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Arts / Museums

The World’s Greatest Diva Gets a Houston Movie Moment

The Larger Than Life Tale of Greek Soprano Maria Callas

BY // 11.09.18

Aspiring divas, here’s your chance to learn the secrets of a legendary superstar regarded by many as the world’s greatest, acclaimed as “La Divina.”

Maria by Callas, a new film directed by Tom Volf with a special Saturday Houston screening, tells the life story of globally renowned opera singer Maria Callas in her own words. The film reveals the private life and emotional conflicts of the human being behind her bigger-than-life public persona through interviews, performances, letters and unpublished memoirs in an exhaustively researched Sony Pictures Classics documentary.

Maria by Callas, which shows at noon Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among a group of stellar movies being shown at various local venues as part of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2018, presented by the Houston Cinema Arts Society. Whether you appreciate great singing or simply a great colorful story, you might want to reserve a ticket for this special showing at the adult rate of $10 via the Cinema Arts Festival.

In her prime, people thronged to hear the extraordinarily talented American-born Greek soprano, who died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1977. Onstage, Maria Callas’ sumptuous voice was hailed as technically precise, and her acting similarly superb – a difficult combination to achieve. She continues to draw multitudes of admirers from all over the world whose compliments pour in to this day, posted under YouTube videos and recordings of Callas singing show-stopping arias like “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”) from Puccini’s Tosca and “Casta diva” (“chaste goddess”) from Bellini’s Norma.

Offstage, Callas’ private life often mirrored the drama of the grand operas in which she starred, perhaps most famously in a rocky working relationship with New York’s Metropolitan Grand Opera as well as in her affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.  As an eloquent Vogue review of the film points out, her hordes of celebrity fans spanned the likes of Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier and Queen Elizabeth.

Like a queen, herself, Callas manifested a uniquely regal presence whether she was on or off stage. It is particularly (if only coincidentally) appropriate that the film about her life will be shown at the MFAH at a time when the museum is presenting a major exhibition focusing on royalty: “Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol.” Bedecked in her opera finery, with her supremely self-assured demeanor, the majestic Callas would fit right in with the crowned heads on display in their magnificent costumes.

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Adding to the film’s appeal is a key contribution by a present day celebrity: opera star Joyce DiDonato. The mezzo-soprano, who won rave reviews as Mary, Queen of Scots in Donizetti’s Mary Stuart in 2012 at Houston Grand Opera as well as at the Met in 2013, will lend her beautiful voice to a number of letters penned by Callas.

According to the Sony Pictures synopsis of Maria by Callas, director Tom Volk’s impulse purchase of a standing-room-only ticket to one of those remarkable Met performances “changed the trajectory of his life.” That “powerful” experience led to his online study of Italian opera, hearing a captivating Donizetti aria sung by Callas, then spending the next four years researching her life for this current film.

Four years spent tracking down leads for one profile piece aimed at telling the real story about a now-departed, legendary superstar, in her own words. That’s got all the makings of truly grand opera as well as a great story – one I definitely won’t miss. 

See you at the movie.

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