It’s probably worth noting before any discussion of Tom Volf’s venerative documentary debut, Maria by Callas, that my knowledge of opera is relatively limited. Sure, the Metropolitan Opera was only a few blocks from my apartment in New York, and I’d make a point of stopping by when funds permitted (which was not often), but I certainly wouldn’t call myself a devotee. Still, even speaking as someone largely ignorant of all things operatic, I was aware of the outsize reputation of Maria Callas, the reputedly difficult diva who was the face of American opera for the better part of the ’50s and ’60s. Given those observations, Maria by Callas is a doting portrait painted predominantly with primary sources, resulting in a film that will be of great interest to Callas’ fan base but will likely prove impenetrable for those on the outside.
Volf, who has authored multiple books on Callas, is clearly preaching to the converted here, as his reliance on archival footage proves to be simultaneously Maria by Callas’ central strength and greatest weakness. In trying to convey his own obviously intimate understanding of his subject, Volf frequently leaves the uninitiated out in the cold. As a result, the film seems squarely aimed at those who either lived through the period of Callas’ prominence or were dedicated aficionados sufficiently interested to have done their research in advance.
For those at whom Volf’s doc is aimed, it’s hard to imagine a more loving treatment. Large swaths of running time are given over to performance footage of Callas, a career-spanning highlight reel that will impress even the anti-aesthetes in the audience with the astounding talent Callas commanded. This is really the film’s fundamental appeal, as Callas’ voice remains a virtuosic wonderment even when the grainy 8mm concert footage doesn’t measure up to the auditory spectacle it’s capturing. If you’ve never heard Callas sing, this film is truly remarkable and well worth a watch.
But that very insistence on exhaustively documenting Callas’ performative proficiency often causes the film’s pacing to suffer, and the scant details provided on the singer’s private life are distinctly myopic. Volf relies almost exclusively on interview footage and Callas’ personal letters and journals (read in voice-over by opera singer Joyce DiDonato), leading to a biased representation of the singer’s struggles. Her troubled marriage to manufacturing-magnate-turned-manager Giovanni Battista Meneghini is recounted only through Callas’ perspective, and insight into her lengthy romance with Aristotle Onassis is similarly one-sided. When the diva decries her detractors for labeling her “difficult,” insisting that she behaved reasonably when canceling concerts midperformance, we just have to take her word for it.
The sense of hero worship that hangs over Volf’s doc will likely leave the casual viewer wishing for something a little more objective and informative but will nonetheless establish why people still consider Callas one of the greats. While the film proceeds in roughly chronological order, an early ’70s interview with David Frost provides the spine of the film’s structure, allowing the singer a retrospective perspective near the untimely end of her life from which to provide an overview of the many sacrifices she made in the name of her art. The result is a moving portrait of a deeply conflicted and gratuitously talented master of her craft, an idolatrous paean to a troubled artist whose career was cut tragically short. Maria by Callas may leave many wanting more in the way of context, but for die-hard fans of Callas, it hits all the right notes.