EXCLUSIVE: Documentarian Tells Maria Callas’ Story in her Own Words

(l-r) Pier Paolo Pasolini and Maria Callas featured in MARIA BY CALLAS. ©Sony Pictures Classics.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Maria Callas wasn’t simply one of the world’s greatest opera singers. She specialized in bel cantos of the romantic period of the 18th and early 19th century. The beguiling brunette was known for her wide-ranging voice and distinctive dramatic interpretations of well-known and nearly forgotten arias. She also had a reputation—deserved or undeserved—as a diva.

Born in New York to working-class Greek immigrant parents, she grew up in Greece during World War II, where her mother and later her Italian manager/husband controlled her life and career. She notably had a long affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who unceremoniously dumped her in favor of the widow Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1968.

“Maria by Callas” is a fascinating new documentary about the legendary opera star which, as the title suggests, is told in her own words.

Filmmaker Tom Volf tells Callas’ story through TV interviews, home movies, family photographs, private letter and unpublished memoirs—most of which have never before been publicly seen. He discovered Callas in 2013 after attending a performance of American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Moved by what he saw and heard, he began researching opera on the Internet, and there he discovered Callas, whose career peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. After familiarizing himself with her recordings (she died in 1977 at age 53), he set out to make a film about her. Later, he would call upon DiDonato to read the words of Callas in the film’s voiceover.

During a chat at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s outdoor cafe, the photographer and maker of short films says he wasn’t sure what kind of film he was going to make when he first embarked on the project. He began interviewing acquaintances, former staff members, friends and music scholars for a year and a half. At the same time, he began accumulating rare recordings, film footage (some of it believed to be lost) and still images of Callas. One of the items he came across was a 1970 interview she did with British talk show host David Frost. In that 17-minute interview, Callas, famously private about her personal life, was remarkably candid. At one point, she explains how she is actually two people—Maria, the woman and Callas, the star. That statement stuck with Volf, and he knew how he had to construct his film. He had to ditch all of the filmed interviews, and allow Callas, in her own words, tell her story through flashbacks.

The documentary focuses on key performances of the soprano’s career—and allows some of the arias to play in their entirety—while dispensing with the early years of her life, her discovery and rocky relationships with her parents and her husband. The film cuts back and forth between notable stage performances, the controversies in her life, from the so-called “Rome Cancellation” where she exited mid-performance—with the Italian president in the audience—because she felt ill, to her conflict with the Met’s Rudolph Bing, and her complicated relationship with Onassis.

Over green tea and the noise of buses and taxis roaring by in the background, Volf spoke about what drove him to make “Maria by Callas,” and how both her longtime fans and opera neophytes may enjoy the film about such an iconic and groundbreaking performer and misunderstood woman.

Q: You arrived in New York in 2013. What were you planning to do?

Volf: I was actually there for studies. I started making films back in Paris but I was doing advertisement films, institutional films, short films, and I discovered Callas by accident—or by destiny. I didn’t end up making the film by accident. The discovery was by accident.

Q: What was your introduction to Callas?

Volf: The aria of (Gaetano Donizetti’s) Lucia di Lammermoor, the mad scene. It was an instant revelation.

Q: When you discovered Callas, did you know you wanted to do a documentary or you simply wanted to know more about her?

Volf: In the beginning, I had no idea I would do this film. My goal was to find out more and to listen to more of her music, and at the same time to discover more about her. Reading everything that had been written about her and watching what had been done about her, I realized there were some missing pieces, and I didn’t quite get a sense of who she actually was. It was difficult to reach her. That’s really where the project came from. It came from this wish to really get to know her and understand who she was as a woman and as an artist and what made her become so extraordinary and exceptional.

Q: You didn’t set out for her to tell her story in her own voice. That came about after you conducted quite a few interviews, right?

Volf: Yes. I had to make a very bold decision to put aside everything I’d filmed, and to make the film without any other interviews or narration or comments from anyone else. But I knew it was the right choice.

