by Steven Prokopy
Director Tom Volf’s MARIA BY CALLAS is less a biographical documentary and more of a personal rebuttal of decades of rumors and scandal-rag innuendo by the one person capable of knowing all the facts in Callas’ life first hand: Maria Callas herself, one of opera’s biggest stars, finest actors, and most written about personalities. By using a great number of television interviews, home movies, personal photos, private letters and even portions of an unpublished memoirs (read by current opera singer Joyce DiDonato), MARIA BY CALLAS marks the first and only account of the Greek-American singer’s life story told in her own words.
Pieced together over four years by the first-time filmmaker, the film wisely allows the music to do a great deal of the talking, with Volf using several arias in their entirety, with each aria chosen to represent a significant period in Callas's life. These arias include: “Casta Diva” (from "Norma"), “Love is a Rebellious Bird” (“Carmen”), and “I Lived for Art, I Lived for Love” (“Tosca”). But the film also reveals how willing Callas would have been to give up her fame for the chance to life the life of a loving wife should the right man come along.
The film takes note of the many scandals that followed her around the world, including the notorious “Rome Cancellation” to her on-again/off-again love affair with Aristotle Onassis. Her reputation as a tempestuous diva is challenged—sometimes confirmed, often misunderstood or proven completely false. But it’s is that aspect of her life that Volf is seeking to clarify the most in ways Callas cannot do for herself (she died in 1977, at the age of 53). Film historians will enjoy the section of the film that document her pairing with director Pier Paolo Pasolini for his 1969 adaption of MEDEA, complete with previously unseen, behind-the-scenes footage of the production.
MARIA BY CALLAS is told by the most reliable narrator the director could produce, and we’re still not always sure if everything we’re hearing is completely true. We spoke to Volf (via phone from Paris) about discovering Callas in his own life and eventually becoming enamored with her enough to want to tell her story in such a unique and singular fashion. Plus, he reveals which pieces of archival footage are among the rarest and how he discovered them. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, November 16.
Question: It seems very important to you via this film to allow Maria Callas to tell her own story, even 40 years after her death. Did you ultimately find her a fairly reliable narrator?
Tom Volf: I think she’s the most reliable narrator. That’s really why I wanted to do this. It’s been 40 years since she passed, and there have been so many things—books, television programs about her, and in the end, they all approach her from an outer perspective. And while many of them are reliable to a point, there was still an external point of view, and we missed her own point of view tremendously. She said something that struck me: “Someday, I want to tell my life story. After all, I’m the one who lived it.” I think that makes her the most reliable source of information about how she went through that life and how she felt, as Maria the woman, and not just Callas, and how she went through all the episodes of her life in a different way than these moments have been recounted to us before.
In terms of objectivity—and I realize not every documentary has to be objective—did you find that she was objective about her own life?
TV: Yes, I did. As a director, I constantly asked myself about that objectivity because it was important that I remain objective about her life and her personality, even though I’m making a film in her own words. It was a constant thing on my mind, and I was always investigating whether I was on the track of objectivity. Although the film is here to present her versions of the stories, which to me is the true version of the story because she was all about integrity and honesty. At the same time, I was having to look at things from the outside. I think by the end of the journey of making this film, I can say that this film shows her in a very objective way. At the same time, it doesn’t impose a point of view on anyone. It allows everyone in the audience to be free to make their own opinions about her, and I think it’s a very beautiful thing to allow that freedom, to get to know her for who she was and have your own opinion and not someone else’s.
Since their death, there have been many things written about her. Some have called this film a corrective document. Did you see it that way too, as a chance to allow Callas to have the last word on her life?
TV: Absolutely, to set the record straight. It was super important, especially about someone who has had so much said and written about her, and so many false things, even during her lifetime. She always wanted to set the record straight for herself and she tried to with the press and media back in the day. She always wrote that “One day, I will write my own biography. That will put the record straight.” And she never got to because she passed away fairly young. I think the film does the job of somehow being her autobiography and allowing her to have her own truth be spoken out and giving the opportunity for the people to see her differently and hear the truth behind a lot of stories that have been told. The Rome Cancellation story was as much about her character and they attached this word “diva” to her, and when you realize from the film that she wasn’t at all like that, you’ll see her quite differently. But you also get an understanding of why she had that reputation precede her.
