Maria by Callas

Directed by Tom Volf, Maria by Callas examines the life and art of one of the twentieth century’s greatest opera singers, Maria Callas.  Through archival footage of Callas on stage, her personal correspondence to friends, and interviews with the singer recorder at various points throughout her career, the film attempts to show the personal, intimate side of a woman that was the subject of much media attention during her lifetime.

One of the most fascinating part of this documentary, for me, was the portrayal of Callas’ relationship with Aristotle Onassis, a Greek businessman probably best known today for marrying Jacqueline Kennedy after JFK’s assassination.  In many ways, Maria by Callas shows what hasn’t changed in half a century about being a woman in the public spotlight: we see Callas hounded by reporters as she lands in the United States for a performance, all of them asking about her relationship with Onassis, none of them concerned with her art.  It’s an angle that I wish the film had explored in more depth, but instead the central focus is on Callas’ relationship with opera itself.  What is revealed, for those that have the patience to wait for it, is the portrait of a woman forced into the spotlight – first by her mother and then by her husband.  A woman who loves to sing, but who hates the pressure of fame and performance.

In the archival footage of her on stage, it is easy to see what made Callas such a success.  She has a magnetic presence.

My own opinion on opera is rather neutral: I can appreciate it, but I can’t say that I seek it out.  Nonetheless, Callas is amazing to see.  What is especially impressive is that Callas seems at her most charismatic later in life, after her voice is no longer at its best.  The deterioration of Callas’ voice is a famous part of her story, with many speculating over the years about what may have caused it to fail her.  Maria by Callas hardly mentions Callas’ problems with her voice and doesn’t contextualize much of the physical and mental exhaustion that she experienced in her final years.  As such, audiences who aren’t familiar with her story won’t have a clear picture of why her achievements are so impressive, or her failures so heartbreaking.

In fact, there isn’t much context provided at all for the footage that appears in this documentary.  While there is something to be said for letting Callas’ words and music stand for themselves, I wonder if audiences who are unfamiliar with Callas’ will find much of value or interest in the film.

The bottom line is this: if you are already a fan of Callas, or of opera in general, you will likely enjoy this documentary, but if the idea of spending an evening at a performance of Puccini bores you to tears, Maria by Callas isn’t going to be your cup of tea.


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