Maria by Callas by Volf

Joakim Parslow (b. 1979) is an associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oslo. He lives in Oslo with his wife and a modest collection of Callas records.


In 2013, director Tom Volf had not yet heard of Maria Callas. He was a photographer and an actor who had played in a few minor roles when he happened to attend an opera performance and found he liked it very much. Soon after, he discovered recordings of Maria Callas (1923-1977), the Greek-American soprano many consider to be the twentieth century’s greatest.

Volf’s experience over the following few years will be familiar to Callas fans: He became obsessed. Specifically, he became obsessed with getting as close to the real Callas as possible. Unsatisfied with the enormous catalog of studio and live performances that have been released in a string of box sets by Callas’s primary record company, EMI, over the years —as well as by the even larger catalog of bootlegs and unauthorized recordings produced by an undergrowth of fleeting microlabels and private presses—he spent the following years searching through archives and libraries and consulting her former friends and colleagues in an effort to unearth new material. The result, six years later, is three books, a multimedia exhibition that has been on display in Paris, Moscow and Monaco, and now also a documentary film titled Maria by Callas, set to be released in Norwegian theaters on April 26, 2019.

Maria by Callas is by no means the first documentary about Callas, or Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoulos, as the soprano was christened. She has been the subject of far more attention than any other opera singer, including Enrico Caruso, one of the world’s first global celebrities, who passed away just two years before she was born. Callas’s fame was predicated on a combination of factors, some felicitous, others less so. Like Caruso, she transcended the circuit of local opera houses thanks to recordings, which made her world famous at a time when opera was still a genuinely popular form of entertainment. Unlike the great Neapolitan, Callas reached fame in the era of paparazzi photographers and handheld film cameras, making her reputation particularly susceptible to tabloid mythmaking.

Whereas Caruso, gregarious though he was, guarded his private life simply by virtue of the limitations of early-twentieth-century media, journalists in Callas’s time could push their 16mm film cameras right into her face as she exited airplanes, attended fancy soirees or lounged on the beach with her lover, making her private life very much a part of her public persona. In the public sphere, Callas’s tragic opera roles blended with her professional conflicts and romantic relationships, creating a legend that eclipsed opera appreciation and acquired a dimension more similar to today’s social media stars. The result is hundreds of books and numerous documentary films, TV episodes and biopics. Why, then, make yet another film?

Anyone who has come even close to the precipitous rabbit hole that is Callas fandom will recognize the novelty of Volf’s film as soon as they watch the trailer. The first thing that strikes the viewer is the sheer beauty of the footage. Some of the segments Volf uses will be new to most spectators; others have long been available on DVDs or on YouTube. What makes all of it feel new is the meticulous restoration and colorization job Volf’s technicians (Sophie Krykwinski, Guillermo Fernandez and Sasha Savic) have done. Much like the World War One footage in Peter Jackson’s recent They Shall Not Grow Old, watching Callas in the early 1950s in richly saturated colors pulls away the veil of “oldness” we are culturally accustomed to perceiving in black-and-white film and makes us experience her as a living human.

In addition, Volf removes another layer between us and Callas by avoiding the use of the anonymous (and usually male) documentary voiceover which so often weaves together the archival fragments into a narrative whole. Instead, he lets Callas herself narrate her own story, either through recordings of her voice in interviews or through letters she wrote in the midst of events, read in the English version of the film by Joyce DiDonato.

Does the film live up to the expectations that the trailer raises? To an extent it does. Maria by Callas is a fascinating collage of performance fragments, backstage footage, interview soundbites, and letter excerpts. It offers something new to existing Callas acolytes and is likely to create a few more. Yet in the process, the film raises a number of questions that it does not answer.

