'Maria By Callas' Documentary Tells Soprano's Story In Her Own Words

Dec 14, 2018

What is there left to say?

Enough to fill an engrossing new film, Maria by Callas, another examination of the life and career of Maria Callas, over 40 years after her death and more than 50 years past her final operatic performances. 

Maria by Callas, a film by Tom Volf, has no surface narration. All the words come from the lady herself, either in her own voice or in her letters, beautifully read by Joyce DiDonato.

The centerpiece of the film is a 1970 interview Callas gave with David Frost, whose popular talk show was a fixture of daytime TV long before Oprah.

Callas does not sing for Frost. By 1970, she wasn’t singing at all. Her final appearances had been five years earlier: Norma in Paris and Tosca in London, Paris and New York.

Volf's film manages to be thorough without becoming sensational. Generous films of the artist in performance present the truths of Callas' career.

I had never seen the silent films of Madama Butterfly from Chicago. I was delighted and moved by the Suzuki, contralto Eunice Alberts. I knew her as Mrs. Nicholson, from my hometown in Lexington, Massachusetts. Mrs. N. told me all about singing with Callas: 

“She was marvelous. Go and listen to her records. Carefully. She makes you pay attention.”

Callas doesn’t avoid talking about her affair with Aristotle Onassis. Speaking after his marriage to Mrs. Kennedy, Callas remarks:

“Onassis needs me as a friend because I tell him the truth. Not that you men like the truth.”

Callas' letters speak poignantly about the Onassis-Kennedy marriage and about Callas' devastation at "Aristo's" death. Film clips also make clear that the Callas-Onassis liaison never really ended.

Still, no sensationalism. Callas presents herself simply and factually. The drama is in her singing voice.

We hear Callas sing arias from I Vespri Siciliani, Norma, Tosca, Medea and La Traviata. The latter is from a TV film of the performances in Lisbon in 1958.

The famous Act II of Tosca from London is excerpted, along with her 1958 debut in Paris. (The Paris Opera chorus had no shame in 1958. I kept waiting for Callas, diamonds and all, to stop the performance and demand further rehearsal.)

Callas is coy with Edward R. Murrow, and enraged backstage in Dallas, reading a telegram from Rudolph Bing firing her from the Met. For a woman with a reputation for being difficult, we see a very human Callas. Vulnerable, charming, playful, she is presented as someone who’d be fun over a cup of coffee.

“I would have loved to have had a family and had children,” she tells us. “I would have given up this career with pleasure.”

You come closer to believing her than ever before. It’s clear that the outrage of her indisposition during a performance of Norma in Rome in 1958 – when she left the theater after Act I – ruined the Callas career for Callas herself.

The power and the authority of her singing work their magic all these years later. Maria by Callas is a wonderful film. It’s great for those of us immersed in her work. The Callas newbie will be impressed by her honesty and self-examination and riveted by her voice.

Is this film the last word? No. There will never be a last word for an artist who always fascinates.