I’m in a curious position when it comes to any critical response to the documentary Maria by Callas, and I have mixed feelings about it — although I suspect I would have mixed feelings even had I known who the woman was before this year.
Okay, so she was apparently arguably the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. What if you’ve never been particularly into opera? Or more specifically in my case, I was all of one year old the year she died, of a heart attack in 1977? It follows that I would have known little to nothing about her.
How many people alive in 2018 do, I wonder? In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that I was the only one in the theatre where I saw this movie who did not qualify for the Senior Discount. And even for those who do: billing this film as the story of Maria Callas “in her own words” is a little misleading. It’s not exactly an autobiography. Although, sure, everything said about her in the narrative is either Callas herself in archive interviews, or her own words as narrated by Joyce DiDonato, there’s something to be said for editing.
Maria Callas, quite obviously, had no part in making this movie. Other people cobbled the story together using her words, which brings along with it their own biases. It’s directed by Tom Volf, his sole directing credit; edited by Janice Jones; all of this done 41 years after Callas’s death. How much can we trust this as an accurate representation of her life, really? They certainly linger on several of her performances, showcasing her undeniable talent while still making the film perhaps 15 minutes longer than it needed to be.
Well, we can regard it as a collection of insights into the woman’s life, at least — and it must be said, even for someone who has never heard of her, there is much to be fascinated by. For one thing, the old footage reveals that Maria Callas was a woman of unparalleled charisma, memorably beautiful and expressive, even in interviews, for many years. There definitely was something special about her, as an individual as well as a talent. She lights up the screen with her face, even in old, grainy, television footage.
It would also seem as though she embodied the essence of a “diva” in very much the old-school sense of the word. Callas was evidently not much of a feminist in her thinking, stating plainly that a woman is best placed at home in service of a husband. She never had children, though, because first her mother and then her first husband pushed her to focus on her singing career, not to waste her incredible voice. She spoke in interviews as though, as opposed to ever being particularly ambitious, she simply sacrificed the traditional woman’s role in favor of “destiny.” As if she just resigned herself to this fate, of a singer adored literally around the world.
One short sequence in particular really stands out. Reporters are interviewing ardent fans who have been waiting in line since the day before, to see Maria Callas in New York City, performing for the first time in seven years. The interview subjects are nearly all young men, and I found myself wondering not just how many of them were gay (pretty much all of them seemed to be), but how many of them even know it themselves. This was a time half a century before the evolution of queer vocabulary we know today, after all, and it occurred to me that perhaps Maria Callas was a gay icon long before the term was coined. She was only one year younger than Judy Garland, and thus one of her contemporaries.
These are the details I found most compelling, but Maria by Callas is far more concerned with controversies regarding high-profile performance cancellations (sometimes mid-show), and in particular her off-and-on relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who left Callas for Jackie Kennedy, then left Jackie to return to Callas again.
Maria by Callas offers a window into a world-famous, stunningly talented opera singer in the 20th century, and it has its insights, but might be most appreciated by those who are already fans of her. In which case, might not it have been better to make this movie in, say, 1978?