Maria Callas may have been the greatest singer of any kind of the twentieth century. An opera superstar the likes of which we cannot fathom today, she was a cultural icon, beloved for her beauty, her style and her voice, a voice that almost defies description. She was also a figure of immense scrutiny - a woman whose personal life became fodder for the tabloids as much as her music was for the masses. As a woman and as an artist, she has become the stuff of legends, but legends don’t always serve their subject well. For his first film, Callas biographer Tom Volf attempts to find the soul of the legend, even when her truth proves too elusive. Using archival footage and photos never seen before, and narrated entirely from Callas’ own words, sourced from interviews, memoirs and letters, ‘Maria by Callas’ is both a stirring intimate portrait of her and a testament to how impossible it is to truly understand who she was, even to herself.
Using her 1970 television interview with David Frost as its spine, the film follows her story from her birth to Greek immigrant parents in New York in 1923, through her conservatory studies in Athens during the war, her very sudden rise to fame and her intense relationships with her mother, her first husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini and her great love affair with Aristotle Onassis, and her untimely death in 1977. We see her journey, not just through the footage, mostly caught at public events, but through her performances, a combination of televised concerts and rare pirated footage from some of the great opera houses in the world.
What sets Volf’s film apart is its insistence that Callas’ story can only be told using her own words, and this is both the film’s great weakness and its greatest strength. For those unfamiliar with Callas, there’s little context for many of the major events in her life other than what she said herself, and this makes the film hard to follow at points. This isn’t a documentary interested in providing you with a series of anecdotes and facts about Callas, and so expects a bit more from its audience than they potentially are prepared to give. I did wonder whether the film would have been stronger if it had followed a more traditional approach, talking heads giving background and discussing her legacy, similarly to the excellent ‘Whitney’ from last year. And yet, ‘Maria by Callas’ offers an opportunity that its subject never had in her own lifetime. The difficulty with Callas is that so much of her story was never told by her, instead by the men who tried to control her and the tabloid press using her to sell papers. It’s hard to tell now what is history and what is gossip, and by only using her own words, the film allows her to define her story. The film never indulges in the urban myths and her legendarily tempestuous temperament, mostly because these were things she never spoke about herself. Volf has no interest in any sensational outside of her talent. Obviously every documentary suffers from the bias of its maker, but there is a strong sense of authenticity in the portrait it tries to create of her by limiting its sources to her alone, and ultimately is a better film for it.
Callas’ voice is often a surprise, especially in the narrated extracts from her letters and memoirs read by Joyce DiDonato. What shines through is a the voice of a woman of great intelligence, articulate and passionate, but also a woman in a state of constant emotional turmoil. She is pulled between what she wants as a woman and what she wants as an artist, a family and stability and affection pitted against artistic freedom and recognition. In the section on her relationship with Onassis in particular, we find her raw and open speaking of her betrayal and abandonment with heartbreaking honesty. The hints of her legendary diva behaviour are always there, but Volf is more interested in the internal landscape of Callas, in revealing a personal side of her we’ve rarely seen.
As a documentary, it isn’t the most sophisticated piece of filmmaking, but it often doesn’t need to be. Volf knows what he has and how to use it, the Frost interview providing a perfect framework, and accentuated with wonderful footage that gives a sense of the scale of Callas’ fame, her unmatched talent as an actor and her impact on the people around her. Some lovely highlights include interviews with young gay men in New York waiting for days in line for tickets to her return to the Met, and gorgeous photos of Callas with Pasolini on the set of their film ‘Medea’ (1969).
It’s hard to tell now what is history and what is gossip, and by only using her own words, the film allows her to define her story.
And yet all of it pales in comparison to her music. Callas tells Frost that she tells the story of her life, who she is, her hopes and dreams and fears, when she sings, and Volf really embraces this sentiment. There are long stretches of the film where we simply watch Callas sing, mostly the arias she was most famous for, and they are still utterly extraordinary. Many of the arias are subtitled with English translation, but they’re almost unnecessary, because the meaning is already there in her body and her voice. There is a depth of honesty and integrity to her as a performer that puts most others of any kind to shame, and you understand not just why she was so beloved, but why she was so troubled. We are watching a woman pour all of herself into her art, an act that will elevate her to the heavens and consume all of her.
At the beginning of the film, Maria Callas says there are two sides to her: Maria, the woman, and Callas, the artist, and that she cannot be both at once. With ‘Maria by Callas’, Tom Volf attempts to unearth both of them, but what the film ultimately leads us to understand is that this is impossible. This may be partly due to its lack of an objective eye, with Volf possibly too in love with his subject, but it is also due to the inherent enigma of his subject. Maria Callas was one of the most singular artists who ever lived, a woman consumed by the art and the men she devoted her life to, and yet ultimately a master at one and so much greater than the other. For those who know nothing about her, you’ll likely walk away haunted by her ghost even if you still don’t know much about her. For those like myself though already in love with her, ‘Maria by Callas’ offers a moving, stirring and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of one of the greatest singers who has ever lived and an icon we will never completely understand.