There is a famous photo of Maria Callas as Violetta, the wronged courtesan of La Traviata (from La dame aux camellias). She is standing weeping like a distressed, wasted waif, wringing her hands. The caption frequently says that even her hands seemed to weep. It is a moment of theatre at its highest given by a woman who lit up the whole theatre and changed people’s lives. Callas used her hands crossed over her chest to remarkable effect when taking bows – or when making an entrance, as at the Garnier before the French President, and upstaging Bridget Bardot, well after her voice had failed. Callas made even her bows into an art form.
There is another famous photo of Callas in the great Visconti production of La Traviata at La Scala in 1955. She and Giuseppe di Stefano are taking their bows. She is what the French call radieuse; he looks handsome and respectful of her priority. The photo, a copy of which hangs at home, is taken at the side from behind, so that their image is set against rows of boxes near the stage. Her fulfilled radiance is caught by the full glow of the footlights. (That loathsome shipper who defiled her life was years away.) Her right hand holds a bouquet, and di Stefano has her left hand. This is a portrait of accomplished artistry at what might be called the altar of the temple.
Jonathan Thurston is number 6 for the Cowboys, Queensland (the Maroons), and Australia. He is a half-back and goal kicker – that is, he is one of the play-directors in his kind of rugby. When the scouts came back from North Queensland about twenty years ago, they said that they had found a blackfella who could play footy, but they said that this one was too small and could not tackle. He is now, and has been for some time, widely seen as the most valuable player in his code in the world. Watching him at work is one of the great moments in Australian sport. Typically he might be standing there passing the ball between his hands, with twelve of his bruisers behind him, and thirteen of the others facing him. Each one of them could render him into something like manure, but they seem to be caught in the moment. He just holds the ball while he holds his eye on them – he is waiting for the first hint of a drop in a shoulder that might suggest a weakness in the line. If he sees it, he has a split second to move to pass to one of his own players, or to put himself in what he hopes will be a hole in the enemy line. Because of the off side rule, he has to know what is going on behind him. He therefore has to have the coolness and the antennae and play-making powers of Diesel Williams (who also had another party trick of a different order).
On the weekend I saw Thurston on TV threading a pass that shocked the commentators. They said that it was like threading a needle – while human missiles were flying all around him. After many slow motion replays, we finally caught the moment when that beautiful pair of hands released the pass backwards at the precise moment that allowed it to pierce the fray and to hit its fast moving target. The other side hardly knew what had happened, and with anyone else we would have said that it was a fluke.
Whether you prefer the grace of the hands of Thurston to those of Callas is a matter of taste, and nothing more than that, but thank God that there is still some magic left in the world to relieve us of the drab misery of the measurers and the fibbers.