Let me back up a bit. When did your fascination with Callas begin, and how did it get to the point where you wanted to make a film about her?
TV: It wasn’t a fascination rather than an obsession. It all started about six years ago, and before that, I barely knew who she was. I didn’t know much about opera or classical music. I live in New York, and one night I attended the Met Opera and happened to see my very first Italian opera and fell completely in love with it. That same night, I was researching on the internet about Italian opera, the first thing that came up was a recording of Callas, and that was it. That was the first revelation. Quickly enough, I felt like I was on the journey of discovering her and wanted to know more, I felt like the most relevant person to tell me about her was herself. Because that film didn’t exist, I went through process of making it.
One of the most impressive things about the film is that you use full singing performances, letting her voice speak for itself as well.
TV: That’s very important. And even if it makes the film a little longer, I think it’s worth it. From the feedback that I get, no one really thinks it’s too long. Everyone tells me they didn’t notice and that it passes quickly. When you see her performing, there is so much happening beyond the pure singing. The way they breathe life into those characters, it’s so enchanting and it reveals so much about what a unique artist and actress she was. I think you get a true understanding of what her art was about and why she was such a phenomenon. It very important and a bold move to have the arias complete.
Also, I thought there was a whole subtext that is given to us through the lyrics she performed, and it was so revealing about her as a woman. It’s the link between Maria and Callas—she’s Callas when she sings, but she reveals part of the woman Maria when she sings. That in itself is very meaningful. And because this is made for the cinema, this is the closest we can give the audience the experience of what audiences back in the day were experiencing in the opera houses while she was performing live. I think that’s such a wonderful experience for people today to be as close as you can get to that incredible emotional performance. It’s like the young man says in the film, “Every gesture, every pause has some drama in it.”
The David Frost interview that serves as the framework for the film—and even the title of the film comes from it—is quite rare. Where did you find it, and why did you want to lean on it so much as a storytelling device?
TV: What was considered to be completely lost for 50 years was not recorded or preserved, was only kept by one of her close friends who miraculously preserved it by filming the screen with a Super 8 camera, recording sound separately on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It’s a miracle to have it preserved in this way. What she says in that interview, she never said it before or after. It’s so much more or a confession, more than an interview. And what she says in the beginning, “There are two people in me: the Maria and the Callas that I have to live up to” is such an important key to understanding her whole life and the sacrifice of the personal life for her career and life as an artist. It very naturally gave us the title for the film because that’s what the film explores. MARIA BY CALLAS is about exploring the duality between the woman and the artist, and also how one is a piece of the other, how Callas can unravel Maria for us.
Tell me about the rest of your experiences combing through archives and finding material. Any other particularly great finds that you made?
TV: So much. The biggest part of this film is never-before-seen footage. She would be at a private home as a guest and someone would film her, and no one knew of these before. It’s Maria at her most intimate, with friends or with Onassis on a cruise. Those are images that have never been seen before and shed a light on her.
In the version of the film I saw, you have Joyce DiDonato voice reading Maria’s letters. But I also saw something about Fanny Ardant being involved in a similar capacity. Is that a different version of the film?
TV: That’s correct. Fanny Ardant did the voice for the French version, and Joyce does it for the American version.
Did I read that Joyce was in that first opera that you went to see?
TV: Correct! Yes, and I think there’s a very direct connection between her and Callas. Her performance in that opera, not just as a singer but as an actress, was so inspiring that it shattered me and if I had not had that experience I might have not focused so much on that opera and thus not had an interest in Callas. I think there is a lineage between Callas and her.
Callas seemed very willing, even eager, to give up her career if she’d found the right man. Does that surprise you that she was willing to take on the role of wife?
TV: Not at all, because that’s exactly where her duality lies. It’s a strong duality between Maria the woman and Callas the artist. Maria just wanted a family and happy marriage and children, and she was desperate to have that. So that sacrifice…she gave herself over to Callas, and it could have been otherwise. She did try to sacrifice her career for a couple of years but that didn’t work out. There is no moral or social statement in that; it’s just part of her extreme attempt to be a woman and an artist.
