'Maria by Callas' Director Says Film Objectively Depicts Opera Singer

Maria by Callas - Still 1 -Sony Classics Publicity- H 2017
Courtesy of Sony Classics

The new documentary about the world-famous soprano avoids going in-depth into Maria Callas' personal struggles, instead telling the story in her own words.

The new documentary Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words, tells the life story of the famous Greek-American soprano forty years after her death. First-time filmmaker Tom Volf reconstructed her story through TV interviews, photographs and letters, all in Callas’ own words. The documentary had its world premiere at Rome Film Fest. 

While numerous books have been written about the tumultuous life of Callas, Volf largely focuses on a story showing the positive aspects of her life, one he thinks she herself would have approved.

Volf said that he had the blessing of the two people closest to Callas, her butler and maid, whom she considered her family. “They of course suffered a lot things that happened about Callas in the last 40 years that were picturing her in a caricature: the scandals, the diva and also the things that were done about her intimate life that were going too far,” said Volf.

“And I think they understand that my take was first extremely respectful, not looking for any gossip or any sensational news but an honest work, that I would duly respect her as a woman and as an artist,” he said. “Therefore I received a lot of help because they felt this was the right thing to do. This was the thing they hoped would be done someday.”

In some instances the film works to set the record straight on historical gossip, including the infamous 1958 “Rome Walkout” that was said to have ruined her career. Suffering from bronchitis, Callas cancelled a performance of Norma after the first act, and was accused of walking out on the president of Italy, as well as the many notable stars in attendance. While the President’s wife called Callas afterwards, the media had a field day with the story, portraying her as a diva who wouldn’t finish performances.

“Rome was not a scandal because she left the stage,” said Volf.  “Rome was a scandal because she was pushed to go on stage in the first place when she was out of voice and she was sick.”

In other instances the film drops hints at her inner turmoil, such as her strained relationship with her family or her depression after Aristotle Onassis left her for Jacqueline Kennedy, but this is limited to small sound bites she gives away in personal letters without going in-depth into her struggles.

In one TV interview, Callas described how her favorite hobby was collecting recipes for extravagant foods, but the film shies away from showing how she collected recipes as a way to vicariously enjoy rich foods that she would never actually indulge in.

Volf said it was a conscious decision not to include the lifelong eating disorder that plagued her after she was made to rapidly lose 100 pounds for a role. “Of course I had only two hours so I had to make a choice of what story I was telling, and I had to leave aside some stories,” said Volf.

“In the three-hour version of the film before the final cut, there was 25 minutes in the beginning of the film dedicated to her weight loss,” he said. “But in the end when we had to cut the film down, this didn’t seem to me the most important part about her.”

When asked how honest a film can be if told in one voice, Volf defended the film as representing all sides of Callas’ life. “I did try to do an objective work as a filmmaker but the base of my material was strictly her own words, either from interviews or letters or recorded conversations,” he said.

“It doesn’t show her as a superficial, smiling, kind lady. I think the film portrays her as she was,” he said. “So perhaps the film gives an image less scandalous and less gossipy than what people could have had about Callas, but that was the point about having the film from her own point of view because that is the idea. So at that point it’s subjective what you as the public can judge. But you can judge only from her side.”

Sony Pictures Classics has acquired all rights to Maria by Callas in North America, Australia and New Zealand, but a release date has not yet been announced.