Beyond the colorized footage, the fundamental conceit of Volf’s film is that it reveals the real Callas by allowing her explain in her own words who she was beneath the glamorous surface of divahood. One of the few really grainy black-and-white segments in the film is a 1970 TV interview with David Frost. It appears throughout the film and is the closest we get to a Greek chorus commenting, with the wisdom of hindsight, on the ups and downs of her career. In the interview, the diva admits that there was always a tension between Callas the public superstar and Maria the private woman: Maria’s real desire was always to settle down with a husband and have children, but she was forced into a demanding career by her ambitious mother and selfish husband and had to “live up to” the Callas she was expected to be. By naming his film Maria by Callas, Volf appears to be suggesting that his film shows us the real Maria, providing, of course, that we can trust Callas’s rendering of her.

This somewhat mundane gimmick—surely, any celebrity senses a tension between their public and private faces—sets the stage for a selection of moments which, though they do not always follow a strictly chronological order, are meant to give us unfettered access to Maria’s internal struggles as they developed through her tempestuous life. By keeping directorial intrusion to a minimum and allowing the footage and words to unfold on their own, Volf wants to show us “who she was as a human being, very far from the cliché and the image that we can have of her.” The only obviously non-diegetic sound appears in a few piano versions of tunes from different operas, composed especially for the film by François Virot and Vincent Leterme, and a Raging Bull-like sequence of childhood and family images set to the preludio from Cavalleria Rusticana; the rest of the action appears without extraneous verbal or musical accompaniment, placing the viewer in medias res.

The experience can be exhilarating but also disorienting. The lack of an authoritative voiceover means that Maria by Callas is primarily a film for those who already know enough about Callas to piece together the fragments into a tragic arch for themselves. One must at least be familiar with the classic turning points of her biography: Her rise to fame from training and debut in Athens to the stages of Milan; her marriage to the wealthy businessman Giovanni Battista Meneghini; the dramatic weight loss during 1953 and 1954 that created her iconically slender silhouette; the scandalous interruption of her performance of Norma in Rome in 1958 and her firing from the Metropolitan Opera later the same year; and most importantly, the peripeteia when she left her husband in 1959 to pursue a relationship with the charismatic shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and tentatively withdrew from her demanding performance schedule, and the anagnorisis of her realization, in 1968, that Onassis had dumped her in favor of Jackie Kennedy, leaving Callas with a broken heart and few singing engagements. Without at least a vague apprehension of these events, Volf’s film becomes similar to the several recital disks Callas cut for EMI: a string of songs severed from the drama of which they are a part, leaving it up to the audience to re-situate them in the larger story.

Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas.

True acolytes will likely find the film an intriguing addition to existing Callasiana. Those who are acquainted with the gallery of 1950s-60s glitterati who surrounded Callas will enjoy the cozy feeling of insiderness that comes with recognizing the likes of Luchino Visconti, Brigitte Bardot (with Jacques Charrier), and Jean Cocteau as they fleet across the screen; they will nod with a knowing and concerned air when she suddenly changes from a curvy to an unrecognizably slender woman from one segment to the next without explanation.

It remains an open question, however, whether the film will speak to those who, like Volf six years ago, are not already familiar with the Callas biography. For example, Giovanni Battista Meneghini is a constant presence in the early footage, and appears more like Callas’s poodle, Toy, than the controlling manager Callas makes him out to be in the Frost interview as he hovers around her while picking up her handkerchief and passing her press notes, but it is only when Callas decides to separate from him that we find out who he is. Thus, Volf’s decision to remain in the background is both the film’s strongest and weakest point, depending on the viewer.

A still more fundamental question arises out of substance matter of the Callas legend. Like fandom in general, Volf’s film sets out to find the “real” woman, which it conceptualizes as the human behind the façade. This quest, of course, assumes that there was a real Maria underneath all of the mediation, or indeed that any of us have an authentic self hiding under all our everyday self-presentations, a notion that feels almost charmingly old-fashioned in an age of reality TV and Instagram stars. It presumes that Maria’s inner desires, self-image and true goals were immune from the media-curated tension between the fragile woman and the public tigress who bravely ignored La Scala’s booing loggionisti and ate opera critics for lunch.

