Maria By Callas. Directed by Tom Volf. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
“I would like to be Maria but there is the Callas that I have to live up to.”
That notion of a duality within opera legend Maria Callas is presented by the artist herself in a revelatory interview with David Frost, in which she speaks about her responsibility to her audience and the heavy burden imposed by her gift versus the desire to lead a normal life.
Director Tom Volf uses the 1970 televised interview as the anchor for his new film, Maria By Callas, a documentary composed entirely of archival footage, home movies and behind-the-scenes performance film reels.
Volf never thought he would spend five years of his life crafting a film about a famous – and infamous – opera singer. In fact, he knew nothing about opera when he “bought a ticket on a whim” and wandered into a performance of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Met in 2013. “It was my first revelation, shall we say, of falling in love with opera,” he says, speaking by phone from Paris. He went home and devoured everything he could online which, of course, led him to Maria Callas: “And she opened the door for me.”
Despite finding himself “a little bit in love,” Volf was disappointed that the information he gleaned from his Internet searches didn’t give him a true sense of who Callas was, of the woman behind the legend.
Legend indeed: it seems a tragedy that Callas is at least as well known nowadays for being the woman Aristotle Onassis threw over in order to marry former First Lady Jackie Kennedy as for her iconic voice. She was known as a consummate performer but a temperamental artist, nicknamed “the Tigress”, and caused near-riots wherever she went.
“I think I made the film firstly for her because I felt that after so many years and so many untruths said about her, I needed to tell of her truth and generosity, not a life of being called a diva,” Volf says.
Thus the decision to tell the story without subjective interviews and opinions, without lauding praise and speculation. The journey to source some of the never-before-seen material could’ve been a film unto itself: “I could’ve called the film ‘In Search of Maria’!” Volf jokes. There were three years spent looking for clues, trying to get in touch with the people close to Callas, then a secondary quest to track down additional material in order to rebuild the story entirely of archival footage. It took Volf all over Europe, across America, and as far as Australia and Brazil. “It really showed me how she is still resonant in all countries, among different ages and backgrounds. She could reach everyone.”
To edit a film completely without additional voiceovers, to piece together all those scattered pieces of a puzzle and to articulate them a story was a challenge: there would be footage and no audio, or personal letters and no footage. When it came time to add a voice to Maria’s personal letters – to Princess Grace of Monaco, for one – Volf turned to Joyce DiDonato, the woman who had first inspired him with her performance at the Met. (“A dream,” he says.)
The challenge of working with footage and recordings more than half a century old was “like climbing Mt. Everest,” according to Volf. Segments had to be digitized and converted to HD in order to make the film feel modern and “not like a dusty old reel.” The result? You see every gesture and facial expression as Callas brings her characters to life in performances like “Casta Diva” from her Norma Paris debut, or “Love is a Rebellious Bird” from Carmen. “Bringing her operatic performances on the big screen is really about bringing people as close as possible to the experience of being in the opera house,” Volf says, “I wanted to allow people to experience the electricity of having her right in front of you.”
Callas was a Greek-American born in New York City. When her parents split in her teens, Maria lied about her age (13) in order to be admitted to a famed conservatory in Athens. In interviews she talks of being forced into performing by her mother, and later by husband Giovanni Meneghini. She became a star in Italy and beyond, as well as a major style icon (Valentino did a show devoted to Callas at this year’s Paris fashion week).
We tend to think of paparazzi as a modern invention but Volf’s film proves otherwise, with Callas in a scrum of cameras and reporters every time she steps off a plane or from a car. “At that time there were no boundaries and she didn’t have proper security, it was extreme,” Volf says. “It was important for me to convey a feeling of her not having free room, of being harassed. I think it explains a lot about the duality between Maria and Callas, and how she was prevented from living a normal life.”
She laments her lack of motherhood and a home of her own in that Frost interview: “Destiny is destiny. There’s no way out,” she says. Most viewers will be watching the interview for the first time: it was long believed lost but an old friend of Callas’ had a copy. “It’s much more than an interview,” says Volf, “it’s more of a confession – She’s so fragile and vulnerable, much more Maria than Callas, that’s why it’s so touching.”
Volf was 28 when he discovered opera and Callas, and he felt a mission to introduce the primadonna to a new generation of viewers: for teenagers, for people who don’t necessarily go to opera. He says he frequently gets messages on social media thanking him for introducing them to the singer. “The goal was sharing, it was definitely not for myself.”
And what would the director say to Maria if he had the chance? “Probably just two words, ‘thank you.’ Thank you for choosing me. That’s how I feel.”