I had to start all over again, almost, but if felt so right. I was helped in that decision by her friends and loved ones—those I’d interviewed. When I came back to them and said, “This is what I’ve decided,” the support I got was tremendous. They unanimously said, “This is what she would have wanted.” That gave me the energy and strength to start over again and go further.

Q: At the same time, you were writing books about Callas. You’re on your third book now, right?

Volf: Yes.

Q: Would you say you are you a little obsessed?

Volf: Not at all. The film was always the first—and main—project. It always has been. The other projects—the exhibition and the books—came from the work on the film. It came from the material.  Early on, I had no idea of the amount or even what kind of material I’d come across. But getting the photos, the letters, the films, the recordings and all that, let me into expanding it a little bit. I never felt this material belonged to me, even though it was entrusted to me. I felt it was my duty to pass it on to her public and to the new generations that would get to discover her.

This material was meant to be shared so I had to find ways to share it by different vehicles because I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit everything into the film. That’s how the first book came about. I had all these unknown, never-before-seen photographs and I wanted to show them in a beautiful way in this large book. Those photographs aren’t in the film. So, they’re complementary to each other. They give different perspectives of her but the commonality is that she’s still the one leading the story. I didn’t write it. I put all the material together and gave it a frame, but in the book, she’s still the one speaking. It’s quotes throughout, so that’s also a common thread to my work—to give her voice.

Q: The paparazzi seemed particularly aggressive with Callas. It makes the viewer feel uncomfortable to see those scenes of her being mobbed by reporters and photographers.

Volf: I felt the same way, and I felt it was important to show that. The film is very immersive. The idea is to make you feel like you’re with her in those moments—whether it was beautiful or uncomfortable. That was part of her life, and I think people don’t understand that. The level of depth I wanted to give to the film was an understand of what her life was like, and what it was like to have that attention that was sometimes overwhelming but she couldn’t escape it. That was the whole struggle between “Maria” and “Callas”—the whole duality that’s in the film. It’s partly in those moments too.

Q: The David Frost interview is so intimate and she seems so comfortable being interviewed by him. When you discovered that interview, was that your Holy Grail moment?

Volf: It ended up being the Holy Grail, but in the beginning, no, because I didn’t know what I was getting or discovering. When I first got that tape, I didn’t realize what it was. I didn’t know it only aired once and was considered to be lost for more than 50 years. I had no idea of the content, either.

When I watched it the first time, not realizing how precious it was, I remember being struck by the words, “There are two people in me actually: ‘Maria’ and ‘Callas.’” That’s the beginning of the film. It felt like the key that I hadn’t gotten previously. It opened everything: who she was as a woman, who she was as an artist, what her life-struggles were about, and I came to see that it was so much more than an interview. She’s confiding. She’s revealing in a way that never happened before or after.

Perhaps it was because it was during a peculiar moment in her life. That interview came to be the thread of the film very naturally because that interview is Maria as revealed by Callas, and the rest of the film is almost like a flashback from that interview. It follows a chronology but it’s actually a flashback.

Q: You don’t seem to be as concerned about the chronology as you do in telling a story, though. You use certain arias to allow the audience to judge and enjoy her singing for themselves.

Volf: To judge and to understand the subtext because in each aria in the film has subtext. It’s the link between Callas and Maria. Each aria says something about her as a woman. I really wanted the audience to be able to appreciate her art fully. When you see the different expressions on her face and the variety and the colors and the differences between the repertoire that she sings in the different parts that she sings, but when these arias are performed, what does it say in the story? It has a narrative of its own. I like to think that people can watch this two or three times and understand it on different layers.

Q: Did she ever sing any popular music, like a duet with Frank Sinatra or collaborate with a big band?

Volf: Never. She was dedicated to a very specific art form. It was not actually the opera art form. It was the bel canto art form—a sub-form in the art form that is very wide. The bel canto is the romantic Italian opera from the romantic composers of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. At one point in the film, she says, “(Vincenzo) Bellini, (Gaetano) Donizetti—it’s my world. It’s the world that makes me feel that there is something greater than us.” So, she really dedicated herself to that art form.

