Movie Review: MARIA BY CALLAS

By Victoria Alexander

Raw and very revealing. Whole arias are presented showing exactly what made Callas an icon and, in her own words, a tragic figure.

What is astonishing about MARIA BY CALLAS is how sad and unhappy she was. The documentary goes through the well-known episodic milestones in Maria Callas’ life. A life of bitter resentment and personal belief in her failures is the overall impression Callas chose to present in her letters and interviews. 

Callas expresses her anger at her mother for taking her out of school at 13 years old to study opera in Greece. Her mother was the driving influence and, regardless of the wealth, acclaim and her adult life at the peak of the opera world, Callas’ public pronouncements are laden with sadness. She often expressed the desire to happily give up singing to have a loving husband and children.

If someone with the highly disciplined, prodigious talent of Maria Callas – sure, lots of people can sing but a career in opera is something that is possible for a rare few – can be unhappy, how do celebrities like the Kardashians, without any talent whatsoever, live through each day?

This ad showing an open-mouthed Millie Bobby Brown, for Moncler Beyond is so shockingly obvious and suggestive of pornography, I must criticize the company and advertising agency for its hardly subliminal message. The team orchestrating Brown’s career are treating her like a starlet and not a prepubescent girl of 14. And why is Brown having a bonding relationship with 31-year-old Drake?

Callas’ domineering Mother was next replaced – the psychological need cleverly satisfied – in her choice of a manager who would become her husband.  At 24, Maria married Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a Veronese impresario 30 years her senior who orchestrated her rise as a world-renowned soprano. According to Callas, her husband became enthralled with “their” success and she does not have kind words about his contribution to her career.

Accepting an invitation in 1957 to shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis’s yacht changed everything for Callas. No matter how wealthy, generous and charming Onassis was, he was very short, very stocky and very unattractive. Onassis was also a mere young man for Callas, being just 19 years older than Maria.

Callas never understood the man she was publicly linked to for more than fifteen years. No matter his wealth, Onassis modest beginnings was his psychic Achilles Heel – he needed to collect the best art, women, and lifestyle. Callas’ enormous talent and fame made her a prized possession to add to his collection.

Imagine how Callas felt – she admits it was devastating – when she found out, not by Onassis but by a newspaper – that he had married a woman whose only talent was marrying a Kennedy. 

Besides her great voice, which is presented here in several full performances, MARIA BY CALLAS also does not sidestep the many scandals that made her opera’s greatest reigning diva of the 20th century. Temperamental, yes indeed. 

I was only familiar with Callas as the jilted lover of Onassis. Maria’s jealousy and desire for revenge upon her lover’s brutally cruel abandonment to marry Jacqueline Kennedy was revealed in letters sold at auction in 2002.

In one letter, Maria writes:  “It’s cruel, it isn’t true – both should pay, and both will pay, you’ll see. The worst thing is that he didn’t say anything to me about the marriage. After I’d spent nine years at his side I think he was obliged to do that – or at least not to let me learn about it in the papers. But I think he’s crazy, and as such I’m going to wipe him out of my mind, and I shall try to do it as soon as I can.”

In one of her sensational scandals presented in MARIA BY CALLAS, in 1958, Maria walked off after the first act of a gala performance of Bellini’s Norma in Rome, claiming illness. The president of Italy and most of Rome’s high society were in the audience. She refused to continue because her singing was below her standards. Known for her volatile temperament, she was sharply criticized for leaving the stage and it damaged her reputation. The intrigue-laden and backstabbing world of Italian opera led to Callas’ many cancellations and poor performances. She was fired from The Metropolitan Opera House but triumphantly returned in 1965 in Puccini’s Tosca.

Directed by Tom Volf, an enormous fan, sanctifies Maria Callas using archival newsreel footage, performance recordings, and rare interview excerpts from when the great diva sat down with David Frost in 1970. Documentary subjects are rarely given objectivity. How could they, when directors cannot crucify or even present their subject honestly? Where would their careers go forward with that kind of history?

MARIA BY CALLAS has inspired me to read Maria Callas: Sacred Monster by Stelios Galaropoulos.

Victoria Alexander is a member of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. Victoria lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

 

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