This is obviously wrong. For one thing, mediation was part and parcel of her life, her public persona very much a reality that the private Maria had to contend with. The pivotal events of her life, such as meeting Onassis, would not have happened had she not been world famous. Even the tragedy of her aborted relationship with him was mediated: She only learned that Onassis was engaged to Jackie Kennedy through the newspapers. Moreover, it is hard not to sense the blending of personal sentiment and public awareness even in her private letters as they appear in Maria by Callas. In a letter recounting the scandal in Rome, she refers to “La Callas” in the third person, as if forced to deal with her own domineering presence in the public eye. She then explains her decision to interrupt the concert due to bronchitis in the same inimitable verbal style we hear throughout the film’s many media interviews, awkwardly grandiloquent in her attempt to articulate a sincere respect for the composer in an idiom that conforms to 1950s standards of public speaking in one of the four languages she spoke fluently: “The other acts of Norma were not insulted.” [1] As if commenting on the inextricability of the private and public Callas, a brief segment later in the film shows her watching herself on a hotel room television.

More importantly, the discursive framework of the Callas legend depends on a series of antinomies which ensure that the telos of Callas fandom—perceiving Callas an sich—can never be attained. Callas’s life only took on the dimension of an opera heroine after she left Menenghini and commenced her glamorous relationship with Onassis; yet that transition also marked the beginning of her withdrawal from the stage and thus constituted a step in the direction of her tragic downfall. She only became “La Callas” after she lost weight and acquired the svelte figure that made her into the paradigm of a twentieth-century diva; yet many Callas aficionados argue that the weight loss also set her voice on the path to deterioration, and that it may have contributed to her early death at age fifty-three.

Others, such as Carol Baggot Forte, disagree, and argue that Callas’s singing technique was fundamentally flawed from the beginning as a result of faulty training and her adoption of roles such as Tosca at the tender age of seventeen, resulting in vocal cords that thickened in the wrong places, an overactive chest register, and persistent irregularities such as her infamously wobbly high notes. [2] If this is true, the nasal tone that made her voice so instantly recognizable was also what doomed it to premature degradation. Fans also assert that Callas stood out from other sopranos thanks to a heartfelt dramatic impulse that sometimes pushed her voice beyond its physical capabilities; to Forte, however, Callas was overacting in an attempt to connect with her audience, and in the process wearing down her vocal folds and exhausting her energy.

As a result of all these contradictions, Callas cognoscenti fixate on fleeting moments of transcendent performance; yet their analyses of these performances in books, films and online discussion forums are even more concerned with identifying faults, which are invariably explained as a result of sickness, romantic turmoil, career pressures, or age—all the elements of the Callas tragedy.

These paradoxes carry over into how we deal with the media through which we access her legacy. There are roughly two schools of thought among Callas aficionados. All agree on the object of the quest: to come as close as possible to experiencing her voice in its most pure and authentic manifestation. What they disagree on is how to reach that voice. We might call the first approach “reconstructive” insofar as it is largely reflected in the method pursued by major record companies such as EMI/Warner each time they reissue their Callas catalog on CD with what they claim is the finest remastering to date. In this approach the best way to reach the “real” Callas is by using the most advanced available technology to restore her recordings. The gentlest such intervention has the modest aim of filtering out the noise of the physical medium and thus allowing the voice to stand out and perhaps gain a sense of spatiality and presence. In practice, of course, using digital technology to remaster analog sources involves more than cleaning off the dust of age. It is an intentional process where editorial choices shape the final product, but used sparingly by knowledgeable engineers, it can have impressive results.

