Just as many people were drawn to and repelled by the great opera singer, Maria Callas, I had a similar reaction to this documentary. It’s by turns inspiring (in its giving us extended samples of her voice and her personality) and frustrating (in its provoking questions without providing answers). Perhaps it accurately reflects the artist and her life in all its fullness, ambiguity, and fame, but I found myself turning to Wikipedia (yes, I admit it) to fill out the information about Callas.
Not being an opera fan, but still aware of major news in music, I had heard about Maria Callas for years and my interest had been piqued, but I couldn’t fully appreciate the person she was or the effect she had on the world of opera and beyond. The documentary by Tom Volf fills out this incomplete impression, but still left questions I wanted answers to.
For instance, the film only mentions Callas’ early upbringing briefly, and I understand it had a huge influence on her life. Her parents were not happily married and had significant conflicts. Maria’s mother was frustrated by the loss of a son and her own thwarted ambitions. So early on when she spotted Maria’s talent, she decided Maria would have a singing career. When the mother was fed up with her husband, she left him and took her two daughters back to Greece, their country of origin, and saw that Maria was enrolled in a conservatory of music. The film glosses over this—probably in the interest of space—but this and the fact that her mother favored Maria’s “more attractive” sister over her and tried to influence her (sometimes in disturbing ways), leaves the viewer to wonder why such important determinants were left unexplained.
To its credit, Maria by Callas highlights the ups and downs of a brilliant, enormously talented individual, the kinds of challenges she faced, and the personally damning effects of media coverage in which the truth is less important than the “story.” It covers the early impressive demonstrations of her talents, some of the instances in which she was (perhaps unfairly) labeled “the tigress” and “tempestuous”, her being hired and fired and then rehired by the New York Metropolitan Opera, her marriage, her relationship with Aristotle Onassis and its significant effect on her across time, the media’s intrusions into her life, and her sincerity in expressions of gratitude to those who helped her, including her audiences.
On the whole, I think this is a good documentary by Tom Volf in its abundant reflection of the Callas voice juxtaposed with her everyday life and fame. (That is, her operatic performances are presented audibly while pictures of her navigating through events in her daily life are shown.) Its most deserved praise is for conveying the essence of the woman and her considerable—although it’s controversial—talent.
Two quotes I found online fill in the impact of this woman, one by Sir Rudolf Bing (New York Metropolitan Opera]: “Once one heard and saw Maria Callas—one can't really distinguish it—in a part, it was very hard to enjoy any other artist, no matter how great, afterwards, because she imbued every part she sang and acted with such incredible personality and life. One move of her hand was more than another artist could do in a whole act” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Callas.
The other quote is by Antonino Votto(Italian operatic conductor). In his words, Callas was “The last great artist. When you think this woman was nearly blind, and often sang standing a good 150 feet from the podium. But her sensitivity! Even if she could not see, she sensed the music and always came in exactly with my downbeat. When we rehearsed, she was so precise, already note-perfect... She was not just a singer, but a complete artist. It's foolish to discuss her as a voice. She must be viewed totally—as a complex of music, drama, movement. There is no one like her today. She was an esthetic phenomenon.
A media phenomenon from an earlier time who can still be appreciated today.