“Maria by Callas” (opening Friday at the Clay) isn’t a penetrating portrait of its title subject, but filmmaker Tom Volf doesn’t intend it to be. Volf aims to share, with current audiences, the incredible voice of the revered 20th-century soprano. He succeeds, resoundingly.
Combining TV interviews (from, most substantially, a 1970 David Frost program), performance footage, home movies, unpublished memoirs, and letters, Volf has crafted an in-her-own-words documentary about Maria Callas (1923-1977), the singer known for her emotional vocals, remarkable technique, glamour and tendency to make the headlines, sometimes scandalously.
Both a transcendently talented artist and a sad product of her time, Callas, in one interview, describes herself as two people: Maria, a private woman who feels she foremost needs a man and children in her life; and Callas, a performer devoted to her craft and public.
Callas was born in New York City, and, during childhood, moved with her family to her parents’ native Greece. She studied music and became one of opera’s finest singers.
She developed a reputation for scandal and “tempestuous” behavior, which the film refutes.
Her notorious 1958 cancellation, after Act 1 of a performance of Bellini’s “Norma” in Rome was due to bronchitis, not temperamental antics, Callas says.
Also addressed are Callas’ feud with the Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing, who fired Callas (she returned to the Met seven years later), and Callas’ affair with Aristotle Onassis. Callas, while hazy with details, defends her standards and actions.
Volf, who has written books about Callas, is a devotee, and the film isn’t critical. The near absence of talking-heads commentary, while in some ways refreshing, leaves gaps.
Volf barely considers Callas’ troubled relationship with her mother, who Callas believed pushed her into a career she didn’t want. And Callas’ failed marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini also is barely addressed.
There’s no information about Callas’ significant weight loss and its impact on her singing and health, or about the decline of her voice and its professional and emotional effects.
Still, the movie has enough nuggets to qualify it as an adequate artist portrait.
Spanish singer Elvira de Hidalgo, Callas’ mentor, recalls her astonishing talent as a young singer, for example.
Callas’ recollections of having problems with onstage “nerves” and feeling “terrified” that she wouldn’t meet the public’s expectations are enlightening and illustrate fame’s toll on her.
But her singing, even in poorly preserved footage, is what lifts the movie into solidly winning terrain.
Volf presents four arias — including “Casta Diva” from “Norma”, her favorite — in their entirety, allowing viewers to experience her voice as her audiences did.
Expect to feel amazed by what you’re hearing.
Maria by Callas
Starring: Maria Callas, Elvira de Hildalgo, David Frost, Rudolph Bing
Written and directed by: Tom Volf
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes