Greetings again from the darkness. These days, it’s inconceivable for anyone under 40 years old to think there was a time when the general public knew very little of the private life of celebrities – even those of whom they were dedicated fans. Today, it’s not uncommon for celebrities to pre-package their life, delivering behind-the-scenes details that far too many people care about. Madonna, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lopez are just a few that have simultaneously tried to appease and manipulate fans into a feeling that they really know the person behind the superstar facade – and perhaps fulfill a fantasy of some common ground. Even more prevalent are the biopics, either in the form of a documentary (WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME) or dramatization (RAY).
Filmmaker Tom Volf realizes that the great Opera singer Maria Callas was known for two things: being a world class soprano/actress and for being difficult to work with … the ultimate diva, one might say. Working with narrator and noted mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, the film expertly reinforces those two traits, and even adds a new label: narcissist. It does so by using (as the title suggests) Maria Callas’ own words taken from interviews, letters to friends, and personal diary entries.
The Greek-American Opera singer/actress was born in Brooklyn to Greek immigrants, and, as a teenager, moved to Athens with her mother and sister after her parents’ marriage fell apart. Director Volf uses a BBC TV interview with David Frost to provide a framing structure to the film, but there are also clips of other interviews shown, and of course, Ms. DiDonato’s readings of the personal Callas writings. We learn Maria was originally controlled by her mother, and then by agents and her husband. Maria attempts to explain how the “difficult” label undeservedly stuck to her for decades due almost entirely to her vocal issues/illness at one sold out performance at the New York Metropolitan. Her own words later contradict, or at least cast much doubt on the accuracy of this simplification.
Archival footage of her life … her mostly glamorous life … is shown throughout, including bits with Aristotle Onassis, filmmaker Vittorio De Sica, actor Omar Sharif, filmmaker Pier Pablo Pasolini, Grace Kelly, and renowned soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, who became Maria’s voice coach. Maria’s fairy tale life is on display: chauffeurs, standing ovations, worshipping fans, and her incredible wardrobe that made her a fashion icon of the times. Her words convey the unhappiness and loneliness she felt, even during the “good times”.
It’s the stage performances that made her famous and took her to the top, so Mr. Volk includes several full-length numbers from Verdi, Bellini, Bizet and others … her glorious talent on full display and surely to inspire awe from any first timers. So while her singing provides a welcome respite from her words, it’s those words … her own words … that seem to solidify her reputation as a diva. Though she claims to have been controlled by others, she managed to take extended breaks throughout her career, and every opera fan and director understands that vocal issues arise periodically, so it’s quite doubtful anyone would hold an extended grudge over such an occurrence.
A substantial portion of the film deals with Maria’s long-term affair with Aristotle Onassis, and how shocked she was, and betrayed she felt, when he married Jackie Kennedy without so much as a word of warning. And when his marriage to Jackie crumbled, he came scurrying back to Maria, who openly welcomed him … a sure sign of just how lonely she had been for most of her life, despite the glamour and adulation. We can debate whether the legacy of Callas might have been better off had her personal thoughts remained buried, but there is little doubt that we are sometimes better off simply enjoying the work or art of a rare talent, rather than getting to know them as a person.