Culled from a treasure trove of home movies, TV interviews, and unpublished letters and diary entries read by opera star Joyce DiDonato, French photographer Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas is a loving, albeit meandering, tribute to Maria Callas, the 20th century’s most famous—and infamous—soprano. In a 1970 interview with David Frost, Callas confesses: “There are two people in me. I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas I have to live up to.” Volf navigates this sense of duality, attempting to give the last word to a woman who was misunderstood, and often vilified, by the press. In balancing the widespread public perception of Callas as the most volatile of divas with an intimate portrait of a woman struggling to live and work on her own terms in a male-dominated world, Volf seeks to reconcile these two selves.
By eschewing taking-head interviews with fawning friends, family, and critics, Maria by Callas feels less hagiographic than most documentaries of its kind. Which isn’t to say that Volf’s adoration of his subject is ever in doubt. His decision to showcase Callas’s performances of five arias from various points in her career in their entirety speaks to his willingness to allow the soprano’s work to speak for itself. While this footage is more than ample evidence of Callas’s otherworldly talent, it’s when the film homes in on the specifics of her professional difficulties, particularly those that led her to be branded as “tempestuous,” that Volf offers the most insight into Callas’s psyche.
Both Callas’s controversial cancellation of her performance of Norma at the Rome Opera House—after the first act, when she claimed she was too ill to go on—and her very public falling out with the Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing are explored in great detail. Aided by the contents of Callas’s own personal letters, these sequences help to re-frame her reputation as difficult by exposing the colossal pressures and blatant sexism she faced from both the press and her industry. The consistent disconnect between the public’s understanding of Callas as the ultimate prima donna and her mindset of absolute perfectionism and artistic freedom is astutely attributed to the fact that she was held to much higher standard than the men in her field.
Often haphazardly bouncing between snippets of various home movies and paparazzi footage, Volf heavily favors quantity over quality in exploring Callas’s personal life. The filmmaker fills time in an already lengthy documentary with seemingly countless shots of Callas boarding or exiting planes, crowds lavishing her with adoration, or the soprano lounging on boats with her first husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, or her longtime partner, Aristotle Onassis. As much as Callas’s own words help to tell her story as Callas the soprano, they often fall short in elucidating Callas the person.
Volf, however, still conveys the lengths to which Callas went to achieve success and the price she paid as a result, both personally and professionally. Without making her a martyr, Maria by Callas sees Callas as an agent of her self-proclaimed “fate”—a woman whose dedication and high standards led to her own downfall. Her death at 53 was not merely a tragedy, but the result, at least in part, of a society unable or unwilling to accept a powerful, immensely talented woman who refused to conform to the whims of those around her.