There was Maria, and there was Callas.
It was like the legendary soprano Maria Callas was two people. Maria was the person, a woman who grew up in a Greek-American family of modest means, pushed to perform by her father and later her husband. And Callas was the unforgettable voice.
“I would like to be Maria,” Callas says in a television interview with David Frost in the documentary “Maria by Callas.” “But there is the Callas that I have to live up to.”
Tom Volf’s documentary aims to give us both the legend and the woman, with possibly more interest in the woman behind the voice. Volf has penned three books on Callas and spent years doing research for the movie, finding long-lost performances and interviews, as well as backstage and red carpet footage. When traditional archives fell short, he would go to Callas’ friends and colleagues hunting for memorabilia from their personal collections.
As one would expect, “Maria by Callas” is hardly a dispassionate documentary about Callas. Told mostly in her own words, through interviews and her own writings, the film’s aim is to polish the legend while giving us glimpses into her often-sad inner life.
For fans of Callas, this deep dive into the singer’s private side will be richly satisfying, and Volf includes enough of Callas’ mesmerizing performances to satisfy even the most casual opera fan.
But Volf approaches making the movie as if the viewer already has a substantial working knowledge of Callas’ life — her feud with Metropolitan Opera director Rudolf Bing, her tempestuous relationship with Ari Onassis. So we see mostly Callas’ public statements in the midst of such episodes, without any context provided by on-screen text or interviews with historians. It’s just all Callas, all the time.
At times, “Maria by Callas” feels like little more than a tastefully curated collection of home movie footage. Footage of Callas navigating paparazzi start to become repetitive after a while. The interviews are engaging, and show a more tender side to Callas, as well as an ambivalence to performing. “I thought that when I met a man I loved, I didn’t need to sing.”
Yet she kept singing, and was rehearsing to make a comeback when she died of a heart attack in 1977, at the age of 53.
Clearly, Callas’ story is a fascinating one. It’s just unclear whether this is the way to tell it.