Before I saw “Maria By Callas,” I knew only that Maria Callas was once the definition of diva, in both the positive and negative senses of the word: a stunning operatic singer unmatched by any other at the height of her career, in the 1960s, and a tempestuous sort given to canceling performances and playing out her many conflicts in the press.
And I vaguely remembered that she’d been involved with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis just before his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy.
After seeing Tom Volf’s uniquely constructed documentary, I’ve learned that all of the above is true — but there’s a context for her diva behavior, and her life with Onassis was both painful and happy, and carried on after his marriage.
That view, and everything else in the two-hour film, comes from Callas' point of view. Volf, over four years, assembled the documentary in her own words, taking audio and video pieces from television interviews, most notably with David Frost and Barbara Walters, recordings of press conferences and passages from her letters to friends and unpublished memoirs, read by Joyce DiDonato, one of contemporary opera’s biggest stars.
What emerges through those elements and snippets of home movies is a classic story of a Greek American woman who grew up in New York, spent World War II in Greece and was pushed into a performing career by an overbearing mother.
Manipulated by her husband to keep singing when she would have preferred to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, Callas was misunderstood by an unforgiving public after her 1958 “Rome cancellation.”
Cancelling that performance led to her tempestuous reputation. But, as she explains, she didn’t refuse to sing, she had bronchitis and couldn’t go on. Even her feud with Rudolph Bing, which got her fired from the Metropolitan Opera, has a sensible explanation. So maybe she wasn’t a negative diva after all.
But Callas certainly was the positive diva, and that’s vividly demonstrated via recordings of her most important arias, presented in full, often accompanied by film of the performance of the opera involved.
Those arias, arranged to reflect the period of her life in which they are played, include a stunning “Casta Diva” from “Noma,” “Love is a Rebellious Bird” from “Carmen,” and “I Lived for Art, I Lived for Love” from “Tosca” — all familiar enough to the general listener that Callas’ performance can be heard for spectacular bel canto technique, dramatic interpretation and emotional brilliance.
As for her relationship with Onassis, the film reveals a friendship turning into love that was betrayed without a word, then becomes a friendship again — which could be a movie in itself.
Callas died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1977. So, beyond her reputation, she’s becoming lost to the sands of history. “Maria By Callas” reverses that, bringing her back to full view in full voice, showing the woman behind the diva and her legendary singing.