Few singers inspired the kind of devotion fans felt for Maria Callas, the Greek American soprano whose relatively short career was marked by dramatically compelling performances and an equally turbulent offstage life. When she decided to make a comeback in 1964, at the age of 40, after a two-year vocal hiatus, members of the faithful camped outside London’s Royal Opera House for five cold January nights to be assured of getting tickets.
Her return to opera was such big news that the British Broadcasting Corporation televised Act II of one of her Tosca performances live, and footage from that historic event forms the basis for The Magic of Callas, a documentary airing on public television’s Great Performances on Friday, Jan. 15. It’s a rare and welcome opportunity to see Callas, as well as hear her; many of her recordings are still available, but this is the only significant video footage of her in an opera production.
It may be grainy black-and-white footage with just decent sound quality, but the opera film still packs a wallop, thanks to the intelligence and intensity of her performance, and the chemistry with her onstage adversary, baritone Tito Gobbi. He plays the nasty Roman chief of police Scarpia, who’s trying to force Tosca into a sexual liaison, after which he plans to kill her lover Cavaradossi. Callas and Gobbi had a legendary artistic partnership, for reasons that become clear after a few minutes of this film.
The Tosca footage is intercut with observations from a variety of commentators, including soprano Kristine Opolais, baritone Thomas Hampson (a celebrated Scarpia), and Royal Opera House music director Antonio Pappano. For David Horn, executive producer of Great Performances, that’s what makes the film so compelling. “The way that the musicians are describing her performance during Act II of Tosca gives viewers an opportunity to learn what her artistry was all about,” he told Pasatiempo recently. “You can really appreciate why she was such a larger-than-life personality.
The Magic of Callas works best as an overview for those who aren’t already steeped in Callas lore, and as a Great Performances offering, the price is right. Those already familiar with the great soprano might want to spring for a DVD titled Maria Callas: Magic Moments of Music — Tosca 1964. It includes this documentary, as well as the complete second act of Tosca, 45 minutes of uninterrupted performance magic.
The Magic of Callas premieres at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, on KNME and online at pbs.org.