The Soprano

Tony Pipolo on Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas (2018)

Maria Callas in 1958.

IN THE FALL OF 1971 AND THE SPRING OF ’72, the American-born soprano Maria Callas conducted ten master classes at the Juilliard School of Music at Lincoln Center in New York. Responding to a tiny announcement in the New York Times, I paid the registration fee, along with some equally devoted friends, and each week we sat amid artists, musicians, and other fans for what would become one of the most exhilarating and indelible experiences of my life. The moment Callas walked onstage, she blew out of the water every trite stereotype of the demonic, temperamental diva that dogged her relentlessly—the very bitchy banalities that Terrence McNally could not resist perpetuating in his 1995 play Master Class. From her exchanges with each student to her musical illustrations, Callas displayed the person she had always been: an exemplary artist of consummate grace, professionalism, and impeccable musicianship—the same woman, in fact, whose voice teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, once called the hardest worker she had ever taught. 

Hidalgo is one of the few talking heads in Tom Volf’s new moving and wonderfully researched documentary, Maria by Callas. But if I have one quibble with Volf’s film, it is that there is no footage, nor any mention, of those master classes. Much to his credit, his movie focuses more on the artist and the woman, less on the trivia or the paparazzi coverage. A labor of love, the film tells the story of Callas’s public life and extraordinary career through her own words and letters, as well as through rare archival footage of concert performances and home movies of Callas cruising on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht and, in her later years, lounging around the pool in Palm Beach, Florida. Weaving through the documentary is a 1970 interview that Callas granted British television host David Frost, in which she declares rather forcefully that had it not been for pressure from her mother and, later, Carlo Meneghini—the entrepreneur who thrust her toward fame and became her husband—she would have renounced her glorious career for a more ordinary married life with children. If it is difficult to entirely believe this, Volf clearly takes it seriously as an indication of the human side of Callas—the “Maria” side—that she had to protect from the world of opera, celebrity, and the press.

The unusual texture and remarkable range of her voice were no small part of the Callas legend. She could, as de Hidalgo says, sing almost anything: the resonant, dusky tones of mezzo roles such as Carmen and Lady Macbeth, the dramatic register of Verdi heroines in La Traviata and La Forza Del Destino, the more lyrical Puccini roles in Madama Butterly and Tosca, and the daunting coloratura of the bel-canto tradition of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. It was this last repertoire that brought her to the world’s attention, revived interest in bel canto, and led to new productions in the world’s most famous opera houses—Milan’s La Scala, the Paris Opera, London’s Covent Garden, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Most historians agree that it was Callas’s embodiment of the bel-canto heroines Norma, Anna Bolena, Amina (La Sonnambula), and Lucia di Lammermoor that constitutes her greatest contribution to the world of opera. 

David Frost and Maria Callas.

Callas’s enormous gifts and staggering range had its drawbacks. Her celebrity led to unjust treatment when excessive demands caused her to cancel engagements, which led to attacks by reporters who ignored her reasons and characterized her as temperamental. This latter insult was leveled against her during her feud in the late 1950s with Metropolitan manager Rudolf Bing, who expected her to play vastly different roles over short periods of time in archaic productions. After she was fired from the Met Opera, Callas continued to amass superior performances elsewhere, while admiring New Yorkers were deprived. Her return to the Met in 1965 for two performances of Tosca was so eagerly anticipated that Pinkerton guards had to surround the building to prevent people from sneaking in. I know, because I was there.

Along with the adulation came those who criticized her voice as harsh and unpretty. Sopranos Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland, for example, were thought to have lovelier instruments. In truth, with all their gifts, neither approached the compass of Callas’s vocal prowess, nor the superior acting skills she brought to the genre, making every word count. She admitted that opera was often quite silly and that it required calculated conviction—musically, dramatically, and psychologically—to render one-dimensional characters credible and poignant, characters people otherwise would not give a hoot about.

