Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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“This is Maria Callas in her own words drawn directly from her interviews, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs." The compilation of a passionate fan.

It's said that Tom Volf, the French photographer turned filmmaker, had met with some thirty people who knew the unparalleled operatic diva, Maria Callas, deciding not to film them but to focus exclusively on the sources he lists above, which he states at the outset of Maria by Callas. (A mezzo soprano, coloratura lyric, Joyce DiDonato, voices Callas' letters, diaries, etc.; Fanny Ardant voices the French version. When Callas herself speaks, newcomers to her story may be surprised that it's often in French.)

This is a portrait, then, of Maria Callas in her own image and her own words. Why only that might be due to her having been as much maligned as adored in her lifetime but now, forty years since her death, turned into a kind of idol. Callas, born in New York of Greek parents, studied in Greece from the age of thirteen and had a teacher at the conservatory there, the Spanish coloratura soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, to whom, along with her own tremendously hard work, she owed everything. (They may have spoken in French which Hidalgo speaks in an excerpted interview.) There's a glimpse of her breathtaking loss of weight between 1954 and 1955 (some say sixty pounds, some eighty, but that's not discussed here) and some datelines of her early successes and her alliance with La Scala of Milan.

Volf gives us the basic information about Callas, and some of the highlights, and low points, of her short but spectacular career, not to mention her marriage to the Italian industrialist Giovanni Menenghini, twenty-seven years her senior, and later affair, the love of her life, with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who jilted her without warning to marry JFK's widow, Jacqueline,Image

“This is Maria Callas in her own words drawn directly from her interviews, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs." The compilation of a passionate fan.

It's said that Tom Volf, the French photographer turned filmmaker, had met with some thirty people who knew the unparalleled operatic diva, Maria Callas, deciding not to film them but to focus exclusively on the sources he lists above, which he states at the outset of Maria by Callas. (A mezzo soprano, coloratura lyric, Joyce DiDonato, voices Callas' letters, diaries, etc.; Fanny Ardant voices the French version. When Callas herself speaks, newcomers to her story may be surprised that it's often in French.)

This is a portrait, then, of Maria Callas in her own image and her own words. Why only that might be due to her having been as much maligned as adored in her lifetime but now, forty years since her death, turned into a kind of idol. Callas, born in New York of Greek parents, studied in Greece from the age of thirteen and had a teacher at the conservatory there, the Spanish coloratura soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, to whom, along with her own tremendously hard work, she owed everything. (They may have spoken in French which Hidalgo speaks in an excerpted interview.) There's a glimpse of her breathtaking loss of weight between 1954 and 1955 (some say sixty pounds, some eighty, but that's not discussed here) and some datelines of her early successes and her alliance with La Scala of Milan.

Volf gives us the basic information about Callas, and some of the highlights, and low points, of her short but spectacular career, not to mention her marriage to the Italian industrialist Giovanni Menenghini, twenty-seven years her senior, and later affair, the love of her life, with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who jilted her without warning to marry JFK's widow, Jacqueline but then resumed the affair, matters we hear a lot about. Volf gives us substantial samples of Callas performances, arias he allows to play out in their entirety, including “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma and “Love Is a Rebellious Bird” from Bizet’s Carmen. The pieces she sings are all identified. But not the famous people, like the Windsors, Visconti, Brigitte Bardot, Sacha Distel, Jean Cocteau, Grace Kelly, Queen Elizabeth, De Sica, Omar Sharif, and others of the like who flit by in archival footage without mention.

There are excerpts from a lost 1970 David Frost interview with Callas, a real find, periodic returns to which provide a kind of rhythmic motif for the film. The conversation seems relaxed, and Callas looks relaxed, as she often doesn't, though her electric presence (Leonard Bernstein called her "pure electricity") and her 40 carat smile hide that. She doesn't reveal very much besides what, like her relationship with Onassis, was well known. We hear many of her declarations, such as the one that a woman can be a mother or have a career, not both; that she would rather have been a mother, but that was not her "destiny"; and besides, her mother forced her into her operatic career and thus, as she tells David Frost, she didn't have a real childhood.

