If you want the truth about Greek-American opera star Maria Callas, why not get it straight from the diva’s mouth. That’s the refreshing premise of Maria by Callas, a dazzling documentary from Tom Volf that draws from letters, unpublished memoirs, home movies, family photos, performances (far from audio perfection), journals (read by contemporary opera singer Joyce DiDonato) and TV interviews (there’s a doozy with David Frost) that allow Callas to speak — and sing — for herself. No narrator, no talking heads feeding you insights, just the lady letting it rip on stage and off. What Volf, a French photographer now working on his third book about the acclaimed soprano, misses in perspective he gains in intimacy. His film fawns shamelessly and fumbles a few salient points, but it’s indisputably up close and personal.
In her day (Callas died of a heart attack at 53 in 1977), the diva took a lot of smack from the media. She was characterized as tempestuous, given to opera walkouts, hard to handle and known for turbulent love affairs with the likes of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who jilted her to marry Jackie Kennedy. “I don’t like being pushed around,” Callas says at one point. She’s not kidding. But Volk lets a gentler, self-deprecating side emerge as Callas laments never having become a mother. “There are two people in me,” Callas tells Frost. “I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas I have to live up to.” And oh, that voice, resonating with a dramatic intensity that touches everyone who hears it. For opera newbies — probably most familiar with Callas from Tom Hanks’ memorable interpretation of her “La mamma morta” aria from “Andrea Chenier” in his Oscar-winner performance in 1993’s Philadelphia — Maria by Callas will whet the appetite for more.
Enough Callas backstory seeps through to give viewers a sense of her upbringing. Born in New York City to Greek immigrant parents, she returned to Greece at 13 to receive her musical education before achieving fame in Italy. Volk shows Callas arriving at airports all over the world as she stunned the opera scene. The film inexplicably elides the reported 80 pounds she dropped to become a beauty and fashion icon despite ill effects on her voice. Volk skips the gossip to show Callas on a world stage, possessed of unparalleled grit and grace. The press gets the back of Volf’s hand for emphasizing Callas’ difficult relationship with her mother, her feud with Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi and her walkout at the Rome Opera House with the President of Italy in attendance. The film makes it abundantly clear that it was illness that prompted Callas to depart the stage and not a fit of temper.
OK, then. When the Callas worship gets too much, Volf wisely cuts to Callas in performance, some clips in ravishing color, letting audiences revel in the sound that held millions spellbound as she moves from Bellini’s Norma to Puccini’s Tosca. Callas was known less for the richness of her timbre than for her instinct as an actress, which made her a peerless interpreter of opera roles. Her personal heartbreak finds moving expression in her letter to Onassis begging him to take her back (“This is a hurt and tired woman’s letter”). In the end, no man was ever big enough to eclipse Callas. Volf’s love letter to his subject makes one thing perfectly clear: This is what a star is made of. No arguments here.