Was Maria Callas, one of the most famous dramatic coloratura sopranos of all time, a diva both on and off stage? Was she more famous for her voice or for her affair with the mega-rich Aristotle Onassis? Who is better to answer these and related questions than Maria Callas herself.
MARIA B Y CALLAS is an intimate look at the life of the legendary Greek-American opera singer completely in her own words.
Whilst she died in 1977 aged 53, this documentary film reminds us that her voice was truly remarkable and that the media hounding ensured that the public thought of her as a diva. The documentary is a chronological collection of interviews, performances, home movies, photographs, letters and unpublished memoirs from Callas.
The movie reveals the tussle between Maria, the ‘normal’ female desiring a ‘normal’ family life with children, and ‘Callas’ the international opera star who must please and appease audiences and the press. She collected recipes but never got round to making the dishes. Whilst having been married once and having a long public affair with Aristotle Onassis, she admits that destiny called her to be a diva and therefore motherhood was denied.
Her mother led her to music and singing and from the age of 8 tried to set her on the path to stardom. Maria lied about her age to enter the Athens Conservatorium, entering as a 13 year old pretending to be 17. It is her first opera singing teacher at the Athens Conservatorium, Spanish soprano, Elvira de Hidalgo, who receives a lifetime of correspondence from Maria. We associate through her with the rich, famous and titled celebrities of the era. Grace Kelly gives her solace as a co-sufferer of talent, celebrity and the press.
No singer is faultless, and top performers are often hard on themselves and on others. These high standards may reflect the ‘Diva’ behaviour label, but the film does not harshly judge Callas. Some may say that it errs on the side of star-worship at times.
The cancellation of a performance after Act I in Rome in 1958 signals the turning of the press against Maria Callas.The later part of the film focuses on the impact of this and unravelling of her continual rise as a star, as well as her relationship with Onassis. She assesses that her affair with ‘Aristo’ was a “failure” (Onassis married widowed Jackie Kennedy) but her relationship with him was a “success” (Onassis turned to Maria after that marriage ended).
Directed by Tom Volf, the movie stars Maria Callas, Fanny Ardant, and Joyce Di Donato. It is a credit that Di Donato, a famous mezzo-soprano, was chosen as a reader of Maria’s writings. Whilst a film organised chronologically and running for close to 2 hours may initially appear heavy going, it is Callas’s astonishing voice that sustains it. Several arias play in full across a range of operas and composers, including Bellini’s Norma and Puccini’s Tosca. Film audiences should be aware that audio reproduction has improved over the intervening period from the time Callas was a star. Callas also explains how her instinct as an actress enabled her to rise above other contemporary performers.
Hers was an arduous fairy tale from humble beginnings in New York to international superstar. It is well worth listening to her journey through her words and actions.