Film Review: Maria by Callas (France, 2017) is a rich documentary that overstays its curtain call

Maria Callas is a legendary opera singer whose life often resembled a Greek tragedy. The documentary, Maria by Callas, captures some of this sadness and heartbreak in its two-hour runtime. This film is a complex and detailed one about an infamous prima donna that should appeal to opera aficionados.

This documentary is directed by Tom Volf who has also written several books on the subject. To say this film is a love letter to the late Callas is an understatement. This is like the full shebang: a bouquet of flowers, chocolate and a diamond ring, dedicated to this talented soprano. What this means however, is that it can be quite a reverential hagiography at times.

There is some assumed knowledge in this film and Volf’s focus is on the primary source materials. This means there are no talking head interviews with individuals who could have provided greater context about the artist. Fellow opera singer, Joyce DiDonato reads excerpts from the diva’s diary. Some colourised interviews with Callas play alongside photographs and full performances of some famous arias from Carmen, La Traviata and Tosca. There are moments when titles would have been helpful to enable the audience to place the archive footage into the right period. This is especially the case for those who aren’t familiar with every aspect of her brilliant career. This shortcoming also means that this film fails to be an adequate primer for new fans.

There is no denying that this old girl had an intriguing life. Born in New York to Greek parents, Callas’s mother was the overbearing force who pushed her into singing. She was lauded by fans and pilloried by her critics (having earned a reputation for being difficult). Callas was also criticised for cutting short a performance even though she had bronchitis at the time. It’s interesting that despite achieving so much success, Callas yearned for quiet domesticity. Her love life certainly presented some challenges. She had a long-time affair with shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, but he married John F. Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline. Callas was also married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini for a decade, but this relationship isn’t explored in any great depth here.

Maria by Callas will be enjoyed by any self-respecting opera fan. This prima donna has an incredible voice and this documentary celebrates this with an illuminating look at her life and career. For those people less enamoured with opera, they will probably find that this documentary could have done with an edit or two. This intimate portrait may be appreciated by some, but others may feel that this ultimately overstays its curtain call.


Maria by Callas opens in cinemas nationally on February 7th.