Other sound engineers, following the line of reasoning that posits that Callas’s uniqueness lay not only in her voice, but also in the dramatic intention she infused it with, aim to recreate how they believe Callas would have wanted to be heard rather than how she was actually heard, perhaps correcting some flat or wobbly notes, splicing radio broadcast interruptions or adding a repeated line she forgot to sing. Though similar to noise filtering in its intent, such refurbishing is more clearly interventionist in that it does not so much aim to unearth something that is already “there”, underneath the surface of noise, but to reconstruct what the engineers believe should have been there had Callas had a more perfect instrument, whether in her vocal cords, her memory, or in the recording technology. This approach takes us one step further away from the pretense of “reconstructing” the true Callas and closer to “constructing” her.

Again, this approach need not come in the way of enjoying Callas recordings. But taken to its logical conclusion, it can lead to productions that are more reminiscent of the extraterrestrial Diva Plavalaguna of The Fifth Element than a human singer. If death is viewed as just another obstacle in the way of experiencing Callas’s true self, why not bring her back to life with the latest that technology has to offer? Base Hologram, a company that specializes in producing 3D hologram shows, has done just that. After a traveling holographic exhibit of dinosaurs, the company’s second big production is a touring show where a holographic Maria Callas sings, in full color, accompanied by a live orchestra. As opposed to remasterings that attempt to create the impression of unmediated access to the Callas voice, here the technology happily draws attention to itself and flaunts its ability to make her appear not just real but hyperreal, with oversaturated colors and Matrix-like effects such as playing cards tossed into the air where they remain, suspended for several seconds, before falling to the ground. Critics have called it “campy and ridiculous” but also “surprisingly affecting.”

Where does Maria by Callas fit into this? In an interview with OperaWire, Tom Volf concedes that his intent has been “bring Callas into the 21st century” by restoring and colorizing footage so that it no longer feels as remnants of the past but appears as real as a live transmission. The colorization is not at all meant to remain in the background as a hidden editorial hand; it is one of the film’s biggest selling points and has featured prominently in Volf’s promotion of the film. Less prominent in promotions and interviews are the “fixes” he has apparently done to some of Callas’s vocal issues in at least two of the movie’s clips. Yet Volf insists that his goal in doing all of this has been to recreate the experience of “actually being there … and having her sing in front of you.” Instead of colorizing all the black-and-white footage shown in the film, therefore, he has only done so where evidence exists of the exact color palette of the surroundings and the clothes she and others were wearing.

In its stated intention, therefore, Maria by Callas appears to align more with what we might call the “originalist” school, which is found among more scholarly Callas admirers. For them, the reconstructive school is either misguided in principle or marred by faulty execution. There is perhaps no better example of this approach than the meticulous analyses of Robert E. Seletsky, a violinist, music historian, and Callas specialist. In two articles for The Opera Quarterly that have been expanded and published on the website of Divina Records, a label devoted to Callas, Seletsky discusses EMI’s remasterings of their Callas catalog. Seletsky’s erudite analyses build on extensive knowledge both of the musical material Callas was performing and of the Callas discography, and consists of a highly technical breakdown of the pitch corrections, splices, noise reductions and other processes EMI’s engineers have carried out.

By reverse-engineering these interventions, Seletsky reveals some shocking adulterations, such as “remasterings” based on inferior bootleg CD issues and artificial “corrections” that actually distort Callas’s artistic decisions, and thus belies the record company’s claims to have simply improved upon original master tapes. Finally, he concludes that the most reliable sources of Callas’s performances remain “early mono LPs,” or, in a pinch, remastered stereo LPs released in Europe, as the former are closer to the original source, while the latter at least have the virtue of not being marred by overly interventionist engineers.

Seletsky’s trenchant critique is undoubtedly borne out of a sense of loyalty to a performer he considers one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished, but they are also analytical to the point where one wonders how he finds any joy at all in his Callas records (I’m quite sure he does). The vast majority of Callas fans will be perfectly happy to listen to CD reissues, blissfully unaware that the pitch level is drifting from a1=435 Hz to a1=440 Hz while Callas’s Tosca goes from defiance to despair. Yet his conclusions also speak to the belief, common among devoted record collectors and cinephiles alike, that analog media such as LPs and 35mm film are truer to the reality they record because they presumably retain a physical trace of it (what media theorists call indexicality).

