Maria by Callas: "Destiny is destiny. There is no way out."

Maria by Callas: "Destiny is destiny. There is no way out."

Jenna Simeonov

In the 21st century, opera’s ambassadors - singers, Artistic Directors, rabid fans - are obsessed with looking non-elitist. We make fun adaptations out of classic pieces, we bring opera to bars and busking corners, and we tell our friends that it’s totally cool to wear jeans to a show.

And then there’s the time of Maria Callas, who unashamedly raises opera to divine heights - and insists that it stay there. Maybe she’s a product of her day, when opera was decidedly more mainstream, more understood and appreciated among the general public. Or maybe she would have had that same reverential, near-unreasonable respect for her art and its composers in any era.

Maria by Callas, by Tom Volf.

That’s something that sticks out in Maria by Callas, Tom Volf’s documentary about La Callas. The film, which after coming to 2018’s TIFF makes its second visit to Toronto on October 26, is as unbiased as a documentary can get. Volf compiles previously unseen footage and photographs of Callas, personal 16mm films, and the singer’s private letters to friends.

It’s a story about a singer, of course, but also of a historical figure; we see how Callas’ life intersected with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Grace Kelly. It’s fascinating like any great documentary should be, and even hardcore Callas fans will find something new among so much restored material.

Maria by Callas is a treat for the voyeuristic opera fan, with her personal life illuminated through archives of Callas’ life. And as though Volf is reminding us of why she was such a star, he punctuates the interviews and letters with full clips of her singing; Volf’s picks are all gems, some of her most notorious arias: “Casta Diva”, “Un bel dì vedremo”, “Ah non credea mirarti”, and “Vissi d’arte”.

Maria by Callas, by Tom Volf.

Creating a through line through Volf’s film is footage from Callas’ 1974 interview with David Frost, previously thought to be lost. In it, and in other interviews she gave, the sheer quantity of strong opinions she holds - and articulates - is thrilling.

She is a fierce defender of honour for the bel canto composers; she never apologises, not even a little bit, for the illness that fell upon her and caused her infamous 1958 “Norma walkout” in Rome. “I didn’t outrage the public of the institutions. I didn’t disgrace the President, I didn’t endager the life of Italian theatre,” she said in a letter. “I simply had bronchitis.” Bellini deserves a healthy soprano, after all.

Callas says with no ambiguity that a woman’s true calling in life is to have a family and a husband. This, from a successful careerwoman who could have stood for the great feminist movement to come.

She is candid about being pushed into singing, first by her mother, and later by her first husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. Callas admits being tempted by the idea of walking away from her career - as she did for a time after her divorce and upon meeting Aristotle Onassis - yet in a moment of martyrdom, she says, “Destiny is destiny. There’s no way out.”

Maria by Callas, by Tom Volf.

It’s funny how easy it is, as a woman in 2018, to look at someone like Maria Callas and decide that she is unquestionably forward-thinking, a strong feminist who worked endlessly for her success. And then she says that being a wife and mother is “the main vocation for a woman.” It’s almost disappointing, yet entirely understandable for Callas, who was never encouraged - or even allowed - to pursue a “normal” life, perhaps balancing family and career.

I watched Maria by Callas at the right time. I’m a new mom, and among the things that stress me out at night is the guilt I often feel over enjoying my time at home with my baby, away from my previous career. Shouldn’t I, a woman of the 21st century, be jumping at the chance to go back to work?

Callas, in her amazing mix of dignity and honesty, stands for the women who have worked hard in their lives, but who have every right to want a life at home. When one has career at the exclusion of a family - or vice versa - the grass is sure to look greener on the other side.

Personal experience aside, opera fans will devour Maria by Callas. It opens in select theatres in Toronto on October 26.

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