scala Milan, forever haunted by the memory of the diva but also by audiences who are often seasoned cognoscenti.

Franceinfo: The Rival is a tribute to Maria Callas. It’s structured like a biography told from the perspective of an elderly woman, Carlotta Berlumi, a mysterious and rather sad character who sees herself as the Greek soprano’s greatest rival. To read it is to appreciate how hard it must have been to confront Maria Callas. On 2 December 2023 Callas would have been a hundred, but she still seems very present.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Yes, she’s certainly a legend if not actually a myth. She embodied to perfection the operatic roles she sang, and the tragedy of her own life had a truly operatic dimension to it. From a troubled and impoverished background, she came a long way, winning over audiences with her voice. But time caught up with her prematurely because she had vocal problems, and she vanished from the scene at an age when most singers are at their zenith. She died alone in Paris in utter desolation. So, she was like the heroines whose roles she performed.

I wanted to create a mirror image of Callas. I started with a character confronted by the phenomenon of the century: “Maria Callas”, an opera singer who was active at the same time. I wanted to describe Callas through the eyes of someone who hated her and didn’t understand what was at stake. Carlotta says: “What is all this – this woman crawling about on the floor because her lover has left her and who dies and gets the whole audience to weep?” She doesn’t see the extent to which opera is an artform that reaches its apogee when performers embody their characters completely.”

Your book takes readers into the world of the prima donna. It highlights the lived experiences of those singers and suggests that, over time, their stage roles are bound to wear them down.

Yes, that’s true. If you have the soul of an artist, operatic roles will eat you up. Maria Callas performed sacrificial roles: nearly all her characters die on stage. She spent her life rehearsing her death.

In your works, you tackle Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and a number of other composers. Now, you’ve taken on Maria Callas. Your books exude a real sense of musicality, almost like a score. Are you a musician or a conductor?

I was saved by a woman singing. When I was 15, I went through a teenage depression and I’d already planned my suicide, my departure. That was the state I’d reached. And then one day I was taken to the opera, and a woman came on and began to sing, and during four beatific minutes, I emerged from my morass and thought: if there are things like that on this planet, I’m not going anywhere!

You reacted just now when I said you were a storyteller, a mythmaker even. Do you agree with that assessment?

I’m a mythmaker in the positive sense, for sure. I feel like a storyteller. I certainly tell stories.

So, writing allowed you to find yourself, maybe to get over the “timidity” you started out with?

Hmm, knowing myself... I’m not a great fan of internal explorations. Socrates said, “Know thyself,” but I’ve always said, “Ignore yourself.” I’m not keen to meddle with the balance or imbalance that makes me happy and fruitful.

With Maria Callas, you get the feeling it’s the same process but with her voice. Singing saved her several times but ultimately, it destroyed her. How would you describe Maria Callas?

I think she was totally committed to her art. When you hear her interviews, it’s extraordinary. She said, “We are on Earth to pass on life by passing on art and beauty.” I think she really felt she had accomplished her mission. The trouble is, doing your duty doesn’t necessarily make you happy...

I was wondering what your favourite instrument is: the voice, writing, the stage? You bring everything together...

The voice, without question!

Elodie Suigo

La Nouvelle République - « Maria Callas captivated the whole world. »

On 16 September 1977, the day Sophia Cecelia Kalogeropoulos, aka Maria Callas, died, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt discovered the Greek diva’s voice. “I was instantly stirred by it. It was extraordinary,” recalls the French writer, now also a Belgian citizen. Time has done little to diminish that early thrill. “She took me into another world. She opened the entire Italian repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries to me.” Up to then, a youthful Eric- Emmanuel had been in thrall to the operas of Mozart and the French composers.

“Maria Callas took her art far beyond the community of music lovers: she captivated the whole world,” the author declares in awe. “She’s proof that it’s not enough to excel: you’ve got to bring fire, devotion and passion to what you do.” In Schmitt’s analysis, the singer, who would have been a hundred on 2 December 2023, suffered a double martyrdom. “Firstly, by giving everything to her art, taming a rebellious voice which she soon lost control of; and secondly, by experiencing in real life what she had been acting out since the start of her career, when her husband, Onassis, went off with another woman [none other than Jackie Kennedy].”