She did sing a little bit of other opera repertoire. She sang some French repertoire like “Carmen,” as we see in the film, but the bel canto was really her world. She wanted to do as much of that music and of those composers. Had she not had such an early end, she would have wanted to sing more of these operas. A lot of these operas were ones that had been completely forgotten, and she brought them back to life. That’s one of the ways she revolutionized the opera world because she revived operas completely. An opera like “Norma,” was almost forgotten. Also, these were some of the most difficult operas ever written. Technically, for a singer, they’re very rare that singers are able to sing those parts. She liked challenges, obviously. That also is why she revived those operas.

Q: As she got older, it was more difficult for her to sing those difficult arias, right?

Volf: It was a mix of things. The struggles she had in life coming from a rather poor childhood, going through (World War II). She nearly died in the war in Athens. Then, there were all the struggles of her career. It wasn’t easy. She struggled in Italy before she became famous. And then she faced the struggles of having a career and worldwide glory, and having to sing everywhere and all the time—this all had an impact on her physically.

Q: Coming from a photography background, did you have any concerns about colorizing some of the black-and-white footage?

Volf: The film was full of technical challenges. It’s a film made with 100 percent archived material. We were dealing with reels from the ‘50s and the ‘60s, mostly. We came across all kinds of formats—16mm, 8mm, Super8, whatever—in all kinds of conditions. We had to do restorations. I wanted to make a point in having all the footage digitize from the original reels to bring it to the best possible quality and high definition. A lot of it is seen in high definition for the very first time.

People have not experienced Callas in high definition this way. In the cinema/theater, it gives you the feeling that she’s there. It’s so clear. All of that was a challenge. But also, bringing a lot of the material in color because it gives you a feeling of her being alive. Of not having a layer of past and present but watching the film as though it were in the present. The colors in the ‘50s and ‘60s were so beautiful. It was a colorful era.

Q: There are a few scenes where you allow the camera to linger longer than most filmmakers would have. Why?

Volf: I never worked on this film as though I was working on a documentary. My background as a photographer and the short films that I used to do before led me into making the film much more as an actual movie than a documentary.

I got an appreciation for the shots, the variety of shots at our disposal. I really liked the close ups, almost in a way as if I had filmed those shots and I was in the editing room and had to choose which shots I’d be using. That was kind of my endeavor. It was on my mind throughout to give a sense to the story but also visually to remain close to her, to be there, to remain in those moments because there was an emotion in the image and in the visual beyond even the music in the emotion that’s happening in the story.  So, I wanted the audience to be able to be there for those extra few seconds to feel the image and receive the visual information as well.

Her favorite conduct, Georges Pretre, who is in the film, whom I’ve met several times, used to say, “There is beauty and there is mystery in the silences, and those no one can explain.” This phrase lingered in my mind, and I think I applied it a few times in the film. It’s just a few seconds of silence, but there’s everything in it, and I think her whole spirit is in there.

Q: The scene towards the end, where she’s near the end of her life in Palm Beach, you also allow the film to slowly pan over to the sunset and hold it there for several seconds.

Volf: It’s like we’ve spent all this time with her watching the film and we were with her in all those moments and episodes of her life, and then we reach the end of her life, and she’s not singing anymore, but we’re still with her. When the camera goes outwards, it’s like we’re leaving her there. We’re going away and she’s staying there. Somewhere, she’s still there.

Q: If you had an opportunity to ask Maria Callas one question, what would it be?

Volf: It’s hard to say because I’ve got the feeling that all of my questions were answered. (I feel like) I spent five years with her and kept the essence of those moments in the film. To me, I feel she answered all of my questions. So, it’s complete to me. I feel complete.

“Maria by Callas” opens in Los Angeles and New York Friday Nov. 2.