Born in 1923 in New York to Greek immigrant parents, Callas was sent at a young age to a music conservatory back in Greece where her talent was cultivated and her career got its start. By the 1950s, she’d headlined in all the major operas in Italy; the next decade would be marked by debuts in New York, Argentina, Chicago, and all around the world, as the world discovered her stellar voice and fresh approach to the art form. Her fame rose in kind, and soon she was as much a draw in the tabloids and she was in the opera houses. As the media hankered for a story, she managed to oblige—intentionally or otherwise—as her love life, her temperament and her performances garnered headline after headline.
In his directorial debut, photographer Tom Volf brings his keen eye for framing a message to creating a solid narrative momentum for a film that’s essentially all footage and dialogue that already exists. His work here is in assembling it all in such a way that Callas remains the central focus, while offering insight into both the realities of her unrelenting professional demands and the emotional toll of a life lived out in the public eye. If the credits at the end of the film are any indication, Volf spent the bulk of his time researching and uncovering mountains of footage and photos from her life. Home movies and candid snapshots live comfortably alongside interview footage from her interactions with the press that spanned decades.
By the 1970s, Callas couldn’t have known she was entering her last decade. She still hadn’t recovered from being publicly sidelined by her longtime love Aristotle Onassis so he could marry the world’s most famous widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. But she was resilient, performing a “comeback” show in the U.S. and even traveling to Asia for a series of recitals. But a mind and body put through so much for so long can’t sustain, and Callas died of a heart attack in her Paris apartment in 1977.
For those of us far too young to have ever heard La Divina perform, Maria By Callas offers a more than sufficient second-best option. The segments featuring her performances are exceptional, and with the additional context of her life experiences in her own words, the film is an engaging portrait of a multidimensional woman. (And if you’re in Chicago, treat yourself to a Callas double-feature of sorts; after you see Maria By Callas, snag a ticket (through December 9) to see Master Class, presented by Timeline Theatre. Read our review here.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xmsGzhhDGE
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