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Documentary Reveals The Depth And Complexity Of Opera Star Maria Callas


This is FRESH AIR. Maria Callas is one of the most recorded opera singers of all time, though there are relatively few films or videos of her compared to the number of her recordings. But that's been changed by the Callas documentary called "Maria By Callas," which is now out on DVD and Blu-ray. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz was excited to see her in performances he'd never seen before and to learn new things about her life expressed in her own words.


MARIA CALLAS: On the whole, there are two people in me. I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas that I have to live up to, so I'm coping with both as much as I can.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: That's the voice of Maria Callas in Tom Volf's documentary "Maria By Callas," and this compelling and moving film consists almost entirely of her own words. Clips of her singing and home movies, interviews and poignant excerpts from unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs all suggest that she was as complex a woman as she was an artist.


CALLAS: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: At the beginning of the film, we hear Callas singing Puccini's most famous aria, "Un Bel Di" from "Madame Butterfly." Vocally, she's remarkably convincing as the pathetic young Cio-Cio San. In a rare film clip of a Chicago production of "Madame Butterfly," Callas, like most mature non-Asian sopranos, doesn't look right, but we can see how hard she's trying to avoid the stereotype, how her every gesture is attempting to match what's in her voice.

It's a rare failure for a singer who completely embodied characters from Lady Macbeth to the consumptive Violetta, a greater range of characters more subtly and more deeply developed than any other singer in history. In one of the most thrilling passages in this film, two years before she made her indelible complete recording of "Carmen" - an opera she never appeared in onstage - Callas sings Carmen's "Habanera."

This is a comic tour de force in which we can also see how Carmen's wit and independence will inevitably lead to tragedy. If you don't love me anymore, she sings, I'll love you. And if I love you, watch out.


CALLAS: (Singing in French).

SCHWARTZ: The director is very shrewd in his selection of arias and where he places them. We have Callas singing the sexually liberated Carmen during the happiest time of what she calls her eight-year passionate friendship with Aristotle Onassis. Callas writes him a letter just as she is about to lose him to Jackie Kennedy. Metropolitan Opera star Joyce DiDonato is the sensitive and sympathetic reader here of all of Callas's writings. The emotional nakedness of this letter contrasts with the newsreels and home movies we see of Aristo and Jackie.


JOYCE DIDONATO: (As Maria Callas, reading) I am too proud to admit it, but know that you are my very breath, brain, pride and tenderness, that if you could see into my feelings for you, you would feel the strongest and richest man in the entire world. This is not a child's letter. This is a hurt, tired, proud woman that gives you the most fresh and useful sentiments ever felt. Never forget that. And be always as tender with me as these days. And you make me the queen of the world. My love, I need affection and tenderness. I am yours. Do as you will with me. Your soul, Maria.

SCHWARTZ: Before we hear this letter, we hear Callas sing Bellini's achingly poignant aria about lost love, "Ah! Non Credea" from "La Sonnambula." How quickly love dies, Amina the sleepwalker sings. And the half-smile on Callas's face is heartbreaking.


CALLAS: (As Amina, singing in foreign language).

SCHWARTZ: Over her entire career, Callas wrote frank and honest letters about both technical vocal issues and intimate personal problems. The film skips over Callas's famous weight loss, which suddenly turned her into an icon of glamour. But most of the other major events of her life, both personal and public, are here.

Interviewed in her dressing room in Dallas after being fired by Metropolitan Opera director Rudolf Bing, she angrily tells reporters that she was simply refusing to perform in what she calls the lousy and routine productions he offered her. And we also see her later triumphant return to the Met in Tosca.

Callas says she would rather have been a wife and mother than an opera star, but she had to devote herself completely to what destiny offered her. Of course, the highlights of the film are the arias, and we can be grateful that for once we get to hear most of them complete.

In an extra on the Blu-ray, the director of the film says, I really wanted the audience to experience what, to me, is the closest experience nowadays of Callas onstage. And bravo, he comes remarkably close.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the documentary "Maria By Callas," which has been released on Sony DVD and Blu-ray.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Ronan Farrow. His investigation into Harvey Weinstein's predatory behavior, published in The New Yorker, won a Pulitzer Prize. Farrow had started investigating Weinstein while Farrow was employed by NBC. Farrow claims NBC slow-walked and then declined to broadcast his reporting.

Farrow's new book investigates why, reveals new allegations against Matt Lauer and new information about the private investigation that Weinstein launched against journalists investigating him and against the women making allegations against him. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.