Maria by Callas
The soprano Maria Callas was mostly revered by opera-lovers — a reputation that continues in posterity — but in some quarters she was reviled, which adds spice to director Tom Volf’s bio-documentary The film’s predominant voice is that of Callas herself, either through extended interview footage (with Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters, and others) or through her letters and diaries (as intoned by opera singer Joyce DiDonato). To hear Callas speak is in itself instructive. You could imagine that her unique, overenunciated accent derived from a youth spent in both her native New York and Greece; but as it grows more pronounced with passing years, it seems increasingly part of the exotic fantasy persona she curated for herself.
The interview segments of the film seem similarly contrived, and only the most ingenuous viewer would consider taking her words, or her studied naiveté, at face value. Often she spouts platitudes about art, but one wishes her interlocutors had pressed her to be more specific. Her comments frequently turn out to be arias in self-pity: “I would have preferred to have a happy family and have children. I think that is the main vocation of a woman. But destiny brought me into this career. I couldn’t get out. I was forced into it quite frequently, first by my mother, then by my husband. I would have given it up with pleasure. But destiny is destiny, and there’s no way out.”
The husband to which she was referring was her first, the industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who preceded the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, whom she ceded to Jacqueline Kennedy. Notwithstanding the adoring crowds, the billowing floral bouquets, and the succession of Rolls-Royces, Callas depicts herself as a fragile soul who was unjustly victimized. She laments that, after bailing out midway through a 1958 performance of in Rome, she was shocked by “the wave of violence and cruelty that would be unleashed upon me. … They made me pay dearly for my success.”
Although the storyline largely traces Callas’ celebrity, Volf also includes extended film takes of her stage performances, warts and all. They have been colorized with sensitivity, such that footage famous to opera aficionados becomes more vivid: for example, Callas in her deep red, gold-trimmed gown (designed by Marcel Escoffier) in Zefferelli’s 1964
production at Covent Garden. Some dicey singing emerges along the way — sustained high notes going wayward, vocal wobble in the later years — but these unhurried segments afford occasional glimpses of the dramatic commitment that earned Callas her stardom. — James M. Keller