Film Review: Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words
Directed by Tom Volpe
The conundrum at the center of this fascinating bio-pic of Maria Callas, is encapsulated in the title of the film. She addresses this at the very beginning, in an interview with David Frost, when she says that she is two distinct entities - the private Maria and the public Callas. The two must coexist and the private has a duty to support the public. This film endeavors to meld the two by giving voice to the private which has been in service to the public for so long. And she does reveal her struggles, her insecurities, her pain and her passion with a raw and open honesty. So she comes to us as Callas telling us Maria’s version and it is richly rewarding and ever so human.
Born in 1923 in Manhattan to Greek immigrant parents, with an ambitious mother, who pushed her daughter into a singing career as early as the age of five when she discovered that she could sing. According to Maria, she did not have a happy childhood as she was forced to study and practice constantly to develop her talent. Her parents had a terrible marriage and their disputes were all to visible to her. A surprisingly plain and plump adolescent, she was wracked by insecurities and survived the only way she knew, by trying to please her overbearing mother.
As a teenager, her mother left her husband took Maria to Greece where the war forced them to remain in Europe and her lessons began in earnest. She was taken on by Elvira di Hidalgo, a beloved teacher of Bel Canto, the form which Maria made her own and her potential became a reality. She was soon performing in recitals and gaining a reputation in Italy.
As soon as Maria was able to travel and break with her mother who was becoming more unbearable she moved to Italy and began working successfully. It was there that she met the wealthy older man, Giovanni Menegheni, whom she married and who immediately began to manage her career in 1949. He was immensely supportive and took great pride in her career and bolstered her confidence. During this time she became dissatisfied with her weight and appearance and managed slim down dramatically and morph into the swan-like version of herself which remains to this day. With her artfully lined eyes, dramatic brows and lips and upswept haird she created her own unique style of glamour, transcending the world of opera. With this change came a new sense of confidence allowing her to finally become her own person, as well as a personage. It also emboldened her to leave Meneghini.
As her fame increased and spread, and she was revered for her sublime performances, the attention and criticism increased as well. If she was unable to perform, the audiences reviled her and heaped her with abuse. Her fans had become rabid and unforgiving. She was not insensitive to this and suffered enormously. The stress began to wear on her and affect her performances even more. What we realize from her words is that she felt an obligation to the music to be in service and if that is not possible she refused to insult the music or the composer by a bad performance. What comes across is her absolute devotion to the music. It is her religion and she is remarkably humble about her role as a conduit and the sublime rapture which can be reached when all of the elements come together. That is what she lived for and devoted her life to.
On the Maria side of the story, she claims that what she always wanted was a stable life with a husband and children and she feels terribly unfulfilled by not having that. This she blames on her mother who made her feel that this was the only option. “Destiny is destiny, there is no way out”. She talks candidly of her passionate and turbulent relationship with Aristotle Onassis, the devastation of his marriage to Jackie Kennedy without a word to her. The public cruelty and humiliation of that did not keep her from forgiving him when he came back on his knees. She never said a bad word about him. Her later years are spotty and somewhat sad, but she does not appear to have become embittered. But, the point here is not her life but the music. “I have written my memoirs. They are in the music I interpret. The only language I really know”
Watch the trailer here
Written by: Belle McIntyre