Despite letting the singing performances "breathe," this film gives the feeling of jumping rapidly from Maria Callas' rapid success at La Scala and the Met into her dramatic episodes of cancelled gala concerts and angry public and press and Rudolf Bing's "severing" of her contract with the Met, events that seem to lead directly into difficulty, decline, and early retirement, with attempts to return to regular performance that eventually dropped off.

What happened? That you won't find out here. Also you will not get footage of Callas performing in full dramatic opera productions. Mostly she is filmed rather in concert appearances. This may not be such a big deal, since it is said that while her ability to make her roles come to life was unparalleled, she created character through the notes and words, and was an unusually "still" performer in operas. (There are also many clips of press conferences, or pursuits by press, many descents from airplanes into crowds of newsman and photographers.

What about her voice? Given her enormous importance, it would be nice to learn more about it. She single-handedly changed how opera was performed, and brought the then forgotten operas of the "primo ottocento" (early nineteenth century), by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and others, with their elaborate, florid vocal complexity, back into favor. That voice is a complex and partly controversial story. She had enormous range, three ranges; but did not make such smooth transitions between them, though this, like other difficulties, she often could hide. From the start her voice had a dark, "hooded" quality; she could be said to begin as a mezzo. There was also ugliness in her voice - she herself hated the sound of it - but perhaps its roughness made it more compelling and lent itself to shaping a dramatic part. At the same time, she was acknowledged to have been extraordinarily musical, and to have a mastery of all kinds of operatic styles and vocal techniques. When you compare Callas singing something like "Casta diva" to another singer like Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland, their vocal styles are fluent and lovely, but it's Callas' performance, packed with drama, that instantly grabs you.

But there is no analysis of the voice of Maria Callas to be had from this film. Read the lengthy Wikipedia section about her dealing with her voice. Also, if you can get hold of it (it's accessible to subscribers) read the November 13, 1995 profile in The New Yorker by Will Crutchfield, "The Story of a Voice." He goes into many of these matters and argues, convincingly, that Callas' scandalous cancellations mid-performance and the early decline of her ability to sing were not due to illness or nerves but to the failure of her voice - and that this was because she used in wrongly, strained it, and gradually, irreparably damaged it, from early on. Crutchfield argues, citing numerous examples from existing archival recordings, that her voice was already starting to decline at the beginning of her career, in the early 1950's, and only got worse in the late 1950's and was largely hopeless by the 1960's.

I don't know much about opera but have long been aware of the magic of Callas' voice, not to mention her beauty, elegance, and celebrity. Despite my ignorance, the fraught, complicated story behind that voice is deeply interesting to me. Crutchfield's profile made a stunning impression on me when it first appeared. None of this is in Volf's film. In the absence of that, despite its visual texture (the preserved sprocket marks on 16mm, Super 8, and 35mm reel footage, the colorization of archival black and white concert films) and all the information it does certainly provide, without the counterweight of questioning and analysis or in-depth examination - cornerstones of documentary filmmaking - Maria by Callas has the feel primarily of a beautiful and elaborate fan letter.

Maria by Callas, 93 mins., officially debuted 9 Nov. 2017 at the La Baule Film & Score Festival, but was featured notably at the NYFF, Mill Valley, Hamptons, MIll Valley and Chicago. The US theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics began 9 Nov. 2018 (Metascore 71). The film opened in France today, 13 Dec. 2018, with very positive reviews: the AlloCiné press rating is 3.7. Volf, who in his own photography likes to use classic film cameras and revels in the archival, has produced an exhibition in Paris and three related books, Maria by Callas, Callas Confidential, and Lettres et mémoires inachevés de Maria Callas. Formerly associated with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, he says he went on a "detour" to pursue medical studies in New York, when he encountered Maria Callas in a recording of the mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in 2013, and these projects began.

Image
but then resumed the affair, matters we hear a lot about. Volf gives us substantial samples of Callas performances, arias he allows to play out in their entirety, including “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma and “Love Is a Rebellious Bird” from Bizet’s Carmen. The pieces she sings are all identified. But not the famous people, like the Windsors, Visconti, Brigitte Bardot, Sacha Distel, Jean Cocteau, Grace Kelly, Queen Elizabeth, De Sica, Omar Sharif, and others of the like who flit by in archival footage without mention.

