NEW YORK – The new Maria Callas movie premiered in cinemas on November 2. Using material from her personal diaries, letters, and interviews, the film tries to shed light on the obscure and more personal aspects of her character.
In fact, the uniqueness of director Tom Volf’s approach lies in the fact that he does not use third person narration in his documentary. Instead, throughout the film, Maria Callas speaks to us in the first person, making the result more personal than ever.
From the beginning of the film, we understand that two different women are the lead actresses of the documentary: one is a superstar of the Opera, who, even 40 years after her death, has remained a part of the pantheon of divas; the other is Maria Kalogeropoulou, a simple girl with simple dreams to have her own family one day.
“I would love Maria,” says Callas of herself. “But Maria must live according to the standards of Callas.”
In another interview, she said, “Fate has brought me to this career. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid your fate. If I could, I would give up everything to have a family and children.”
“Children should have an amazing childhood, and I just never had that,” she said in another interview, this one with David Frost in 1970.
Maria Callas was born in New York on December 2, 1923, the third child of her family. Growing up, she had a very difficult relationship with her dominant, strict mother. She started taking piano lessons when she was 10 years old, after her mother had decided that Maria would become a great singer. During the war, and after the separation of her parents, she lived in Athens and began her musical studies at the National Conservatory of Greece.
Looking back on those years, Maria would later say, “Difficulties do good to a person.” Her professor, Elvira de Hidalgo, said that she was the model student. “She played the piano perfectly and learned from all her fellow students. She was very hard-working, I never had to repeat anything a second time,” she said.
As a result of outside pressure, she married Giovanni Battista Menegini, a much older, wealthy industrialist. Their differences in opinion regarding her own handling of her career led them to divorce after just a short decade.
The 1950s marked the height of Callas’ career. The documentary showcases her most important business transaction, her successes but also her difficulties and failures. Sick with bronchitis, she gets up on the stage to sing Bellini’s Norma, while she writes to her girlfriend telling her that although her voice is hanging by a thread, she feels compelled to perform. Later on, she would write to Grace Kelly, “an enemy always lurks to find you in a moment of weakness.”
Born with great passion, her relationship with Aristotle Onassis came with a renewed momentum in her life. “If you could see my feelings for you, you would feel like the richest man in the world,” she would tell him in one letter. The details of their romance and its eventual demise are all too familiar for many of us.
The documentary is most successful when we hear Callas sing, but also when she speaks about herself, revealing the most vulnerable aspects of her character. It is also incredibly beautiful to see her play the toughest roles of her life with her characteristic simplicity and honesty. It is also noteworthy that the documentary does not focus primarily on the tragic aspects of her life, but instead highlights the strength of her character, her love for her work, and her endless optimism.
Maria Callas never abandoned her true self and the aforementioned qualities. She was making lofty plans for the future up until the day she died of a heart attack at the age of 53. In a famous monologue from the opera Tosca, the heroine says shortly before her death, “I lived for art. I lived for love.” Maria Callas, definitely did both of these things – very well.
Film critics have praised the documentary enthusiastically, and for those who have not seen it yet, it continues its run this week in cinemas throughout the city.