‘Maria by Callas’ bursts with celebration and heartbreak

“Maria by Callas” – “There are two people in me.  I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas that I have to live up to.” – Maria Callas, 1970

Before Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Madonna, there was Maria Callas.  Callas, who passed away in 1977, is considered one of the best, if not the premier, opera singers of the 20th century, and with her larger than life persona and massive talent, she was also known as La Divina.

Director Tom Volf’s directorial debut is nothing short of divine, as his documentary embraces this legendary soprano’s life.  As one would expect, the film is packed with Callas’ performances, interviews, b-roll clips, and photos, and is filled with her own words.  Opera singer Joyce DiDonato narrates the picture by referencing and reading Callas’ memoirs and letters.  Quite frankly, DiDonato and Callas sound nearly identical, so the film feels like La Divina directly collaborated with Volf from beyond the grave throughout the 1-hour 53-minute runtime.

For those who cherished her career during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, but had little insight into her personal life, “Maria by Callas” shines a bright light into her vulnerabilities, thoughts, dreams, loves (including her relationship with Aristotle Onanais), and the price of fame.  For newcomers, Volf’s doc is a rich and layered invitation to explore.

An intimate portrait through and through, the picture is framed with a highly-revealing David Frost 1970 interview.

Volf begins his film with a portion of this television interview and frequently returns to it about every 20 minutes.  Here, Callas opens up and is devastatingly frank.  She offers countless examples of her clarity on her own youth and reveals an undertow of sadness due to her highly visible vocation gobbling up any sense of a normal, healthy personal life.  A trade-off, but not always a happy one, especially when she was pushed into opera at a young age.  In some ways, she felt trapped.

“Destiny is destiny.  There’s no way out,” she says.

Callas is very open and forthright, like she was speaking to her best friend, but with absolute grace and professionalism.   As fascinating as the contents of the Frost-Callas discussion are, it is substantially more remarkable that Volf has the televised conversation in the first place.

During a 2018 Toronto International Film Festival Q&A, he explains, “It actually aired only once in 1970.  It was not recorded (by the station).  It was not preserved, so there was not even a trace of it…(but) one of her friends preserved it in the way (that) they did back in the day.  He actually filmed the television with his Super 8 camera, and he had a real tape recorder for the sound, because of course, super 8 cameras don’t have sound recording.”

DiDonato’s narration, of course, is infinitely important to the film, but Frost’s conversation with Maria is the film’s launching pad and foundation.  Whenever the movie swings into her remarkable bel canto or verismo performances, joyous triumphs or occasional troubles (like the infamous 1958 Rome concert), Volf then refers back to the aforementioned interview.

In addition to admissions and heartbreaks, Volf’s picture bursts with lengthy on-stage moments – including her return to New York City – and enormous swathes of adoration from her fans from all over the planet.  “Maria by Callas” is a cherished treasure, and a personal and global look at this landmark figure, which indeed offers both sides, Maria and Callas.

⭐⭐⭐1/2  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Sony Pictures Classics; Clip credits: TIFF Talks

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