Schmitt’s way into the genius of this glittering woman, “who died young, like the heroines whose roles she sang”, is to invent an enemy. In his latest novel, La Rivale (The Rival), he introduces Carlotta Berlumi, “a fast-fading star who attributes her brief career to Maria Callas, whose presence blotted out everything in its orbit,” Schmitt goes on. “There’s no denying that her presence was grotesque: she obliterated her colleagues on stage. Beside her, they were like cardboard cutouts.”

The Rival makes use of the absurd and a good dose of irony to hold up a distorting mirror. When Carlotta Berlumi criticises Callas, affirming “you don’t go to the theatre to suffer!”, the shrewd reader discerns the prima donna’s stellar performance. When she describes her voice as a “blunderbuss”, like “over-smoked, burnt, cured, highly spiced ham”, you can’t fail to hear the power of that voice.

This literary exercise gives Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt scope to put all kinds of nonsense into the mouth of his main character, who comes out with utterances like, “Half the audience was throwing the ingredients of a minestrone soup at her!” And again, “By imagining her voice was an elevator, Maria Callas ended up taking the stairs!”

Schmitt loves this kind of character the way the American actor Bruce Willis did: “I once heard him say that he was happier playing baddies because they get to wear the best togs and have the best lines!” His Carlotta Berlumi is acerbic and imperious, but Eric- Emmanuel acknowledges that “The longer I lived with her, the more touching I found her,” perhaps because there’s something universal about her resentment. “She’s more like us than we are like Maria Callas,” he adds, with a wry smile.

Carlotta is nevertheless the only fictional character in a non-fictional novel born of detailed research and years of fascination. “I never do research specifically for a book,” says the sixty-year-old. “I just end up writing books on subjects I’m passionate about.”

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt writes on his website: “The writer in me is nostalgic for the musician I left behind.” Hardly surprising in a man who “was saved by a woman singing”, restoring light to the teenage Schmitt’s dark thoughts. It’s a story that chimes with the words the writer gives his heroine Carlotta, the only time his “rival” manages to cast aside her veil of hatred: “Maria Callas’ voice was beautiful, unbearably beautiful. It stimulated, and in so doing, it brought peace, because it embodied life in all its intensity and vulnerability.”

Ambre Philouze-Rousseau

Le Point - « La Divina »

In La Rivale (The Rival), world-renowned author and playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, introduces Carlotta Berlumi, a quirky and assertive old lady, who once sang at La Scala Milan but whose glittering career was mercilessly eclipsed by the radiance of Maria Callas. Acerbic and gloriously hypocritical, she tells the biography of the stellar prima donna to Enzo, a young tourist guide at the famous Italian Opera House.


Page des libraires - « Only Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt could tell these two stories with such talent. »

“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror” (Rainer Maria Rilke). This statement is a superb illustration of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s two new books. The first depicts two legendary couples of the 1960s, who are staying in adjoining bungalows; the second is a tribute to the legend that was Maria Callas.

Bungalow 21 is a play set in 1960’s Los Angeles. Two couples are staying in Beverley Hills Hotel. Bungalow 20 is occupied by Simone Signoret and Yves Montand at the height of their fame and their love affair; she has been awarded Oscars and he is about to star in Let’s Make Love. Bungalow 21 meanwhile is home to Marilyn Monroe and her husband Arthur Miller. Their love is fading, and Marilyn appears more vulnerable than ever: she has to act opposite Yves Montand. The four characters get along well, but Arthur leaves for Ireland and Simone goes off to shoot a film in Rome. It’s not long before Yves has fallen under the spell of the charms and distress of the magnificent blond film star. The affair sounds the death knell for Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur, but it strengthens the union between Simone and Yves.

In Bungalow 21, Schmitt goes beyond a simple exposé of an adulterous affair to get to the heart of the intimacy and weaknesses of each his characters.

La Rivale (The Rival), on the other hand, is conceived as the first-hand account of an obscure opera singer who has sunk into oblivion because of Maria Callas. Is Callas a scapegoat or a genuine rival? Carlotta, a spirited, comical and vindictive character, provides Schmitt with the opportunity to create a “mirror image of a less-familiar Maria Callas” who spends her life rehearsing her death on stage.

Weaving through these two stories is the touching theme of sisterhood. Aside from the issue of betrayal, I was moved by the friendship between Simone and Marilyn, two women who seem so different, one self-assured, the other acutely vulnerable. And while Carlotta makes Callas responsible for her downfall, she can only praise her incredible stage presence and acknowledge her talent. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a peerless storyteller, whose skill with words is equalled by his devotion to and knowledge about music: only he could tell these two stories with such talent, the human voice being, as he says himself, his favourite instrument.

