Since her death, in Paris, at the age of 53, Maria Callas has continued to fascinate hordes of lyricomaniacs, each generation of whom rushes to phonographic and video reissues, with possible unreleased releases at stake, which salute anniversaries of his birth, on December 2, 1923, or of his death, on September 16, 1977. For the centenary of his birth, in New York (Callas retained, until 1966, dual Greek and American nationality), the channels public service television programs marked the occasion, however with many rebroadcasts and few new broadcasts.

Among these, the “Fauteuils d’ordinatere” of December 8, on France 5, which Anne Sinclair will devote to the diva, before a “Gala Maria Callas”, on the same channel, recorded at the Palais Garnier on December 2, whose design, staging, sets and lighting were entrusted to the American Robert Carsen.

For its part, Arte is offering a “Callas Day”, on December 3, which will allow us to see a new montage of the documentary by Holger Preusse (2017) on the legendary Tosca that Callas performed at Covent Garden in London in 1964. Follow the no less legendary recital with orchestra by Maria Callas at the Palais Garnier, in 1958, and the rebroadcast of the documentary Les Grands Rivaux en musique. Callas vs Tebaldi (2020), by Andreas Morell, which looks at the rivalry between two opposite poles: the creamy roundness of Renata Tebaldi; the white-hot edge of Maria Callas…

The most interesting in this set of tributes is Maria by Callas (2017), by Tom Volf, which France 4 will rebroadcast on Saturday December 2. Unlike other documentaries devoted to the most legendary soprano of the 20th century, this nearly two-hour film, first released in cinemas, refrains from involving witnesses and specialists – with rare exceptions, such as the one which shows Elvira de Hidalgo, Callas’s singing teacher in Athens, who remained his confidante and died, almost in his nineties, three years after her favorite student.

Because the director wanted to create “the first film to tell the story of the legendary Greek-American singer’s life exclusively in her own words.” To do this, numerous radio and television interviews with Callas (mainly in English and French), letters and intimate writings combine into a moving story.

Long musical sequences

To the point that we hear Fanny Ardant, in voice-over, sometimes on the verge of tears when she reads the heartbreaking letters of Callas (translated and edited by Tom Volf at Albin Michel, in 2019), the same Fanny Ardant who played the volcanic singer in Master Class, in 1996, the play by Terrence McNally which revives the master classes given by Callas in New York, in 1971 and 1972.

If we inevitably find images used by others before him, Tom Volf has carried out a remarkable search for archival documentation. Another quality of this work, undertaken in 2013: the respect for long musical sequences where we hear the one which, literally, burned the boards and ended in ashes.

Did the prima donna stop singing to devote herself to her mad love for Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975), from 1959? Was this withdrawal well-timed, at the moment when the voice of Callas began to make its faults heard? Did she party too much during her jet-setting years? Since the film’s release, other biographical sources have provided new elements on her relationship with the Greek billionaire – who left her for Jackie Kennedy and returned to her shortly before dying – and on her health.

Finally, we recommend revisiting the issue of the brilliant Arte webmagazine “Blow Up”, during which Luc Lagier, famous for his subtly artful Delphine Seyrig-like diction, returned to the traces left by Callas in cinema, as an actress (at Pier Paolo Pasolini, in Médée, in 1969), as a character or as a sound illustration. Lagier – who also cites Tom Volf’s documentary – reviews numerous films and assigns the last third of the show to the famous scene from Philadelphia (1993), by Jonathan Demme, where a record of the diva takes place of emotional vector between the characters played by Tom Hanks, suffering from AIDS, and Denzel Washington, his advocate for homophobia in the process of redemption.