Review: Maria By Callas

I’ve attended more opera in the last year than I have in all my years of attending theater (and that’s a lot of years!). Thanks to my in over at Third Coast Review, I’ve been able to see several productions at Chicago’s acclaimed Lyric Opera, and I’m always impressed by the grand scale of it all. From the lavish sets to the talented performers to the music and melodies that have endured for decades (if not centuries), it’s all quite an affair to behold.

No one quite embodies the grandeur of the contemporary opera stage more than Maria Callas, the soprano who remains so popular today that even non-opera fans know the name. Opera fan or not, a new documentary allows Callas to tell her own story. Through archival interviews and personal letters (read by Fanny Ardant) intertwined with footage from some of her most famous performances, Maria By Callas is a captivating examination of breathtaking talent, healthy ego and even the inescapable heartache that comes with living a full life.

Born in 1923 in New York to Greek immigrant parents, Callas was sent at a young age to a music conservatory back in Greece where her talent was cultivated and her career got its start. By the 1950s, she’d headlined in all the major operas in Italy; the next decade would be marked by debuts in New York, Argentina, Chicago, and all around the world, as the world discovered her stellar voice and fresh approach to the art form. Her fame rose in kind, and soon she was as much a draw in the tabloids and she was in the opera houses. As the media hankered for a story, she managed to oblige—intentionally or otherwise—as her love life, her temperament and her performances garnered headline after headline.

In his directorial debut, photographer Tom Volf brings his keen eye for framing a message to creating a solid narrative momentum for a film that’s essentially all footage and dialogue that already exists. His work here is in assembling it all in such a way that Callas remains the central focus, while offering insight into both the realities of her unrelenting professional demands and the emotional toll of a life lived out in the public eye. If the credits at the end of the film are any indication, Volf spent the bulk of his time researching and uncovering mountains of footage and photos from her life. Home movies and candid snapshots live comfortably alongside interview footage from her interactions with the press that spanned decades. 

It all harkens to a bygone era, Callas with her perfect cat eye (seriously, perfect in every frame) stepping off a plane onto a tarmac teaming with a throng of eager journalists and a bevy of flashing camera bulbs. Or on a yacht with her posh social circle, soaking up the Mediterranean sun as boats of paparazzi float by determined to get their shot. Or emerging on stage in a stunning red gown, taking up her spot at the center to perform as effortlessly as a trained runner sets off for a marathon. In between recounting the most significant milestones in Callas’s life, it’s easy to get lost in the arias Volf allows to play out in full (the lyrics graciously subtitled for us philistines who don’t follow opera); in fact, I highly recommend it. Decades may pass, but Callas remains a singularly superb voice worthy of reverence. 

By the 1970s, Callas couldn’t have known she was entering her last decade. She still hadn’t recovered from being publicly sidelined by her longtime love Aristotle Onassis so he could marry the world’s most famous widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. But she was resilient, performing a “comeback” show in the U.S. and even traveling to Asia for a series of recitals. But a mind and body put through so much for so long can’t sustain, and Callas died of a heart attack in her Paris apartment in 1977.

For those of us far too young to have ever heard La Divina perform, Maria By Callas offers a more than sufficient second-best option. The segments featuring her performances are exceptional, and with the additional context of her life experiences in her own words, the film is an engaging portrait of a multidimensional woman.