A Most Singular Woman
What would be the criteria for deciding the “Voice of the Century”? Perhaps one criterion would be the voice that said the most important things, such as “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds,” et cetera. Perhaps the voice that said “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” should be the Voice of the Century. Or, perhaps it should be the voice that was heard the most; perhaps actor James Earl Jones’ “This is CNN” has been heard by the most people, (at least in airports).
When most folks think of Voice of the Century, they’re likely to think of a singer. Maybe that’s because just about everybody sings, but very few do it well. Further evidence that the Voice of the Century should be a singer might be adduced by the fact that we have a TV program called “American Idol” devoted to finding the next great singers. You see, we don’t worship pianists, violin virtuosi, and oboe players, we worship singers, and mostly sopranos, the divas.
So the criterion for the top voice would involve the mastery of singing, and maybe that elusive quality we call “beauty.” And when it comes to beautiful singing we’re talkin’ opera, folks. Opera shows off the voice like nothing else and it requires the most mastery. So the Voice of the Century simply must be an opera singer.
Now that I’m just about to lose a lot of readers, let me make this pitch to keep you reading. This article is a review of a documentary film that I think a lot of folks who don’t care about opera will nonetheless enjoy. The flick gives a look into the social phenomenon of celebrity in the 1950s through the 1970s. In recent years, some have come to despise our Culture of Celebrity. But I’d guess that’s because of today’s celebrities, who just don’t have the class and style of celebrities past.
The documentary is about one of history’s greatest opera divas, who was also a great beauty, and who consorted with all the beautiful people, including royalty. Although an opera lover, I myself was not a fan of this singer, but after screening this movie, I now am.
Those who are obsessed with celebrity will lap up this film, as many VIPs make an appearance. There’s Liz and Dick (the Burtons) at some gala. We see actors Omar Sharif and Raf Vallone, and artist Jean Cocteau kissing the hand of our diva. It’s a kick to see Italian actress Anna Magnani’s amused gaze at the camera. You’ll get fleeting glimpses of actresses Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve traipsing into the opera house. (Is that gal next to Deneuve her sister, actress Françoise Dorléac?) And then there’s the royalty, like Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, Prince Philip, Princess Grace (Kelly) and Prince Rainier. And don’t forget Aristotle Onassis and Jackie O. So we see lots of Very Important People from le beau monde, high society, frolicking with each other.
If you’re exploring celebrity in the Fifties, back before the Culture of Celebrity became so stupid and ugly, you must include the paparazzi, those pestering packs of photographers who dogged celebs for an exclusive pic. And we see gangs of paparazzi mobbing our diva at airports, as she’s getting in and out of cars at the theatre, and at her divorce in Italy. Today we’re all outfitted with hi-tech cameras on our smartphones, so nowadays we’re all paparazzi.
Our film is Maria by Callas (2017) by director Tom Volf. Maria Callas was a celebrity like no other. She was glamour incarnate. She was more mysterious and alluring than any mere movie star. When she’d alight from airplanes she’d be dressed to the nines, wrapped in furs, holding one of her toy poodles, and the paparazzi would go mad. And know this: she was born in, and spent her first thirteen years in, America.
(The Sony website provides a bunch of material, including photos and a long list of the film’s celebs. Also check out the film’s official website. There’s a book with the same title as the movie that real Callas fans must check out. I saw the flick on Starz, and was able to DVR it, (Tucker Carlson will be glad to know), but it can be seen on demand, too. If you need to own the flick, it’s available on Blu-ray.)
There are a slew of interviews in the film, including one by a young Barbara Walters. There’s an interview from 1958 conducted by Edward R. Murrow, with his signature cigarette in hand. The film starts with a terrific 1970 interview by David Frost, which the film repeatedly comes back to, as it gives us penetrating insights into the person of Ms. Callas, her sacrifices and regrets. (The complete Frost interview is at YouTube, but, alas, it’s audio only.)
This documentary is expertly put together. Director Volf and his editor Janice Jones have spliced together archival footage for maximum effect, and it’s quite compelling. For instance, in one particularly engaging montage we see clip after clip of Callas making her entrances and exits around the world with her fans in tow, and it’s set to Callas’ rendition of the stormy aria in which Lady Macbeth encourages her guy to usurp the Scottish throne, “Vieni! t'affretta!” Such brilliant choices in wedding sight and sound abound in this flick.
In this montage, we’re given a glimpse of Callas’ beauty and her glamour. But it was not always so, as early in her career she was fat. But she tackled her weight problem like it was a new opera role and out popped a gorgeous cover girl.
At the beginning of the film, we read “This is Maria Callas in her own words drawn directly from her interviews, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs.” These words are spoken by Joyce DiDonato, a local gal (i.e. from Kansas City, whence I’m typing) who’s having quite a career in opera. Ms. DiDonato does a wonderful job of reading Callas’ letters, one of which is to Onassis and it’s so overwrought, so heart-on-your-sleeve, that she seems like a schoolgirl. As DiDonato reads the letter we see footage of Onassis, and then slowly coming into view is Callas’ replacement, Jackie Kennedy. Volf’s fusing together of the letter with this particular footage is particularly masterful. But the whole movie has such instances of exquisite “synchronicity,” (if that’s the right word).
We get to know a bit about Maria the woman. In the Frost interview, she said: “I would have preferred to have a happy family and to have children. I think that is the main vocation of a woman. But Destiny brought me into this career… I would have given it up with pleasure. But Destiny is Destiny and there’s no way out.”
Given that, the last segment becomes especially touching, as we see “La Divina,” as she was called, alone. Dressed casually by a pool, Maria plays with one of her toy poodles. She’s wearing spectacles, and if you look through the lenses at the sides of her face, you’ll see that she was rather myopic. Indeed, on stage she was practically blind. Between throws of the ball for her pooch to retrieve, Maria looks at the camera without the glamor: the essential Maria. This moving segment is accompanied by the big aria from Andrea Chenier, “La mamma morta,” another of Volf’s brilliant choices.
Maria Callas had a wonderful and interesting life. She provided much pleasure and meaning to millions. If there was a tragedy in her most singular life, wasn’t it in not having children? Imagine if her splendid vocal genes had been passed on to a little girl.
And so we come back to the issue of whether or not Ms. Callas really should be regarded as the Voice of the Century. Although she was a wonderful singer and made many beautiful sounds, I can’t say she was indisputably the voice, as tastes differ, so it’s entirely subjective. Be that as it may, I’d say there is one way in which Madame Callas was definitely No. 1 --- she was the Diva of the Century.
Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.