Screen Savor: The big O

Maria by Callas

Opera begins with the letter O. Orgasm also begins with the letter O. After watching the documentary “Maria by Callas” (Sony Pictures Classics), it’s easy to imagine that many opera fans will find themselves in an orgasmic state. 

First time director Tom Volf’s “Maria by Callas” opens with the statement, “Maria Callas in her own words drawn directly from her interviews, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs”. The first clip, a 1970 New York TV interview with David Frost, sets the tone as Callas tells him that there are two people in her: Maria and the Callas she has to live up to, and that she likes to think they both go together.

The diary excerpt – “music is a thing too vast and deep to grasp in language” -- is a thought that some may say also applies to Callas herself. In a 1958 Edward R. Murrow interview with Madame Callas, she displays a sweet disposition and sense of humor. Later, another interviewer mentioned her reputation for being tempestuous, which she handles with grace.

The daughter of an ambitious mother, and a father who changed his long, difficult to pronounce Greek surname to Callas, wanted Maria to have musical education, beginning with piano lessons at eight. Her mother also wanted her to be a great singer, with child stars Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple as inspiration. Needless to say, Callas didn’t have a wonderful childhood. Her family left New York City in 1937, after Maria had just gotten into high school, for Greece where they were stuck for the duration of the war.

Things changed for Maria while in Greece. She was accepted into the Conservatoire of Athens, where she studied with Elvira De Hidalgo to whom she says she owes everything. An interview with De Hildago in which she, pardon the expression, sings Callas’ praises, show they shared a mutual (and lifelong) admiration for each other.

Volk makes good use of performance and backstage film footage, beginning in 1952 through 1958. Her successes throughout the 1950 in Florence, Trieste, Milan, New York and Paris, however, are overshadowed by the 1958 performance catastrophe in Rome, which she calls the saddest evening of her career, when due to contracting bronchitis, she cancelled her performance. Callas is trashed by the public and press, and sees no chance of resurrection. She refuses to talk to the US press about the Roman incident when she arrives in Chicago, claiming she is tired of adverse publicity. Adding insult to injury, in an interview Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metroplitan Opera, he talks about severing his professional relationship w Maria. She, of course, has a chance to tell her side of the story, which includes her desire for new, well-staged performances, not repetition of repertoire.

Callas’ life in the late 1950s, included time with her dogs at her home in Sirmione, Italy, as well as her 1957 introduction to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Their meeting occurred at a time when Callas’ marriage to Battista was falling apart because, as she put it, her fame was going to his head. Her life in the 1960s was a series of concert performance highs and cancellations lows which she blamed on strained nerves and endless fatigue, after almost 30 years of performing. Nevertheless, her return to the Met in New York was a cause for celebration and the news-clip interviews with the young, queens waiting in line in the cold to see their diva, must be seen.

Callas, who was in love with her soulmate Onassis, was blindsided when after nine years by his side, she  finds out about his marriage to Jackie Kennedy in the papers. Callas does her best to cope, even takes 

the title role of Medea in the 1969 movie by gay filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. By 1970, however, Onassis is back to visiting Maria. He admits that his marriage to Jackie was a mistake. They resume their relationship. In a 1974 Barbara Walters interview, she asks Callas if she gave up singing for Aristo, as Callas called him. While she did perform less, she still gave concerts in Hamburg, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo into the mid-1970s.

As Callas put it, her memoirs were written in the music, the only language she knew. At the time she died of a heart attack in her Paris apartment in 1977 at 53, she was in rehearsal to perform again. More than anything, what “Maria by Callas” illustrates is that Callas’ life itself was its own opera. Now, someone just has to write it. Blu-ray+DVD+Digital bonus features Include a Q&As with director Volf, and  narrator and opera singer Joyce DiDonato.