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Maria By Callas

Director: Tom Volf. Sony Pictures Classics, 113 mins. Opens November 2

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David Frost and Maria Callas in the 1970s
Courtesy of the Edmonton International Film Festival
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IN 2013, on a whim, the young photographer and filmmaker Tom Volf attended a performance of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Met starring Joyce DiDonato. Volf was so swept away by the theatrical and musical experience that he spent hours afterward on the Internet, researching Italian opera. Looking into Donizetti, Volf discovered a recording of Maria Callas singing “Spargi d’amaro pianto,” from Lucia di Lammermoor, and the soprano’s voice touched him so deeply that his focus immediately shifted from Italian opera in general to Callas specifically. 

Volf then connected with people who’d known her—visiting with them, talking about her, learning about her and gathering a wealth of documentation, including home movies, performance footage, photos and personal letters, some of which had never before been shared. The purity of Volf’s intent, the absence initially of a goal or slant, caused people (including Callas’s maid and butler, who had for years refused interviews, and to whom the film is dedicated) to open their treasure troves of Callas memorabilia and make these materials available to him. 

After amassing a great deal of Callasiana, and taking stock of what he had, the young man decided that he wanted to make the film he would have liked to see about her—not a bunch of talking heads and short clips but rather an examination of the woman and the artist told almost entirely through her own words. (The film was preceded by a stunning, extravagant coffee-table book of the same name, which accompanied the lavish Callas exhibit last year in Paris. Volf is now preparing another book, of the diva’s letters.)

When mentioning this extraordinary film to any die-hard Callas fan, the first question is inevitably, “But is there anything new?” The answer is an emphatic yes, but perhaps as much concerning context as content. Volf tries to leave the viewer with the feeling of having come in contact with Callas through her thoughts, emotions and art by stripping away the biographical throughline and letting her demonstrate who she was by what she said, how she behaved and mostly how she sang. 

There’s some previously unseen footage but most of it was available previously, yet the artistry in Volf’s construction enables the film to transcend previous attempts—even those that focused, as this one does, on using her own words. Volf’s connective tissue is Callas’s TV interview with David Frost in 1970, in which she discusses her two selves—Maria the woman and Callas the diva. He uses clips from this interview throughout the movie as reference points, and it works brilliantly. Even the fact that all his efforts to find a crisp copy of the video resulted only in a slightly murky dub worked out for the best; the soft focus through which Callas’s meaningful facial tics and frank words emerge lends a dreamlike quality pierced by her penetrating intensity—very much in the past, and very present.

 

The film begins with 8mm, home-movie-style clips of Callas in her only outing as Madama Butterfly—a few performances in Chicago, in 1955. She’s riveting, even though the footage was shot silently, underscored here by a recording of her Butterfly. (None of her Chicago performances were audio recorded.) Throughout the film, there are tantalizing clips of Callas backstage, or onstage, many not seen before, causing one to wish that video documentation were not so scarce in those days. Callas was one of the most recorded opera singers of the twentieth century; it was through her singing that her art came to life, and through her recordings that it still reaches so many today. But the combination of her visual allure, intense commitment, vocal and textual individuality and just plain beauty makes filmed excerpts particularly thrilling. 

Here, Volf has veered from the documentary norm again: he has chosen to colorize some selections well-known to Callas fans—her Paris debut concert, her Covent Garden Tosca, the habanera from a concert at the Royal Opera. But the colorization is so well-done that it adds immediacy; it’s not at all garish. And Volf has chosen to play these and other excerpts in their entireties, giving the diva the time to fully express what’s there.

The idea of having virtually all the spoken text in Callas’s own words meant leaving some information out. Yet the result is more vivid than a conventional documentary. When not taken from interviews in Callas’s own voice, the words are from intimate letters, read by Joyce DiDonato with simplicity, dignity and restrained emotion.

For those of us who were fortunate enough to be involved in the Callas comeback (and ultimately farewell) Toscas in 1965 at the Met, there’s more footage than previously seen of us camping out (for three days and two nights) on the street in front of the old Met for standing-room tickets, as well as of our outing to JFK airport to greet her—and make sure she actually arrived! It is, in fact, only interviews with a few standees on the line, and one with Callas’s teacher and mentor Elvira de Hidalgo, that veer from the stricture of using only the diva’s own words. But these two variations lend context in a way that enhances the portrait without disturbing the concept.    

Two topics that loom large in the Callas legend are “The Rome Walkout,” as her cancellation during a performance of Norma in 1958 has come to be called, and her long relationship with Aristotle Onassis. Both are treated with delicacy, respect and insight by the filmmaker. Both also have a sense of grand tragedy. It’s interesting to compare the cruelty with which Callas was treated when she was forced to discontinue a Norma due to bronchitis in Rome with how sympathetic the audience was eight years later when she was unable to complete the same opera in Paris due to general weakness. Timing is everything, and it’s one of the saddest aspects of the life of this artist that the public’s appreciation of her genius came fully only when she could no longer deliver with her voice and body what her brilliance intended. 

Volf is kind to Callas in small ways as well, repairing an unfocused high E-natural in a “live” Vespri Siciliani “Bolero” and removing the crack from the high C in a Macbeth aria. Kindest of all, perhaps, is the omission of any of the audio from her rather sad final recitals with Giuseppe di Stefano. One has to believe that Callas would have approved of that choice. 

Callas, being Greek, believed in fate. It was her fate to be two beings—the woman and the artist. Both lives were filled with joy, triumph, infinite sadness, disappointment and loss. Ultimately, Volf’s greatest achievement is letting the woman and the artist convey all this to us herself.  —Ira Siff 



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