There are excerpts from a lost 1970 David Frost interview with Callas, a real find, periodic returns to which provide a kind of rhythmic motif for the film. The conversation seems relaxed, and Callas looks relaxed, as she often doesn't, though her electric presence (Leonard Bernstein called her "pure electricity") and her 40 carat smile hide that. She doesn't reveal very much besides what, like her relationship with Onassis, was well known. We hear many of her declarations, such as the one that a woman can be a mother or have a career, not both; that she would rather have been a mother, but that was not her "destiny"; and besides, her mother forced her into her operatic career and thus, as she tells David Frost, she didn't have a real childhood.

Despite letting the singing performances "breathe," this film gives the feeling of jumping rapidly from Maria Callas' rapid success at La Scala and the Met into her dramatic episodes of cancelled gala concerts and angry public and press and Rudolf Bing's "severing" of her contract with the Met, events that seem to lead directly into difficulty, decline, and early retirement, with attempts to return to regular performance that eventually dropped off.

What happened? That you won't find out here. Also you will not get footage of Callas performing in full dramatic opera productions. Mostly she is filmed rather in concert appearances. This may not be such a big deal, since it is said that while her ability to make her roles come to life was unparalleled, she created character through the notes and words, and was an unusually "still" performer in operas. (There are also many clips of press conferences, or pursuits by press, many descents from airplanes into crowds of newsman and photographers.

What about her voice? Given her enormous importance, it would be nice to learn more about it. She single-handedly changed how opera was performed, and brought the then forgotten operas of the "primo ottocento" (early nineteenth century), by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and others, with their elaborate, florid vocal complexity, back into favor. That voice is a complex and partly controversial story. She had enormous range, three ranges; but did not make such smooth transitions between them, though this, like other difficulties, she often could hide. From the start her voice had a dark, "hooded" quality; she could be said to begin as a mezzo. There was also ugliness in her voice - she herself hated the sound of it - but perhaps its roughness made it more compelling and lent itself to shaping a dramatic part. At the same time, she was acknowledged to have been extraordinarily musical, and to have a mastery of all kinds of operatic styles and vocal techniques. When you compare Callas singing something like "Casta diva" to another singer like Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland, their vocal styles are fluent and lovely, but it's Callas' performance, packed with drama, that instantly grabs you.

But there is no analysis of the voice of Maria Callas to be had from this film. Read the lengthy Wikipedia section about her dealing with her voice. Also, if you can get hold of it (it's accessible to subscribers) read the November 13, 1995 profile in The New Yorker by Will Crutchfield, "The Story of a Voice." He goes into many of these matters and argues, convincingly, that Callas' scandalous cancellations mid-performance and the early decline of her ability to sing were not due to illness or nerves but to the failure of her voice - and that this was because she used in wrongly, strained it, and gradually, irreparably damaged it, from early on. Crutchfield argues, citing numerous examples from existing archival recordings, that her voice was already starting to decline at the beginning of her career, in the early 1950's, and only got worse in the late 1950's and was largely hopeless by the 1960's.

I don't know much about opera but have long been aware of the magic of Callas' voice, not to mention her beauty, elegance, and celebrity. Despite my ignorance, the fraught, complicated story behind that voice is deeply interesting to me. Crutchfield's profile made a stunning impression on me when it first appeared. None of this is in Volf's film. In the absence of that, despite its visual texture (the preserved sprocket marks on 16mm, Super 8, and 35mm reel footage, the colorization of archival black and white concert films) and all the information it does certainly provide, without the counterweight of questioning and analysis or in-depth examination - cornerstones of documentary filmmaking - Maria by Callas has the feel primarily of a beautiful and elaborate fan letter.

Maria by Callas, 93 mins., officially debuted 9 Nov. 2017 at the La Baule Film & Score Festival, but was featured notably at the NYFF, Mill Valley, Hamptons and Chicago. The US theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics began 9 Nov. 2018 (Metascore 71). The film opened in France today, 13 Dec. 2018, with very positive reviews: the AlloCiné press rating is 3.7. Volf, who in his own photography likes to use classic film cameras and revels in the archival, has produced an exhibition in Paris and three related books, Maria by Callas, Callas Confidential, and Lettres et mémoires inachevés de Maria Callas. Formerly associated with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, he says he went on a "detour" to pursue medical studies in New York, when he encountered Maria Callas in a recording of the mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in 2013, and these projects began.

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