Dipping into a diva’s psyche

La Divina, the great Greek diva Maria Callas, returned to her country of origin last week in a gala preview of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s «Callas Forever» at the Apollon Cinema. The event was attended by the director, lead actor Jeremy Irons, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, members of the Friends of the National Museum for Contemporary Art (in whose aid the gala was held) and a host of personalities from Greece’s social and intellectual circles. Unfortunately, the 79-year-old Zeffirelli failed to please the local audiences who were, it seems, expecting something rather more grand than what the director had to offer. Some members even stormed out of the theater shouting, «How dare he depict Callas in this way.» However, it is not clear if any of those in the audience knew Callas as well as Zeffirelli did. He has directed and produced a plethora of classical theater and opera works for both the stage and screen. Indeed, from early on in his career, he worked as a stage designer alongside the celebrated film director Luchino Visconti. Among his most popular films are «The Taming of the Shrew,» «Romeo and Juliet» (which won him an Oscar), «Hamlet,» and film versions of the operas «La Traviata» and «Othello.» He has also staged numerous opera productions, many of which he did so with Maria Callas, whom he met in Rome in 1948 while he was assisting Salvador Dali on Visconti’s «Parcifal.» By the mid-1960s, Callas’s career had began to wane along with her self-confidence. In 1964, a year during which Callas was only giving recitals because she felt she was losing her voice, Zeffirelli coaxed her into another full-scale opera, «Tosca» at Covent Garden. According to the testimonies of her close friends and collaborators, Callas became convinced that the voice which had marked her as the world’s greatest singer was deserting her. She left the stage in 1965, making only tentative comebacks up until 1972 and filling her time by giving master classes at New York’s Juilliard School. Her final recital tour ended in Japan in 1974. Her performance, while admired by her fans, was seen by Callas as a disaster. Callas retired into her Paris apartment, telling friends that she was away on holiday. Callas died alone in 1977 at the age of 53. The official cause of her death was a heart attack but again, friends’ testimonies said she died – aided by sleeping pills and alcohol – of a broken heart. She was said to have been lamenting the loss of her love, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis who left her for Jackie Kennedy, and more importantly, her voice. «Callas Forever» is a fictional account of the last four months of her life. It depicts her at her lowest point: ensconced in her apartment, taking fistfuls of pills and drinking profusely while listening to recordings of her greatest moments, silently mouthing the words and crying before she crumbles to the ground in a heartbroken heap. These are some of the film’s best moments, artfully played by French actress Fanny Ardant, whose expressive features and poignant mannerisms give the impression that, at that moment, in that gesture, she is Callas. The French actress had previous experience with the character, playing Callas on stage in Paris in Terrence McNally’s «Master Class.» The plot of «Callas Forever» unfolds as a Faustian English impresario (Jeremy Irons) and old-time friend of Callas tries to bring her out of her shell by proposing that she make a comeback in a film version of «Carmen» (the only role Callas never performed as a full-scale opera production) singing to a playback of an old, famous recording. The experiment is successful, Callas regains her confidence, her zest for life. She leaves her dusky apartment to mix with the world outside. Dressed in stunning Chanel, she walks the streets of Paris and basks in the public admiration. In effect, she has sold her soul to the devil of technology in order to regain the voice of her youth. As she sees the director’s cut of the film on screen – in what are rather stilted scenes of the film «Carmen» – she realizes that she has compromised her artistic integrity. In «Callas Forever,» the diva’s realization that youth and glory cannot be regained at any expense, is juxtaposed against the character of Jeremy Irons, an aging pony-tailed monster of show business who has gone from representing great talents such as Callas to having to post bail for a rock band called Bad Dreams who have trashed their suite in the Ritz. His story is the film within the film: We see his efforts to grasp at youth through the relationship he has with a younger man, the vitamin concoctions he has injected into his veins, his 1970s wardrobe which he thinks is still cool, and most of all, his burning desire to experience his own resurrection through that of Callas. Much of this sub-plot is superfluous to a tribute film. This is the crux of the matter: While the title «Callas Forever» leads the audience to expect a grand homage to La Divina, complete with scenes of great performances and an ending that does justice to the greatness of her life, Zeffirelli seems to be, not unsuccessfully, expressing what he himself wishes he had done – save her. Indeed, a few months before her death, Zeffirelli tried to convince Callas to do a single performance of «The Coronation of Poppea.» She told him she would be on holiday, all the while playing for time and staying in her apartment. In «Callas Forever,» Zeffirelli also seems to be making a broader comment on the rise and fall of fame, beauty and youth and this, again, is done successfully. Those who would prefer to see Zeffirelli’s tribute to the greatness of Callas’s life would be better off watching the 1978 documentary «Maria Callas: A Biography.»