Assembled solely from interviews, performance footage and dramatic recitations of passages from diaries, letters or memoirs, Maria by Callas is filmmaker Tom Volf’s scavenger hunt for the soul of a soprano.
The Bey or Tay of her day as far as taste-making — and, for that matter, tantalizing tabloid headlines — were concerned, Callas was a Greek soprano born in 1920s New York. Living in the age of Shirley Temple, Callas’ parents persisted in pushing her toward a performing-arts career from an early age. She eventually went on to be the toast of Italy, New York and beyond despite public rifts with the Met Opera, performance-affecting health issues and prolonged scandals in her personal relationships.
Callas claims that her singing was not an act of pride but an attempt to reach those heavens of harmony indescribable by language itself. A gender-roles traditionalist who perhaps longed for simple domestication, Callas also says “I would have given it up with pleasure, but destiny is destiny and there’s no way out.” Volf is, of course, trying to use Callas’ own words for objectivity. But right there in the title, Volf’s idea is how the individual set herself apart from the icon and that, if Callas was in a sense always acting, we can’t understand which viewpoint is the reliable one.
Sadly, that’s almost all Maria by Callas has to offer for two hours, save some stunning in-full performances from Callas augmented by the hisses of dated audio and coughs of audience members. Even then, when you’re cherry-picking arias from Verdi, Bizet and Puccini, it’s easy to impose the arc you want. And if the argument is that there was always as much “Maria” as “Callas” in her interpretations of these classics … well, isn’t that the very ante for artistic expression?
Volf’s documentary feels disembodied in other ways – with its scene-setting subtitles relegated to the screen’s upper-right corner. Blink and you’ll miss the context for nearly a decade’s worth of her ascent. Even then, transitions seem arbitrary and rooted in a presupposition of vast knowledge about Callas or the opera scene circa the 1950s and 1960s. And although Joyce DiDonato does a decent job dramatizing Callas’ written words, it’s hard to not feel like she was chosen because she sounds like (or was directed to sound like) Cate Blanchett, whom you can picture portraying Callas in an actual narrative biopic.
There are many intriguing details about Callas’ life — an eye condition rendering her nearly blind in stage settings, her rapid weight loss early in her career and her many rivalries. But you’ll only learn about those in researching Callas as you watch this dry, drab affair and wonder why anyone chose to make a documentary about this person.
Only Callas’ longstanding love affair with Aristotle Onassis, and its emotional (and perhaps carnal) persistence even after he married Jackie Kennedy, gets an appropriately generous, and revealing, amount of screen time; it’s the most thorough insight into Callas’ deeper passions and even then, it’s only about a man she loved. The film addresses the burdensome weight of those who stood on the shoulders of her giant achievements or the thoughtfulness behind her artistry and artifice, but only in sputters.
Too niche to appeal to anyone outside of the infinitesimal intersection of opera and archival aficionados, Maria by Callas just leaves us with a diva wrapped in an aria inside an enigma.