Maria Callas had the voice of an angel. Famed conductor Leonard Bernstein—who might be the one modern figure in classical music everyone can name, thanks to R.E.M.—once called her “pure electricity,” but even that feels understated. Hers was a voice that demanded attention and commanded reverence. She was a diva in the truest sense, garnering a reputation for “tempestuousness” and difficulty that made wonderful fodder for the tabloid press of the era.
No matter how high she climbed in her career, no matter what her accomplishments, she seemed to know that the public and press would view her as they wanted, and so she dismissed it. She knew what she was worth, and she knew what she was. That, of course, only added to the perception many already held, but she, like so many stars and starlets today, let it bounce of her, continuing her track to operatic godhood that led to her being dubbed La Divina.
Of course, it’s always more complex than what we see in the press or what our perceptions tell us. Behind the image and the talent there always lies a person. Director Tom Volf explores the depths of Callas the person in his debut film, the documentary Maria By Callas. Using archival footage from her performances, her interviews, and her personal life, Volf paints an endearing portrait of an artist who strived for perfection and worked hard to achieve it, as well as the woman behind the image.
Callas herself spoke on this dichotomy, telling an interviewer that she views herself as two people—Maria, a regular woman who mourned the loss of a regular life and who sought it where she could, and Callas, the artist from whom fans and press expected nothing less than operatic divinity. Volf explores this in his film, using Callas’s words, spoken by modern day opera star Joyce DiDonato, in letters and writings to examine who both Maria and Callas were.
What emerges is a stunningly intimate film that allows Callas to be reborn for a new generation of audiences. It takes us through her childhood and the overbearing demands of her mother that made her the star she was, through her training in Greece, her legendary rivalries, and her relationship with Aristotle Onassis. Even with all the scandal that followed her throughout her life, Volf chooses to let her work speak largely for itself. Maria By Callas is rife with soul stirring arias and classical vocal works sung in Callas’s distinctive soprano.
It’s easy to get lost in the sultry silkiness of her voice, regardless your familiarity with opera or classical. Volf allows the film to showcase several of her most important aria performances in their entirety, giving the audience a chance to experience Callas as an artist, while telling the story of Maria the woman. She remains magnetic to watch even 40 years since her death, and it’s easy to see the attraction of her legendary presence. Rather than slowing the momentum to the film, these moments allow us deeper insight in the complexity of her character.
They also serve as necessary touchstones through the various phases of her life, offering emotional cues about where she was as a person at any given point. It’s the perfect balance of artist and person that so many musical documentaries have strived for and so few have achieved.
Whether you’re into classical music and opera or not, Maria By Callas offers an insightful look at the dichotomy of art and artist that’s worth looking into. Fans of opera, of course, will have plenty to latch on to musically, with the soul stirring voice of Callas as your guide. Newcomers might be put off, but there’s also the extreme likelihood of being pulled into a world that, these days, is hard to enter. Either way, Maria By Callas is a fascinating documentary that paints a portrait of art like never before.
Maria By Callas is now playing in select theaters.