There are names that evoke a strong image in people. Names that are still fascinating to us. Maria Callas is one of those names. Even though she passed away more than 40 years ago, she is still considered one of the most renowned and influential opera singers.
Her life on and off stage, though, is nothing short of Greek tragedy in several scenes. Glamorous and sad at the same time.
French photographer and film maker Tom Volf came late to the Maria Callas party. It all started a little over five years ago. Through research, after an opera visit, he stumbled upon Maria Callas and like many before and after him, he dived deeper into her life.
Volf spent a lot of time piecing together Callas' life with the help of friends and longtime companions, he befriended along the way. The result is a beautiful and insightful movie about the opera singer, who is often described in superlatives - “Maria by Callas”.
Maria by Callas differs from other documentaries, because here Maria Callas tells her own story. There are very few other people who talk about her. Her story is told through her own interviews and through the many letters she has written.
Tom Volf takes us on a journey that starts in New York in the 1920s where Maria Callas was born. Contrary to many beliefs, Maria Callas was neither Italian nor Spanish. She was born in 1923 to Greek parents. Her relationship with her mother has always been difficult and the family was caught in the crossfire of the Second World War. They stayed in Greece at that time and a young Callas went to the Athens Conservatoire, even though she was actually too young to be accepted. Here she meets Elvira de Hidalgo, her singing teacher in Greece and her lifelong trusted confidante. The movie takes us all over the world with snippets of various performances to the fateful meeting with Aristoteles Onassis on his yacht, where she decides to leave her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini. She doesn't leave him, because she fell for Onassis. Maria Callas says herself, that she couldn't trust him anymore and that her success has gotten to Meneghini's head. The movies also touches upon the great betrayal of Onassis, when he married Jackie Kennedy, widow of US President, John F. Kennedy. Maria found out about the marriage from the newspapers and she must have been deeply hurt and angry. Again the press was right in her face about this. Pretty much until her death on September 16th, 1977 in Paris.
Last week, Spectacle was able to see a press screening of the movie and here are five things that stood out for us.
In interviews she brushes off the fact she never had children. She said with her career it was impossible to have children. She also considered her career fate and you can't escape fate. Yet in her letters it becomes painfully clear how much she would have loved a family of her own and probably would have given up her career for it.
She was hounded by the press. We have seen this with other famous people in the past, but it was still surprising to see. Wherever she went or when she stepped off a plane, there were cameras in her face and she was surrounded by journalist. One scene particularly stood out. She doesn't want to answer any more questions, especially not about Aristoteles Onassis and a journalist tells her: “Well, if you don't speak to us, we will write negative things about you and there has already been a lot of negative press about you”.
This negative press hurt her deeply. She felt (and probably was) misunderstood. Maria Callas felt obliged to give her best. Always. And if she couldn't do that due to illness, she cancelled the performance. Callas thought it would be worse, if she would give a mediocre performance. She felt she owed that to the composer, to the director and to the audience. Unfortunately the press turned this into a diva like behaviour and the audience took it as an offence. Half truths, lies and bad press hurt her personally.
It is interesting to see how her face changes over the years. During her first years she comes across as harsh, with thick eyebrows and dark eye make up. Once she takes a break from singing and spends the years with Aristoteles Onassis her face is so much softer. She actually looks happy, her voice was better than ever. In her later years, especially after her time with Onassis, you don't see that happiness anymore.
Aristoteles Onassis was the love of her life. That shouldn't be surprising actually. Did he treat her well? Not always! Did he hurt her deeply by marrying Jackie Kennedy Onassis? Without a doubt! But she also talks with a lot of respect and love about him. She forgave him in the end and she died less than two years after Onassis died. Some say a broken heart might have contributed to her death.
With Maria by Callas Tom Volf gives a great glimpse into her life and the movie is also a document of the period she lived in.
Personally, I would have loved to hear more about her struggles later in life – how her voice changed, how she wanted to be successful again with a comeback tour and how she spend her last years in Paris. But regardless if these aspects had been touched upon, you will find yourself researching Maria Callas some more. This movie is a treat for Callas lovers. May her work and her talent live on.
You can see the documentary Maria by Callas starting May 2018 in cinemas in Germany, however it is also released in many other countries too.