Aumont - Sanz

S, le magazine de S - « I adored this novel! »

“Maria Callas? You wait, she’ll soon, have sunk into obscurity...”

Those are the words of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s latest heroine, Carlotta Berlumi, a former opera singer whom no one now remembers but who claims to have enjoyed her moment in the sun at La Scala Milan and to have been Maria Callas’ greatest rival. Through the eyes of this character, so arresting and unforgettable you wonder whether she really did exist, Schmitt drafts a mirror image of Maria Callas, a prima donna as beloved as she was disparaged. Himself a music boffin, Schmitt takes readers behind the scenes at the opera and down into the depths of the human heart. I adored this novel!

Sophie Davant

RCF RADIO - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has excelled! »

Music-lover Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt couldn’t let the hundredth anniversary of Maria Callas’ birth, on 2 December 2023, pass unnoticed. Having already magnified Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, here he pays tribute to the diva, also sometimes called “La Divina”. Against a mise-en-scène composed with his inimitable sleight of hand, Schmitt mingles history and fiction to wheel on Carlotta Berlumi, an ill-fated singer of his own invention, the fictional contemporary of Maria Callas.

The setting is, of course, La Scala Milan, the heart of European opera. Returning to the Opera House in old age, Carlotta Berlumi describes to Enzo, a courteous young tourist guide, those heady years in the world of opera. A mirror image of Maria Callas emerges from the narrative of this rival singer, who longed to see the great prima donna fall in order to take her place. The operatic world is unforgiving: “We singers spend our time in agony on stage. The roles we sing demand it but so, too, do the composers, who are moved by their heroines’ torments to write heart-rending arias and soul-destroying prayers,” Carlotta tells the young man. As it is, the name “Maria Callas” persistently heads the posters and playbills on opera houses across the world from London to New York and Paris to Vienna.

Opera encompasses a whole universe and, although not always accessible to the uninitiated, it elicits admiration. “The fame of Maria Callas far out-grew the renown of an opera singer. She became more like a film star with public and press poring over her outfits, hair styles, shoes, culinary tastes and volatility.” Callas seems to have cultivated the fickleness of a star, and perhaps it was that that made her so popular. “She totally absorbed the limelight, no doubt about it, and everyone else was condemned to oblivion,” Carlotta stresses, vindictively.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt paints with humour this portrait of a jealous rival, who was in the audience on 2 January 1958 when Maria Callas was due to sing the role of Norma at the Opera House in Rome: “She came on dressed as a priestess, svelte, elegant and glittering, a sprig of mistletoe in her hand. Time stood still. You could have heard a pin drop.” And then... but I won’t give away the starting point for this fictional tribute to the legendary diva: opera lovers will know what I’m talking about...

What I can reveal is Schmitt’s admiration for her: “Maria Callas’ artistry was a thing of beauty,” writes Schmitt. “It was unbearably beautiful: supple, mobile and unbending. It could tear at your heartstrings and console you in one breath. Callas’ voice was both powerful and tortured; it combined strength and fragility.” Indefatigable and prolific, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt excels just as much in his grand epic novels, like his Traversée des temps (Crossing Time) about the history of humanity as in his plays and novellas, like Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran or Oscar and the Lady in Pink. Maria Callas could be a mythical figure: “She sang everything, and because she sang everything, she didn’t sing for long”.

Christophe Henning

Blogs reviews

S2PMag - « A story that throbs with emotion; enthralling from start to finish. »

On 2 December 2023, Maria Callas would have turned a hundred. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt pays tribute to her in La rivale (The Rival), a novella published by Albin Michel. Through the character of Carlotta Berlumi, an old woman whose name won’t mean anything to anybody but who claims to have been the Greek diva’s greatest rival, the playwright creates a mirror image of Maria Callas. This literary device enables Schmitt to record the prima donna’s triumphs, failures and scandals as seen through the lens of the vindictive Carlotta, forever resentful that her rival stole the limelight which she should have enjoyed.

With his peerless gift for storytelling, Schmitt takes readers backstage at the opera and down into the human heart. By describing Callas as manipulative and driven by destructive impulses, Carlotta Berlumi may simply have found the scapegoat for her own defeats, setbacks and frustrations.

The result is a story that throbs with emotion; enthralling from start to finish.

Alexia Cerutti