Tonight I saw Tom Volf’s 2017 documentary Maria by Callas at TIFF. With the exception of a brief interview with her singing teacher Elvira de Hidalgo, the film is entirely an account of Maria Callas in her own words, that might change your understanding of the great diva.
While I thought I knew her, from having read a couple of biographies and having listened to so many performances, there is much here that’s new to me. It’s stunning to encounter that singing voice so directly and so clearly, the larger than life personality, the beautiful expressions & of course the acting: especially on a big screen. Nobody uses modern terms like “PTSD” but after watching the film I think she was more upset by the big cancellation in Rome that damaged her reputation than has been previously admitted. I don’t pretend that I understand what’s real and what’s artifice in the ongoing struggle between the real person and the diva persona: but I did see a great deal of vulnerability, more than I had ever suspected. Her choice to absent herself from the stage for a period of years makes a curious kind of sense, even if it may have been a huge error. And when one can watch the arc of her life in under two hours, it’s eloquent testimony.
There are a few performances of complete arias, several sung excerpts, but mostly we’re dealing with the story of a life. We encounter her in a series of interviews, including one with David Frost that had been presumed lost until recently. What’s missing happily is the editorializing, interpretation or commentary: except from Maria herself, which is precisely what the film’s title promises. This is her story in her own words, which doesn’t mean it’s in any way obvious. There are enigmas, puzzling moments, and perhaps some lying going on. She is in front of the cameras over and over, being confronted, being pursued by cameras, being recorded at every moment of her life, except of course when she escaped with Aristotle Onassis. The film is refreshingly dry considering the melodrama being enacted, the images speaking for themselves, for instance when we segue quickly from the breakup with Onassis in 1968 to Medea¸ Pasolini’s 1969 film starring Maria as the avatar of jealous femininity. While we see a friendly camaraderie between the star and the director it’s clear to me for the first time what the public perception must have been.
In places the music serves as wonderful underscoring. When we see tabloids declaring that Onassis is sneaking out behind Jackie’s back, that he’s returned to Maria? Volf underscores with the Humming Chorus, a poignant melody of false hope. For most of the last half hour, the music takes us on her downward spiral.
I think I need to buy this when it becomes available on video. It’s such a pleasure just watching her and listening to her. It’s especially enjoyable to hear her without anyone else proposing to tell us the meaning of her life. Her own words, often poignant and heart-breaking, are more than enough.
Against the Grain Theatre (soprano Natalya Gennadi Matyusheva with pianist David Eliakis) began our evening with a live performance of “Casta diva” from Norma followed by “Ah fors’e lui” & “Sempre libera” from La traviata: music often associated with Maria Callas. If you consider that we were about to watch images of dead people in a dry space designed to suck up any extra reverberation, they were most certainly going against the grain in giving us a reminder of what live people making live music can be.