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Exhibition opens wardrobes of opera's super stars

The sumptuous salmon pink gown worn by Maria Callas in 1964 in Bellini's "Norma", one of her most famous roles, still looks immaculate, but it has a flaw: a tiny square of fabric is missing.

"It was likely snipped out by some fetishistic collector when it was on display in the past" speculates Italian couturier Maurizio Galante, who helped curate the exhibition on "Divas' wardrobes" at France's national centre of stage costume here.

Divas, from the Italian word for goddesses, are by their very nature objects of adulation, adoration and obsession.

They also have a reputation for being temperamental. But Callas, the "Diva Assoluta" was "a trooper" when it came to costume, docilely accepting what she was given to wear, according to Piero Tosi, who dressed her for many productions.

After dramatically slimming down, she persuaded director Franco Zeffirelli to put her in a draped empire line dress instead of a crinoline to play "Tosca" to show off her new svelte figure.

Galante managed to prevail upon Florence's Pitti palace to lend one of her stunning costumes from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Medea" - her only non-operatic film role - which has never left Italy before.

From historical greats, including actress Sarah Bernhardt and the French soprano Regine Crespin, the exhibition sweeps right up to the present day, to take in all the leading names from Spain's Montserrat Caballe, New Zealand's Kiri te Kanawa and Romania's Angela Gheorghiu to Americans Jessye Norman, Renee Fleming, Barbara Hendricks and June Anderson, among others.

Anderson gave a recital at Galante's haute couture collection last January, when he gave her a change of clothes with each song.

Meanwhile French couturier Christian Lacroix experienced the capricious side of a diva when he was invited to design Renee Fleming's costume for the Gala opening night of the 2008 season at New York's Met.

"She's a very busy lady. It was the fastest fitting of my life. And she wasn't satisfied, she wanted the train to be longer". It was already 18 metres (yards).

But the Gala night was such a success that all was forgiven and the diva deigned to invite him to design her costume for the title role in "Thais".

In the early days, divas wore their own costumes and real jewellery, often presented to them by admirers. Wagnerian diva Regine Crespin was famous for wearing haute couture by Worth and Poiret on stage and off and commissioned jewels from Lalique. Today costumes are part of the production, but singers often have their own copies.

"I have such a big collection of my own costumes, maybe one day I'll open a museum," Montserrat Caballe told the centre's director Delphine Pinasa as they shared a long distance car journey during the recent travel chaos caused by the Icelandic ash cloud.

The larger-than-life star also confided that she got on well with her costume makers: "They know my measurements. They know I can't wear everything."

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, divas live out of suitcases in hotel rooms or furnished apartments. Their dressing rooms at the theatre or opera house are an intimate, personal space.

Two rooms in the exhibition recreate that atmosphere of plush crimson velvet to display such memorabilia as specially-commissioned Louis Vuitton trunks, battered by use, hat boxes and toiletries, to a sound track of singers warming up their voices and final stage calls.

"What has always interested me about the diva is the duality between her private and public persona," says Galante.

Nor are the divas of popular music neglected: Edith Piaf, France's beloved "little sparrow", cabaret star Zizi Jeanmaire and the Egyptian-born Italian chanteuse Dalida. Visitors can watch Dalida singing on screen with a rotating display of the actual dress she is wearing in the video clip underneath.

The exhibition is open to the public until December 31.