By Liam Lacey
An eccentric, if appealingly personal documentary, Maria by Callas, offers a portrait of the later superstar opera singer entirely in her own words – via TV interviews, diary entries and letters read by an off-screen performer (opera singer Joyce DiDonato).
The up-close approach provides viewers to experience the full wattage of Callas’s beauty and charisma, in home movies, press scrums and particularly in clips from a 1970 David Frost interview. That interview was long believed to be lost, until a videotaped copy was found in the collection of Callas’ former butler. Assembled by first-time French director and Callas devotee Thomas Volf, this adoring clip reel has both pros and cons.
Callas, was born to a Greek-American family in New York in 1923, who then moved back to their home country before the Second World War. She trained in Greece and later Italy, where she became a star in the 1940s. In the 1950s, her fame became worldwide as her revered vocal technique, acting skill and beauty (and a scandalous extra-marital affair with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis) established her as the most famous opera singer of the century.
Most of Callas’s fans today won’t have seen her live and none of her opera performances were recorded on film in their entirety. The business of resurrecting Callas, who died in 1977 at the age of 53, has become a form of cultural necromancy. Along with the books, documentaries and steady stream of posthumous recordings, there was Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, Master Class and Franco Zeffirelli’s 2002 feature film, Callas Forever (starring Fanny Ardant). And currently, there’s a world-wide concert tour featuring a hologram of Callas performing to pre-recorded music.
One of the problems of Volf’s “in her own words” approach is that it makes for a very elliptical biography. We don’t get a lot of back-story. Instead, we get a lot of soundtrack and scenes of Callas arriving at airports, looking devastatingly glamorous in her Kohl-eye makeup and fur stoles, as she meets a press throng and grants on-the-fly interviews to the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Barbara Walters.
There’s a sense here that Volf wants Callas speak for herself as a corrective to the myth of the demanding diva. But for those of us not steeped in her history, the defense lacks context. We see little about her marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini and nothing about her dramatic weight loss in her early thirties from about 200 to 120 pounds (which launched an ongoing debate about how her weight loss affected her voice).
In one interview, Callas refers to stopping performance because of health issues, though the nature of those issues is not mentioned. (In her later years, she was treated for dermatomyositis, a disease which causes muscle and tissue failure and may have caused her vocal deterioration; the treatment may have led to the heart attack that killed her.)
The most intimate of the conversations is the Frost interview, which is thread throughout the film. Callas comes across as a sympathetic figure, highly intelligent, personally self-deprecating but artistically uncompromising. She describes how she compartmentalizes herself into Maria, a shy homebody, and Callas, the intense Artist, although she says "If someone really tries to listen to me, he will find all myself there."
The years and dates of the soundtrack and filmed performances aren’t always clearly identified onscreen, which can be frustrating of those of us who have not internalized Callas’s career history.
Among the milestones, we do see her 1958 Paris Opera debut, performing the famously demanding Casta Diva aria from one of her signature roles as the druidic priestess in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. Also memorable is a concert performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen-Habanera, where Callas performs, not in the character of the Andalusian femme fatale, but as an adored performer reveling in her talent and flirting with her audience.
At least on one level Maria on Callas succeeds admirably: It leaves you wanting more.
Maria by Callas. Directed by Thomas Volf. Maria By Callas can be seen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.