Sunday, February 28, 2010

La Divina: A portrait of Maria Callas

Colleen Skull Blog Entry 2#

Review of the Documentary La Divina: A portrait of Maria Callas


This documentary on Maria Callas uses interviews with those closest to the Greek soprano, news and performance footage, and Callas herself commenting on her life and experiences as a opera icon. Like many great artists it, Maria was racked with issues of performance anxiety, 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 considered, ungraceful, shy, and a voice that conductor Serafin described as "great and ugly". However her legacy of delivering dramatic performances strongly resonated with opera audiences, not only making opera more accessible, it also solidifies her status as a super star.
Maria's physical transformation is said to have been inspired by seeing Audrey Hepburn filming Roman Holiday. She lost over 80 pounds in a very short period of time. It is rumoured she did so by swallowing a tape worm. This streamlined Callas allowed her the access to more publicity, high profile roles and performances, and perhaps led in part to her relationships to Battista Meneghini and Aristotle Onassis. It is asserted in the documentary that Onassis viewed her as a possession, devastating Maria permanently when he unexpectedly married Jackie Kennedy instead of Maria. It is still widely speculated that Maria ultimately died of a broken heart.
This documentary weaves the tale of a woman with an intense drive for music making and love. It touches on Maria’s lack of a supportive family, loss of her voice, drug use, and ultimate overdose in her Paris apartment. This film portrays an artist with a fierce dedication to the development of her artistry, the famous director of the day, Franco Zefferelli testifies that what made her great was that on stage she was "possessed", and completely committed to the realization of the characters she played. People have often commented Maria Callas walked a fine line between genius and madness. What this documentary really portrays is the intense pressures and difficulties opera singers have to deal with in their work and personal lives. For me this film represents a tragic end to an outstanding artist who managed to capture the hearts of the public and is still revered today.

I watched this film not only out of interest but as a source of insight into the experiences, and potential stresses and strains opera singers in the golden age of opera experienced. Surprisingly, not much has changed over the last 60 years. Pressures and expectations of perfection, issues of loneliness and isolation, drug use, and constant scrutiny from the opera community and the public are still the reality for professional opera singers today.

Form a socio-psychological perspective, this film addresses the constant pressures of Maria’s environment, her early dedication to practice and singing above all else, and the toll her lifestyle and stardom took on her psychological well being. Of particular interest was the film’s identification of the developments made in speed of travel that led to her vocal instability and her inability to manage the increased demands on her with regard to rehearsals and performance schedule. During the golden age of opera, rehearsal periods were very long in comparison to today’s frantic schedules, where singers are expected to step in at a moment’s notice, rehearse for less than a week, and develop their characters and musical ideas on their own. Although Gelb’s move towards “hollywoodism” at the Met has led to sacrifices in the artistic integrity of operatic performance, it is clear the pressures to emulate a larger than life, starlet persona was alive and well decades previous. I would highly recommend this film. It provides candid insights into the world of opera not only during the golden age of opera but as it relates to the current conditions of professional operatic career demands of today

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