“When we fall in love,” Barbra Streisand’s character Rose Morgan says in The Mirror Has Two Faces, “we hear Puccini in our heads.” Opera fans are likely to get more specific and pinpoint an interpretation such as Maria Callas’s 1953 recording “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, a role she made legendary and is considered among the best opera recordings ever made. But when Callas herself is in love? She hears Georges Bizet’s “L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Carmen. It’s the happiest time in her life, when she has left her impresario husband and is in a romantic relationship with Aristotle Onassis, so what echoes the mood is her own 1962 Royal Opera House performance of that effervescent aria.
At least, that’s according to filmmaker Tom Volf. In Maria by Callas, his new documentary of the American-born Greek performer who achieved a global level of fame that transcended opera.
“La Divina” has been the subject of biopics, books and plays but never like this: Volf punctuates key periods in Callas’s life with the signature performances that he thinks are most expressive of those moods and moments. It makes sense: TV and movies from The Bridges of Madison County and Philadelphia to Orphan Black and The Avengers have used Callas as the soundtrack to moments of joy, love and heartbreak.
A lesser fan would have made a super-cut and shared it on YouTube. But Volf, a French photographer, is no lesser fan and this is no clip show, so audiences get never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage that documents Callas joking around, in costume fittings and personal Polaroid selfies. Super 8 footage is shot by her friend Princess Grace of Monaco, and the 1958 Paris performance of arguably her most famous piece “Casta Diva,” is presented here for the first time in colour.
Volf unearthed all this by tracking down more than 30 of Callas’s close friends who shared personal details, including confidantes such as her long-time maid Bruna Lupoli and butler Ferruccio Mezzadri.
“The approach of truth, and the decency, that was the first and foremost thing that made him trust and want to share stories and documents he had never shared before,” Volf says during an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
It was all in service of the film, which includes an exhibition staged in Paris last year and a lavish coffee table book as satellites, although the documentary itself changed dramatically as Volf went along. Initially, the director says he envisioned the usual mix of testimonials from friends and colleagues, but then came a breakthrough: his recovery of Callas’s “lost” 1970 televised interview with English journalist David Frost.
“The way she confides and opens herself, the way she speaks, is so direct, moving and heartfelt,” Volf says, “and it was very strong for me. She was a very modern artist and she was a very modern woman and that’s something I wanted to explore in the film. Especially how she talks about the duality of her public and private selves, that understanding of persona.”
Out went (most) of the talking heads as Volf reconstructed the film using Callas’s own words – her speaking voice in archive recordings friends supplied, interview footage and excerpts from her private letters and diaries (read by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato). The resulting portrait is framed by that Frost interview and has the haunting effect of a flashback, as he intended, “of her looking back on herself, thinking through her life, looking back with a new perspective on herself.”
Volf mentions a moment from the private, informal interview tapes Callas recorded with friends as preparation for a potential autobiography. It’s from the same recording where Callas talks about the fallout after Onassis married Jackie Kennedy in 1968 (if the American public was stunned and betrayed, imagine how soulmate Callas felt). It’s a piece Volf had to cut from the film, but the way “she talks about being a born fighter, and that she has fought all her life,” and personal anecdotes from her friends helped lead him quash the instinct others have had to sentimentalize her final years.
Callas’s life after Onassis’s death in 1975 is often characterized as reclusive, with her rattling around her Paris apartment like a pathetic Norma Desmond type fixated on past glories. “That’s another cliché,” Volf says. “A lot of people think of her as sad and lonely, that she died alone in her apartment. The truth,” he continues, “from Ferruccio and Bruna, the only people there on the day she passed, is that she had a meeting with her manager that day for a new tour. She wasn’t at all the dying swan.”
All this, yet Volf himself only discovered the diva five years ago at 25, after an impromptu decision to attend a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It was his first opera and that night he fell down an internet rabbit hole which led, inevitably, to Callas. Since her death in 1977 at the age of 53 there has been so much innuendo, myth and rumour that Volf felt the woman was missing from her own legacy. “Her, a human being, was very far from the image people had of her as a capricious diva, not at all hysterical or what people describe her to be.”
There’s a great bit of news footage from 1965 that talks with a group of young men in New York who have queued up for days and nights for the chance to buy concert tickets. They speak of her with a fervour not unlike today’s Little Monsters devoted to Lady Gaga. It’s that magnetic presence and that extraordinary expressive voice that made it crucial for Volf to feature footage of Callas performing her most important interpretations, the arias from Norma, Carmen and Tosca – in their entirety.
“If someone really tries to listen to me,” as the diva said, “he will find all of myself in there.”
Whether she is talking or singing, Callas speaks for herself.
Maria by Callas opens Oct. 26 in Toronto, Nov. 2 in Vancouver, Victoria and London, Ont.
Special to The Globe and Mail