Film Review: Maria By Callas

“Temperamental” Diva Defends Her Controversial Life In Deeply Personal Documentary

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Maria By Callas
La Callas herself
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Maria Callas isn’t exactly a household name these days. She is, nonetheless, considered one of the most talented and influential opera singers of the 20th century—despite the fact that her brief and incendiary career barely extended before or after the ’50s. Few modern Americans are at all versed in the art of opera seria. But the popularity of the art form hit a peak a few generations back, thrusting Callas into the position of media darling of mid-century America. Though her star has faded in the intervening decades, rabid devotees of the cult of “La Callas” continue to sing the praises of the legendary soprano.

Maria By Callas attempts to illuminate the singer’s controversial life and career, relying entirely on the words of the diva herself to set the stage. In an introductory interview segment, recorded alongside David Frost in 1970, the subject delineates a separation between “Maria” the ordinary woman and “Callas” the world-famous diva—hence, the film’s title. Through old TV interviews, archival film footage and the woman’s own letters and diaries (read, in voice-over, by legendary French actress Fanny Ardant), Maria Callas tries to shed light on “Maria Callas.”

As a documentary,
Maria By Callas is in no hurry to bang out the biographical details. Maria, in both public and private, is reluctant to talk about her life. We gather, over the course of the film, that her childhood was all-too-brief and that her relationship with her parents was strained. (In fact, she refused to speak with her mother in later life.) Despite her preternatural vocal talent, she blames her mother and (later) her husband for forcing a singing career on her. Throughout the years, she consistently disdains the spotlight and yearns for the simple life of a wife and mother—a reality forever denied to her.

Surrounding Callas’ words are reels of archival footage, shot on 16mm and documenting some of her most famed performances. First-time director Tom Volf tweaks some of these archival images, putting fake film sprockets on them and dialing up the grain. It’s a somewhat contrived attempt to jazz up the old footage. But it does give the film a certain vintage style. These arias—from Verdi, Puccini, Bizet—are presented in their entirety. It’s a decision that will certainly please fans, but may turn off the more opera averse. Still, there is great profundity in the words of these classic arias. Singing so powerfully as Carmen or Madam Butterfly, Callas clearly “feels” the emotions of the characters and takes them to heart. That was among her most evident gifts. And her voice—even broadcast in this crude, mechanical medium of film—is enough to send a chill down your spine.

Decades after her death, Callas still comes across on screen as lovely, charming, well-spoken and fiercely talented. Her toothy, Julia Roberts smile (that famous “
gran buche” as one of her teachers dubs it) is still mesmerizing. Callas’ charisma and skills on stage, however, are consistently overshadowed by her feuds with other performers, her cancellations of performances on a moment’s notice and her scandalous private life. She was a favorite target of the early tabloid press, who delighted in hounding her every move. And she blames nearly every trouble in her life on their blinding flashbulbs and poison words.

Callas claims, on a number of occasions, a total lack of understanding as to why she might ever be labeled “tempestuous.” And honestly, it’s hard to get a clear handle on the film’s subject, since it’s all told entirely from her perspective. Volf turns to no other subjects—friends, colleagues, teachers—to provide a three-dimensional viewpoint. In interviews, Callas seems calm and gracious. Surely, behind the scenes, she was
some kind of trouble. Rudolph Bing, general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, didn’t ban her from the Met for no reason. Her rivalry with Italian lirico-spinto soprano Renata Tebaldi (entirely unmentioned here) was well known. Callas’ lifelong love affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (even after he married Jackie Kennedy) was also pure catnip to the scandal rags. How could she have expected otherwise?

Callas’ comments about career and motherhood do feel a bit outdated. But her own personal sadness about being forced into the spotlight rings true. And her relationship with Onassis (divorce laws at the time made it virtually impossible to leave her husband) does seem to lend genuine joy to her life. Devoted to his riches and his life of leisure, Onassis encourages Callas to simply do whatever her heart desires. She doesn’t “owe” the public anything. After hooking up with Onassis, she quits opera entirely and pledges to “learn to love my art by desiring it.” The break seems to do her good. Footage of her in the ’60s performing the aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from
Carmen is simply joyous. Before that, her singing was technically perfect. In that moment, it feels infused with genuine passion as well.

Sadly, the moment of triumph is short-lived. Callas seemed pathologically unable to live a life free of pain, heartbreak and scandal. But then Callas’ unconventional love affairs, her stormy career and her cavalcade of illnesses are some of the very reasons she’s become such an iconic artistic martyr. (Not unlike Frida Kahlo.) Volf’s devotion to and adoration of Maria Callas is never in question. Though it’s a decidedly one-sided defense,
Maria By Callas does finally allow the diva to speak for herself—and her voice, undiminished by time and changing tastes, remains a most powerful weapon.
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