Maria by Callas: a review

I have been thinking about Maria Callas lately, after viewing Maria by Callas, a recent documentary about the opera singer’s life. I wouldn’t wish for her talent—obviously you can’t fabricate that sort of star—whatever it gave the world, it was a terrible burden to bear.

While some critics called her voice ugly, like gravel, lacking in smoothness and grace, Callas emerged as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century—in any medium. She was pushed into singing by her mother, and trained her voice endlessly, working harder and longer than her counterparts, from a very young age.

When Callas started out, she was overweight and she lost 80 pounds in the span of a year—emerging into another physical being, transforming her body in the service of her star. Was her voice the same? I don’t know. Some say it was better, some say it was worse.

The film did not devote much energy or attention to this, to her drive or vision or what made her exceptional. What we know: her voice was not enough, her talent and vision and work ethic were not enough. So she forced her body to become an object for the male gaze. It worked.

Callas became beautiful, in what might be called the conventional sense—although that’s misleading—to the extent that beauty is ever conventional (it isn’t), hers was not. She was like a statue or a ghost. Her gifts were otherworldly, her form almost too beautiful to be real. It did not get her what she wanted.

There is Maria, she said, but there is La Callas that I have to live up to. Callas—the singer—was adored the world over for her voice, and reviled for her difficulty—a diva. “I will always be as difficult as necessary to achieve the best,” she said. And she did. But Maria—the woman—was unfulfilled.

Her talent and beauty exceeded conventions, but her desires were bound by them.  “Only when I was singing did I feel loved,” she said. She also said: “I would have preferred to have a happy family, to have children. I would have given up this career with pleasure. But destiny is destiny, and there is no way out.”

Callas’ destiny—as she put it—was her singing—the fulfillment of her voice. So she oriented herself to her work, and then, to Aristotle Onassis—a trash bag of a man. By outward appearances, Onassis and Callas may have been a sort of match—but Aristo gave Maria none of what she wanted.

Maria stopped singing. “I thought that when I met the man I loved, I didn’t need to sing,” Callas told Barbara Walters in a 1974 interview, “Because the most important thing in a woman is to have a man of her own, to make him happy.”

It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl, more than four decades after the fact. Less for the fact of the sentiment (itself nauseating) but for how deeply that choice cost her. Onassis married someone else (Jackie Kennedy) and didn’t bother to tell Callas about it—leaving her to find out in the newspapers.

The artist had normative desires; these went unfulfilled.  She was a larger than life figure – neither a hero nor a villain but a woman who had drive and talent and guts and she threw them all into a fire. She’s not an anti-hero, exactly, but she is a cautionary tale, in some ways.

The New York Times review of the film said that Maria By Callas demystified the artist, but I think it did the opposite. It was the first documentary to profile Callas only in her own words, and this was a mistake: we see snippets of a carefully curated persona. We are left to intuit the rest.

We know almost nothing of Callas’ childhood, her motivations, how she felt in those years without Onassis, when she ceased to perform. I wanted to understand bel canto, what made her great. What made her sing. I don’t understand her any more than before—her inner life remains a mystery. Maybe she wanted it that way.

People draw in things they say they don’t want, constantly. Is this what happens when a woman goes unfulfilled? Did she orient herself to her own destruction, or was she subverted by destiny? I don’t know. She wanted to be loved not for what people felt when she sang, but for who she was—as Maria, not Callas.

Maria never was. She worked harder than anyone else – she was committed to her art. She did not have the most naturally beautiful voice but she tamed her flaws—real and imagined—into submission until no one could quarrel with her. She remained mortal and mortally flawed but the result was extraordinary.

Callas was not a feminist icon but I don’t think she was its antithesis, either—although her statements about women’s role were antiquated and revolting. She was diva et divina. She was singular and—even without the burden of being at the top of her world—that is a nearly impossible thing for a woman to be.

She struggled to perfect her artistic gift and her human form. Maybe she accepted struggle as natural, a precondition of desire, of fulfillment, of her very being. She studied opera and understood the laws of tragedy. Maybe she thought love would save her. That’s a compelling thing, even at the price of betrayal.

The diva was described as a monster and a miracle; maybe she was both, but I think she was neither. I think we do a disservice to women when we try to smooth them out in the service of palatability. It’s our shortcoming, not theirs. Perhaps we recoil because it hits too close to home.

Maria Callas was undeterred by pride, vanquishing herself in the service of a myth and a man who did not deserve her. She prostrated herself before this lesser man. Maybe she knew that in the end, they were all lesser men.

Greatness was her destiny but in the end she lacked the thing she wanted most. She was unfulfilled and unmoored. Her entire value was externalized: a talent, a body, a man. “First. I lost my voice,” Callas said, “Then I lost my figure, then I lost Onassis.”

This trinity of loss did not destroy her legacy—but it did dominate her last years. Onassis came back to her, in the very end—or let’s give the woman a shred of agency—she took him back. I don’t begrudge her that, as I don’t fault the film’s shortfalls. I just think for all Callas did and all Maria was, she deserved more.