Maria Callas has remained in our minds as the greatest « diva » of the second half of the 20 th century and her destiny is as tragic as the parts she loved to sing, Medea, Norma, Traviata. On December 13th, a documentary of her life, directed by Tom Volf, « Maria by Callas » will be aired in movie theatres in Paris. Do not miss it and take the new generations along. It is a masterpiece.
She was born Anna Maria Kaloyeropoulos in New York on December 2, 1923 and was trained musically by her mother at the time when Shirley Temple and Judy Garland were becoming children stars. She was less pretty than her older sister and felt very unloved except when she sang. The film starts with her interview by David Frost in 1970 where she says “children should have a marvelous childhood and I didn’t”. All she remembers was studying and singing constantly. When she moved with her sister and mother to Athens at 13, she soon enrolled in the conservatory and kept singing with no respite. She was by far the youngest student there.
Her professor Elvira de Hidalgo, who will remain a « mother » to her all her life, says : « she was the perfect student, obedient, intelligent, hard working. She was a great musician and always arrived the first and left the last ». This was during the war in Greece when daily life was tough but Maria Callas was very soon on stage.
Her first professional roles filmed here were in Trieste in 1953 and in Milan in 1954 in Norma. But she had already sung in Verona and abroad since 1948.
« I would have preferred to have a family and children rather than a career, but this was my destiny », says Maria Callas a few times in the film. At the height of her fame, she appears at the Paris opera in 1958 in Norma, with Brigitte Bardot and Sacha Distel, Jean Cocteau, the Duke n Duchess of Windsor being filmed climbing the steps of the building. The film is very clever because it constantly shows news footage of the time with the very many scenes of her before during and after the performances. Her elegance throughout is fascinating, with a five rows of pearls necklace and numerous dresses and earrings.
When her performance of Norma in Rome, in front of the Italian President is cancelled because of a voice extinction, on January 2, 1958, the medias call her a tempestuous actress. Then follow a series of dramas. Rudolf Bing fires her the same year from the Metropolitan opera, she meets Aristotle Onassis in Venice and falls madly in love with him seeking a separation from her husband/agent Giovanni Battista Meneghini. She describes the Greek tycoon as having the personality of an artist, « I felt very feminine with him ». It took her eleven years to get a divorce.
There is footage of a summer in 1964 in Greece, when she improvises a song on the little village piazza, then again a drama when she quits the performance of Tosca at Covent Garden in front of Queen Elizabeth and the Queen mother, because her voice was failing her.
Seven years after the scandal with Bing, she returns to the Met and the footage of young Americans queueing outside for twenty four hours to get a ticket is charming.
Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, « people like Bel Canto », she says are her favorite composers then.
But in 1965, returning to Paris from New York, her nerves give up. Onassis had married Jackie Kennedy without telling her. She buried herself on Avenue Georges Mandel in Paris where she tried to survive.
The end of the film is about her friendship with Pier Paolo Pasolini who shoots a fabulous “Medea” with her in Turkey. One also sees her in Palm Beach enjoying the luxuries of life.
Tom Volf discovered Maria Callas five years ago and spent all this time collecting photos and films of her.
The interview with David Frost in 1970 had been kept by Callas’ butler, Feruccio and when Volf saw it he made it the lead of the film. He is often on the screen escorting her as is her maid Bruna.
French conductor Georges Prêtre, Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti and pianist Robert Sutherland, are among the wonderful artists who illuminate the screen. When I asked a young baritone yesterday about Maria Callas’s importance for young singers today he replied: there is a before and an after Callas. “She changed forever the way singers act on stage”.
Those are 1h53 mns of magic, thanks to the beauty and elegance of the Diva, thanks to her stage talent and her tragic personality.
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