“Maria By Callas” is not a typical music doc. Volf, who has authored several books on the singer, forgoes the usual biographical timeline, instead focussing on more speculative interests regarding fame and her relationship to public life. Pushed on stage by her mother—“Destiny forced me into this career,” she says.—she lived in the glare of the spotlight, both on stage and off. Apart from her voice, her fame was the thing that defined her. The press, who delighted in reporting on the dramatic aspects of her life, couldn’t get enough of her and documented her every move, including a relationship with shipping magnate Ari Onassis. Volf spends time on this, probably the most sensational tabloid expose offered by the film, allowing her to comment on it via contemporary television print interviews and recently found letters (read by Joyce DiDonato).
The interviews aren’t particularly revealing. Callas, or La Divina as fans knew her, talks about wanting to have a normal life, as a wife and mother, but it feels like lip service rather than insight.
Volf pieces the story together using a collection of rare footage, unseen photographs, personal Super 8 films and live recordings. It is the latter that gives the movie its spark. “Music is the only language I really know,” Callas says, and it is through the long, uninterrupted performance pieces that we truly her voice, both her bel canto technique and inner voice. Her stage work reveals her passion, natural stage presence and her mastery of the music. These sequences are more enlightening than any of the spoken material.
“Maria By Callas” will likely appeal to opera lovers more than casual viewers, but nonetheless provides an interesting portrait of a person who is still one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists decades after her death. “If one really tries to listen to me seriously,” she says of her singing, “one will find all of myself in there.”