Directed by Tony Palmer for Melvyn Bragg's British television South Bank Show, this doco on Callas uses interviews with those that new the Greek soprano, news footage and Callas herself talking intercut in time with footage of her singing, often with the choice of music commenting on her life, though regrettably none of the music is identified for us. Much is made of the music of perhaps Maria's greatest triumph, Tosca, and the tragedy of Maria being the dichotomy of her identity as a voice and her need for a life as a woman, with the Onassis affair juxtaposed with the music of Carmen.
Like all great artists it seems, Maria was racked with fear about the prospect of performing, partly because as she says "Every time I go out there, they are waiting to get me" - a comment on the nature of operatic audiences, and partly because as a perfectionist she couldn't bear to give less than her best, explaining her notorious cancellations and walkouts due to illness. Maria began her career with the obstacles of being fat, ungraceful, shy, having a stage mother, a jealous sister, and a voice that her 1947 Verona conductor Serafin described as "great and ugly". However her legacy is that changed the nature of opera singing from simply delivering recitals to giving dramatic performances, and thereby made opera more accessible. Purists might find fault with Maria's voice, and she was subjected to much criticism because of it, but never her acting. Giuseppe di Steffano is seen valiantly defending the perceived "artistic disasters" of their 1970's concerts, saying that the public still adored her, and though the footage shows her voice is not what it once was, it is still remarkable.
Maria's physical transformation is said to have been inspired by seeing Audrey Hepburn filming Roman Holiday. She lost 37 kg, although she was still unhappy with her ankles, which is the reason given why she never performed Carmen on stage. This streamlined Callas allowed her to be admired also for her beauty and the career marriage to Battista Meneghini gave way to her sexual relationship with Aristotle Onassis. That Onassis viewed her as a possession, much like having "dead" celebrities like Winston Churchill and Garbo as guests, is doubly ironic, since Callas' destiny was tied to a man who did not appreciate her. He may have regretted marrying Jackie Kennedy instead of Maria, and kept in contact with her, but general opinion is that Onassis used Callas and moved on to Jackie as a political manoeuver.
The footage of paparazzi around Maria, with one scene of reporters and cameras tracking her at an airport painful to watch because of their indifference to her objections, and Onassis give Callas the tabloid appeal of other artists like Judy Garland, and Garbo, who also were thought to have deprived us of themselves at their prime. The story of the abortion of Onassis' child, Maria asked to direct an opera about a singer who has lost their voice, the feature film of Medea where her speaking voice is dubbed, and the candid street photos of Maria in Paris looking feral and practically unrecognisable all make her last chapter border on Grand Guignol. The Garland parallel is apt in Maria's similar insomnia, suicide attempts, her gay following, and drug taking towards the end. Franco Zefferelli testifies that what made her great was that on stage she was "possessed", evidence once again of the tissue thin line between genius and madness.
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