If opera fans are fiercely partisan in a way seldom otherwise seen in the classical music world, Maria Callas fans take it up yet another notch. She also occupies an outsize place in popular culture, so that even people who have never attended an opera are likely to not only have heard her name, but also to have some general impression about who she was. Terrence McNally capitalized on this popular recognition in not one but two plays (name me another classical musician so honored): The Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata. The former has basically nothing to do with Callas’ actual teaching methods and everything to do with him projecting his fantasies about her, while the latter involves characters who are diehard fans; both enjoyed popular and critical success, not to mention multiple revivals.
So there’s a ready market for a documentary about Maria Callas, no matter how much information is already out there about her. The good news is that Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas is a fine piece of work which will interest people who don’t attend the opera or who (gasp!) have no idea who Maria Callas was. For the latter crowd, here’s a brief summary. Maria Callas, born in the United States to Greek parents, became one of the most famous opera singers of the twentieth century. Not everyone was in love with her vocal quality, but there’s no questioning the dramatic power of her interpretations. Her life also inspired more than a few tabloid headlines, particularly with regard to her affair with Aristotle Onassis, and she gave some notoriously bad performances as well as many splendid ones. In the “you can’t make this up” category, after her death in 1977 (at age 53), her cremated remains were stolen from the Parisian cemetary in which they were housed; they were later reclaimed and scattered in the Aegean Sea.
Maria by Callas is composed of a great selection of archival materials edited together expertly by Janice Jones plus a voiceover of Joyce di Donato (herself a noted opera singer) reading Callas’ own words, as taken from her letters and unpublished memoirs. The inclusion of Callas’ own words lends an intimacy to what could otherwise have been a standard-issue bio-documentary, while the broad range of the media clips gives you a sense of the place Callas occupied in popular culture. If you miss the days when a star always dressed and acted like a star when in public, you’ll love seeing her decked out in all her finery. The music, of course, is the real reason anyone cares about Maria Callas, and Maria by Callas includes a number of fairly long performance clips that will give even an opera neophyte a sense of why people feel so fanatical about her.
Volf doesn’t try to provide the final answer on the many controversies that surrounded Callas, which is the right call—because in some cases we’ll never know the truth, and in most it doesn’t matter anyway. It also acknowledges that Callas sometimes contradicted herself (but who among us has not?) and was not above playing the press (which was, of course, a useful skill in the world where she made her career). All in all, Maria by Callas does right by its subject, and has something to offer please diehard and opera newbies alike. | Sarah Boslaugh