As Volf’s film makes clear, most people saw only the uncompromising diva who had the opera world and high society at her feet, never suspecting that she harbored a secret and endured great loneliness. It is in this context that Volf wants us to understand the film’s endless parade of the rich and famous attending her performances, preparing us for the blow that even she did not see coming. Though her friendship with Onassis became closer after her separation from Meneghini, from whom she was seeking an official annulment, Callas learned of Aristotle’s marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy through the tabloids. The ensuing scandal lacked a shred of subtlety or compassion, as if the larger-than-life Callas could not possibly suffer humiliation and rejection like any other human being.

Onassis renewed his friendship with Callas when his relationship with Jacqueline eventually crumbled—although he was still married to Jackie-O at his death. But in the interim, as always, Callas sought comfort in her work. The documentary includes footage of Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, who directed her in many stage productions at La Scala, and even more footage of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed her in Medea, the only film she ever appeared in. Mostly, though, Volf eschews talking heads, interviews with biographers and opera experts, and retroactive appraisals. He keeps Callas front and center, creating a film that seems to be the aesthetic equivalent of the insulation and loneliness of its subject.                    

Maria Callas with Aristotle Onassis.

The film’s musical selections are hardly random, though Volf’s choices are sometimes used a bit too literally to tell the “Maria” side of her story, reflecting and underlining major turns in her private and romantic life. If his aim was to suggest that she was great because everything she sang came from the heart, this hardly needed stressing and could, in fact, be viewed as mitigating her formidable musicianship. Thankfully, Volk includes footage of Callas singing roles—including Carmen—that she never performed in staged productions. Rightly or wrongly, it was often averred that if she did, she would have been conceding a loss of vocal power, suggesting that mezzo soprano roles such as Carmen were now the only ones within her comfort zone. At the same time, anyone familiar with Georges Prêtre’s brilliant recording of Callas in Carmen knows that, this role became yet another of her definitive incarnations.

At times, Volf seems to feel that he must shield viewers, if not the Callas legend, from uncomfortable facts. Not only does he avoid anything that would imply the diminishing of her voice in her final years, but he includes recordings of Callas only in her best voice. Unsurprisingly, then, the footage of her final tour in the early 1970s, with Giuseppe di Stefano, is limited to arrivals in key cities or her taking bows. In one instance, Volf cuts directly from Callas just as she is about to launch into “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. I attended a few of these concerts, in Philadelphia and on Long Island, and even experienced what it felt like when she canceled a performance, as she did for a night at Carnegie Hall. Memorable as they were, these concerts revealed a voice in serious decline, far from its former agility and authority. Then again, if you’re making a documentary celebrating a supreme artist, it’s understandable that you would restrict your selections of her work to the most sublime.

A complete set of Callas’s studio recordings from 1949 to 1969, forty remastered discs in all, was released a few years ago. The more one studies them, the clearer it becomes that few of her contemporaries, and perhaps no one in the present day, matched her artistry. She tackled the often-awkward transitions between the recitative sections and the arias in many operas like no one else, imbuing life and suspense even into moments of pause or rest. By grounding the psychology and emotional truth of a character in the recitative, she made the move to the aria appear seamless, a natural segue from the exposition of the former to the full-blown expressivity of the latter. As a result, the aria was treated as it should be: as the only conceivable mode that could properly carry and resolve the tensions that led up to it. No small part of Callas’s effectiveness was her fluency in Italian and French, as well as her gift for acute enunciation that few opera singers, then or now, can lay claim to. These strengths are discernible in every excerpt included in this fine documentary.

Callas died of a heart attack in Paris on September 16, 1977, at age fifty-three. Fittingly, and consistent with Volf’s overall approach, our last view of her is not of the diva basking in the limelight but of Maria, relaxing alone on a veranda in her Palm Beach residence a few years earlier. The camera pans away slowly and unpretentiously.  

Maria by Callas opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 2.