2018-12-13 / Around Town

An Extraordinary Look at a Legend

By Loren King

‘Maria By Callas,” tells the story of the legendary opera singer Maria Callas–from her perspective. ‘Maria By Callas,” tells the story of the legendary opera singer Maria Callas–from her perspective. Maria Callas’s legendary life and peerless talent was itself operatic; too big to be contained by a conventional film biography. The new documentary “Maria By Callas,” which opens Dec. 14 at the Jane Pickens Theater, allows the artist who died in 1977 at just 53 to tell her story solely in her own words.

Using letters, journal entries, interviews and glorious footage, much never seen before, director Tom Volf brings Callas to life and reminds viewers why she was an otherworldly force in her time and remains so today. Joyce DiDonato, one of contemporary opera’s biggest stars, reads Callas’s words with a richness of tone that’s never showy.

The title refers to a statement that the eloquent Callas makes in a long-forgotten TV interview with David Frost, where she says that there are two people in her, “Maria” and “Callas.” That duality informs the film. Through extraordinary archival footage, we experience her magnificent stage persona and her voice, with its impossible range and technical precision.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. The public Callas is balanced with intimate scenes from home movies and interviews, starting with her childhood. She tells interviewer Edward R. Murrow that she was born in New York City but her Greek family relocated to Greece in the late 1930s when she had just started high school. The family got stuck in Greece during the war and Callas, at the insistence of her ambitious, determined mother, enrolled in rigorous music classes beginning at age 13.

It’s the performances that really distinguish the film, from rare early footage of Callas on stage as Madame Butterfly to amazing sequences inside and outside La Scala in Milan to Callas performing at the old Metropolitan Opera house in New York City, before her famous falling out with its manager, Rudolf Bing.

The film corrects the long-held perception that Callas was a tempestuous diva. When she had to cancel the second half of “Norma” at the Rome opera house because she was sick, it became an international scandal that one can’t imagine today. Footage of Callas being hounded relentlessly by paparazzi, always men, underscores the film’s subtle point that it was blatant sexism that earned her the “difficult” label simply for being a professional and a hard-working perfectionist.

The footage is matched with vocal tracks, so we get to hear Callas singing arias, including “Casta Diva” from one of her signature roles as Bellini’s “Norma,” her flawless “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” and a stunning black-and-white sequence of another signature aria, “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

For non-opera fans, the documentary will be fascinating for capturing the jet-setting period when Callas made international headlines. She had the exotic beauty of Sophia Loren and the regal bearing of Grace Kelly, one of her close friends, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

There is fascinating footage of the always smartly dressed Callas in a crush of reporters and photographers when she went to court to obtain a legal separation from her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. After saying repeatedly that she won’t answer their questions, one reporter asks her about the “romantic squabble.”

“It’s not a romantic squabble,” she says, calmly. “It’s a separation.”

A large section of the film is about her well-publicized relationship with Aristotle Onassis, whom Callas affectionately calls “Aristo” in her letters. There’s great footage of the two vacationing on his boat in the 1960s to the theme from “Zorba the Greek” and a poignant letter that Callas wrote to a friend expressing her dismay when Onassis, without telling her, wed Jackie Kennedy in 1968.

With the exception of the 2002 movie “Callas Forever,” starring French actress Fanny Ardant, and Terrence McNally’s play, “Master Class,” fictional representations of Callas cannot do her justice. “Maria By Callas” is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand what made her a legend and for anyone who simply appreciates pure artistry.

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