Perhaps no one more perfectly embodied the idea of a diva, a supremely talented but haughty star chasing down her mercurial muse, than Maria Callas — and director Tom Volf’s documentary “Maria by Callas” lets us hear her story, and most importantly that amazing voice, right from her own mouth.
In his first movie, Volf exclusively uses archival footage of Callas, in interviews and performance, and recitations of her letters and memoirs (read by the American opera singer Joyce DiDonato) to chronicle the soprano’s stellar career and personal heartbreaks.
Though she’s thought of as a European star, Callas was born in New York City in 1923, the daughter of Greek emigres. It was her mother who took her back to Greece, and forced her to study music, ultimately landing with her mentor and longtime friend Elvira de Hidalgo.
Her performing career began in Greece during World War II, but it wasn’t until after the war, in 1945, that she returned to America, where she had limited success. She was aided by another mentor, Tullio Serafin, who took her back to Italy, where her career blossomed. Sold out shows at La Scala in Milan became the norm, and she came back to America to debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1956 — but a feud with the Met’s Rudolf Bing cut that relationship short.
Callas garnered a reputation for being difficult to work with. In Volf’s film, hearing about these incidents from Callas’ perspective, a different explanation emerges: Callas set high standards for her own performance, and would rather cancel than let anyone hear her when she wasn’t at her best.
“There are two people in me,” Callas told the British interviewer David Frost in 1970, in an interview that Volf uses as the movie’s narrative backbone. “I am Maria, but there is Callas that I have to live up to.”
That split is most apparent in the tabloid handling of her personal life, especially her romance with the Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis. That relationship led to heartbreak for Callas, when Onassis impetuously married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the American president, in 1968.
Volf covers those more tawdry parts of Callas’ life, but his heart is really in her performances. He blocks out long passages for a couple of Callas’ most famous arias — most notably the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen” — which she delivers with gusto. It’s in those moments of “Maria by Callas” when one realizes that she may have had a point, that great art sometimes requires sacrifice.
‘Maria by Callas’
Opened November 2 in select cities; opens Friday, December 7, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some smoking and brief language. Running time: 113 minutes. In English, and French and Italian with subtitles.