There is a degree of wishful thinking in this preference, too, an implicit belief that analog media allow us to experience long-gone artists in a more tactile way than digital information does, and thus, in a sense, to listen to the dead. In this view, visible dust and record scratches are unwanted but preferable to the sterile noiselessness of digital media, which attain perfection at the cost of translating immediacy into abstract ones and zeros; many also privately admit that such noise is comforting precisely because it makes them aware of the medium’s materiality.

Volf’s stated aims imply an originalist approach, but Maria by Callas often finds him amplifying the authenticity of the archival material he has unearthed with techniques that strain credibility. Much like, to Seletsky’s disbelief, EMI engineers added “faked record roar” between certain bands on the CDs of the 1997 Callas Edition to replicate the sound of LPs, Volf makes the edges of the film reel in several of Callas’s private Super 8 tapes visible on the screen along with sprocket holes, dust and other extraneous elements, and he adds similar edges to a sequence of family photographs. Whether digitally simulated or actually part of the original reels, showing the enframing of these images is a directorial choice clearly meant to give the viewer a sense of the materiality of the medium, and thus of touching something that has, in a certain sense, touched Maria Callas.

Yet, like the private letters that must have been translated from a variety of languages in order for audience members to understand them, Volf’s efforts to make Callas’s private vacation footage directly available to us involves a visible sleight of hand that ends up erecting new barriers of artificiality. The mechanisms that give us access to Callas also keep her at a distance, and although Volf never acknowledges it, we sense it.

In the end, Maria by Callas is at its most effective when the colorized segments are allowed to speak for themselves, reaching a kind of compromise between directorial recreation and repose. To me, one of the most breathtaking segments is her December 1958 appearance in Paris. The performance has been available in black-and-white for a while, both on DVD and on YouTube. In the film’s version, beautifully colorized and restored, it is introduced by a sequence of glitzy VIPs entering the Palais Garnier dressed in their finest. The view then shifts to the interior of the auditorium as the audience members find their seats.

Finally, Callas appears in the middle of the stage, her red dress and shawl and sparkly jewels making the unsynchronized choir of middle-aged gentlemen and ladies in the back appear even greyer than they were in the original footage. Skipping the first two songs from Norma Callas performed on that night, we are taken directly to Casta Diva. Even before she begins to sing, the audio is strikingly spacious, making her slight shoulders and the long, angular hands crossed in front of her appear present and vulnerable, and filling the first few bars with anxious anticipation. Will she hit the first note? Will her voice crack?

Of course, she does not miss her entry, but the sense of balancing on the edge of a knife continues throughout the performance. The segment goes on and on, without interruption or any attempt at placing it in a narrative arch beyond the moment itself. In the context of the film the experience is almost alarming, like watching raw news footage of street protestors with nothing but the sound of yelling and police whistles to help us understand where, when, or why they are protesting. Why are we watching this? Because Callas is singing. There is no other reason.

The performance over, the music finished, Callas walks through the milling crowd in the foyer, discretely flanked by some assistants who maintain a slight distance between her and her admirers. She silently looks around with a blend of sincere pleading and affected melancholy, as if she cannot quite shake the theatricality of the recital she has just delivered. With the quiet murmuring of Parisian polite society as the only background, she might as well be a hologram, at once transparent and more present than anyone else.


[1] The Norwegian subtitles unfortunately mistranslate this and several other lines and thus lose the strained poetry of Callas’s language.

[2] Carol Baggott Forte, “Could Maria Callas’s Voice Have Been Saved?,” in The Modern Singing Master: Essays in Honor of Cornelius L. Reid, ed. Ariel Bybee and James E. Ford (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 178–204.

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