It’s important in a film like this, especially since she’s been gone for so long, to appeal to both longtime fans as well as people who don’t know her history. How did you balance the two?
TV: Absolutely, that’s goal number one.
You probably would have loved a movie like this one when you were first discovering her.
TV: Yes, I’ve been saying that all the time. It’s incredible to heart you say that. I’ve been saying that I ended up making the film that I wanted to see when I first discover her. I think if I didn’t know anything about opera or her, I would have loved to have discovered her through a movie like this, in all modesty. The film makes her very accessible to people who know little about opera. She didn’t just appeal to opera lovers; she appealed as a popular artist. The audiences and youngsters who came to see her, they weren’t necessarily the usual opera fans. I tried with great effort to keep her very open and accessible to everyone. Of course, it should satisfy the admirers, but first and foremost, I thought the most gratifying thing for me would be to bring her to people who were in my situation six years ago. There’s nothing more beautiful than that. She has changed my life completely, and if this film is a way for people to discover her then there’s nothing greater I could hope for.
It’s my understanding that initially that you did interview people who knew her and worked with her, but ultimately left that out. Was that a tough decision?
TV: It was a very tough decision, but it felt 100 percent right because I really got a deep inner understanding that she was the only and most relevant person to tell her story. So bringing anyone from the outside, no matter how close they may have been, would have taken us out of that intimacy and immersive feeling that we have throughout the film, and this dialogue that establishes itself between her and the audience when they watch is a very precious, fragile atmosphere that has to be preserved to get to the depths of our understanding and feeling for who she truly was.
The film feels divided into two parts: her performing years and her later personal life and health issues. Do you see her life divided that way?
TV: Very much so. As I said before, her live was divided between when she sacrificed Maria for Callas and then Callas for Maria. Ultimately, there is a third part: the comeback. That is in-between. The film is very reflective of what her life was about, in three parts. If it was an opera, it would have been Act I, Act II and Act III. It could have been in opera, right? Although, it was reality and it would be a cliche if you made it into an opera. But strangely, her life ended up being like one of those operas, with the same level of drama, unfortunately.
For better or worse, the parts of her life that people do know the most about are the more scandalous or controversial, which you address. Were you worried about painting her in too good a light?
TV: No, I was not afraid to go into the scandals; I felt it was important to get into them, but to show the real story behind them. She’s not always beautiful and lovely throughout the film. She’s also pretty angry at times, but that’s who she was. But you also realize the amount of injustice that was laid out behind the scandals, and you also get a much idea of how it all played out and why we have that idea of her initiating the scandals, where this was quite rarely the case.
Do you think if she had been a man, those labels of being difficult or tempestuous would have even stuck?
TV: These were the ’50 and ’60s; it was a very tough time for a woman. The decisions she made were incredibly bold and modern for a woman in those days—fighting for a divorce in 1959 in conservative Italy. I’m amazed how modern she was for her time. Of course, the things that happened to her then would never happen to a woman today and certainly not in the same way.
As a film lover, I was particularly thrilled to see all the footage of her working with Pasolini. Was that footage fairly rare as well?
TV: Completely unknown. That’s actually on the set, filmed with a Super 8 camera by one of her friends. It’s amazing to see her in that context. It’s almost a Making Of, and to see her in that context it was incredible. I also wanted to address one thing. You’re in Chicago, right?
TV: The film starts with amazing footage of her singing her only performance of “Madama Butterfly,” filmed in Chicago in 1955. It’s such an incredible footage because she only performed that opera once on stage, so Chicago has a very deep meaning to me with the film, because it all starts in Chicago. It was such a unique piece of footage, and it was such an important place for her in her career. It’s really where her American career started, before the Met, before New York, so it’s very important and meaningful to bring this film to Chicago and to bring “Butterfly” back home.
Are there any other public figures that you’re considering profiling in a similar fashion?
TV: [laughs] Oh, I can’t say. The film is coming out in 40 countries, and I’m traveling with it, presenting it to various audiences. I’m still much in it to think of anything else.
Tom, thank you so much. Best of luck.
TV: Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”