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Tom Volf's new documentary "Maria by Callas" is essential viewing for anyone who cares about classical music, opera, the human psyche, or the biases of American media. Filled with revelatory, heretofore unpublished footage of Callas in live performance, both on and off the stage, as well as rare photos and carefully chosen interview excerpts, it frames Callas in ways that allow perceptive viewers to see the woman, diva, and artist beyond the lens.
First, the bare facts, some of which the documentary omits. Born in New York City and trained in music in Greece, Callas (1923-77) revolutionized opera by using her controversial voice and consummate acting ability to imbue every note she sang with deep feeling. Much of this abundant emotion came from her tendency to channel her personal issues around love, power, fulfillment, appearance, and victimization into operatic characters whose struggles mirrored her own.
Pushed into singing by an abusive mother, Callas came under frequent attack for a sound that, while dramatic to the core, lacked conventional "prettiness." There was ample beauty in the voice, but it was a beauty born of extremes of rage and suffering that could be off-putting and frightening. Some of the documentary's live performance excerpts, including one from Verdi's "Macbeth," underscore Callas' unique ability to infuse relatively fleet coloratura — rapid scale passages and embellishment — with palpable fury.
Callas' scandals started early, when she had a baritone dismissed for holding a note longer than she. She also intentionally upstaged grandstanding tenor Kurt Baum in Mexico City by interpolating an astoundingly long, blazing high E-flat at the end of the Triumphal Scene of "Aida." But it was only after a photo of her snarling at a summons server backstage at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1955, an image that led the press to dub her a "tigress," that the scandals increased. Unfulfilled appearances, unsigned contracts, and walkouts in Milan, Rome, Edinburgh, and New York (it's a long list), along with increasing wobble in her upper range, temporarily ended her performances at La Scala and the Met, and fueled a series of eye-opening TV interviews in which interrogators tried to nail her to the wall.
While the documentary includes a brief excerpt from Callas' infamous TV interview with Edward R. Murrow, it skillfully omits his recitation of her scandals. Instead, it includes numerous interviews and sympathetic recitations, by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, of private correspondence and memoir entries in which Callas blames everything on her first husband-manager, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. The ultimate victim, Callas never acknowledges that, as an extreme myopic who could see little without thick-lensed glasses, she was incapable of seeing the consequences of her own actions.
Callas' relationship with Meneghini, who was 27 years older than she, ended when she left him for Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Two years after she renounced her American citizenship in order to divorce Meneghini, Onassis left Callas for Jackie Kennedy. Although the break was far from complete, the way it was handled by the press only increased Callas' notoriety. Add to this her increasing vocal crisis, and the tendency of the press to go after her and exploit her weaknesses, and you have the portrait of a woman coming undone.
While the documentary acknowledges the conflicts between the public and private Callas, and puts her under the microscope, it does so in a kind and respectful manner. When you colorize early performance footage, but leave interviews in their original black-and-white, you are making a statement about myth and reality.
Nonetheless, Callas' statements and unguarded expressions reveal elements of the ultimate truth. When you listen to the sound of her voice, both on and off the stage, her complex, contradictory realities are evident. Callas is often barely able to contain her rage. Even as she attempts to appear at her most demure, as during her interview with Murrow, she stumbles over herself as outer critic and inner critic collide.
It's the music that counts. If your heart does not break when you hear the documentary's penultimate vocal excerpt, "La mamma morta," from a 1955 performance of Giordano's "Andrea Chenier," listen again. Then listen to the words of Callas herself that frame the excerpt. It's enough to tear you apart. Don't miss how Callas ends the aria with her perilous practice of pushing her dark lower range up into the middle voice. Callas understood exactly what the music called for, and was willing to risk vocal longevity for the sake of the drama. If her sacrifice made for a drama all its own, it was nonetheless in the service of art.
Opens Nov. 9 at the Landmark Clay in SF.