Film and TV

Maria by Callas Strips an Opera Great of Her Agency

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Greek-American opera diva Maria Callas is the subject of Maria by Callas, the documentary in which director Tom Volf points out that she regularly prayed for the strength to weather any challenges with which God may have presented her.
The frustrating doc Maria by Callas reduces Greek-American opera diva Maria Callas to a misunderstood celebrity who devoted herself to a calling and a lover that never gave as much to her as she did to them. Director Tom Volf makes his rickety case for Callas as a tragic figure by cherry-picking quotes from a variety of Callas interviews and documents, focusing primarily on paparazzi footage, private letters and Callas’s unpublished memoirs.

Clips of Callas singing some of her most famous arias are purported to speak to Callas’s disappointment with bad reviews and persistent gossip about her affair with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Volf claims in the film’s press notes that the melancholic “Vissi d’arte” aria from La Traviata, its refrain translating to “I lived for art, I lived for love,” actually “summarizes [Callas’s] whole existence.” Volf unconvincingly presents Callas — a commanding performer who also famously had a Patti LuPone-sized ego — as a passive martyr.

Volf supports his interpretation of Callas’s personality with sound bites from her understandably guarded televised appearances, all of which devolve into terse discussions about her years-long romance with Onassis (before and after his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). In these clips, Callas talks about how she had to choose between a career as a singer and a more traditional life as a wife (she repeatedly says that she could not successfully be both).

Volf’s Callas also suggests that “destiny” chose an irresistible path for her (“Destiny is destiny”) and later adds that she regularly prayed for the strength to weather any challenges with which God may have presented her. Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini also inadvertently denies Callas’s agency when he says that she likes to work so much that “living life” was only a secondary priority for her. Rare footage of Callas snorkeling in Turkey shows her smiling while “living life” after filming Pasolini’s 1969 version of Medea, a demanding non-singing performance that kicked off Callas’s brief respite from opera (from about 1969 to 1971).

But Volf’s film tellingly never mentions that Callas’s decision to stop performing — and blow off several engagements and contracts with major opera companies — was because she, by her own admission, was embarrassed by her thinning voice. (During the second half of her career, Callas’s voice famously wobbled on the high notes.) Volf also never acknowledges that Callas worked herself to exhaustion throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. For example, when Callas performed at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 1948, she took less than a week to learn the demanding role of I Puritani’s doomed heroine Elvira, just five days after starring as Die Walküre’s hawkish Brünnhilde.

Volf’s refusal to address key choices that Callas made to shape her own career and fight her insecurities suggests that he’d prefer to imagine Callas as a victim of fate — and bronchitis, fame, Onassis, etc. — instead of a strong-willed but human prima donna.