Maria by Callas
2018, PG, 113 min. Directed by Tom Volf. Voice by Joyce DiDonato.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 30, 2018
Tom Volf’s documentary about the opera singer Maria Callas (1923-1977) aims to rectify the world-acclaimed soprano’s scandal-ridden reputation. Long identified in the popular imagination as a tempestuous diva, Callas proved to be a lightning rod for controversy throughout her career, her most dominant years being the Fifties and Sixties. Her talent was undeniable, yet her offstage life remained a favorite subject for the paparazzi, gossip, and legions of adoring fans. Her personal life began to take on an operatic sheen, complete with emotional highs and lows. Most of the scandals were sourced in the internecine opera world, although Callas’ choices made frequent newspaper headlines. Viewers not of the opera world may only recognize Callas as the lover of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who impolitely threw Callas overboard when he married the famous American widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, only to resume the affair clandestinely despite his marriage.
Maria by Callas is not the place to look if you’re in search of a biography of the star. Using archival material, the filmmaker presents Callas in her own words. A recurring image is that of Callas on the tarmac, boarding or disembarking an airplane while holding roses and fending off (or encouraging) the photographers’ bulbs and the reporters’ questions. Recorded interviews, especially a lengthy one conducted by David Frost, present the woman in her own words (and in cases where there are only letters and other written notes, the opera singer Joyce DiDonato reads Callas’ thoughts). Several arias are presented in their entirety, allowing the viewer to appreciate and evaluate the singer’s talent, but nowhere do any music scholars or critics appear onscreen to elucidate Callas’ unique talent for those not already in the know. Home movies and playbills are shown (Super-8 films are presented with their sprocket holes preciously visible, appealing, I suspect, to no one except Volf, a photographer-turned-first-time feature filmmaker). We witness the arc of Callas’ career, but no speakers are on hand to place the work into context. We see the diva’s body weight change dramatically early in her career (a topic never touched on in the film, nor her detractors’ claim that the weight loss damaged her voice). Volf has either determined that certain things do not matter or that his audience is already familiar with the outlines of his subject’s career and imbroglios.
What is not touched on is a re-examination of Callas’ career in terms of modern feminism. Oftentimes in interviews, Callas refers to women’s necessity of finding fulfillment in either career or motherhood. One path had to be foresworn for the other. She chose career, and I wonder if some of the midcentury resentment toward her had to do with her strong sense of purpose. She always knew how and what she wanted to perform and how to conduct her business affairs. It caused Rudolf Bing, the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, to call her “impossible” before severing her contract with the organization. To the film’s credit, Volf shows Callas lucidly explaining why she selected not to comply with Bing’s artistic demands. Likewise, Callas is given full range to explain the illnesses behind her aborted performances, which were some of what gave rise to her volatile reputation.
I submit that the material in Maria by Callas unintentionally makes a case for Callas as a strong-willed, self-directed, confident artist, and the best person to command her career. Volf strives to present material that will absolve the diva of her scandals while presenting her side of the story, but what he hints at instead is a tantalizing portrait of a world-renowned female artist forging her place in a male-defined world.