Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Love is a Bohemian Child

I have two just questions, at least for right now.

Who changes their clock in the middle of the night? And will this slow death by snow ever end? Three days in and it feels interminable.

When I woke up in the middle of the night, I was inexplicably certain my bedside clock had stopped, so I checked another clock and reset it in the dark. Only once I got up and began making breakfast did I realize that I'd mistakenly set my clock half an hour ahead.

And, believe me, a snow day doesn't need to start any earlier than it already does, if you know what I'm saying.

While the snow didn't prevent me from walking, it definitely slowed down the process to the point that a four mile walk - usually an hour-long endeavor - took an hour and 20 minutes. A lot of that had to do with my inability to walk at my usual speed because of un-shoveled sidewalks, unexpected swaths of black ice when walking in the street to avoid icy puddles and detours due to enormous mounds of plowed snow deposited on sidewalks.

Pedestrians become secondary when it comes to snow removal.

Still, I was out of the house and seeing signs of life, so that at least was progress and there are worse ways to spend the afternoon than writing to the accompaniment of the sounds of snow shifting and melting outside. But after spending the last two nights at home, I also made a deal with myself that if got enough work finished, I was going to cut out in late afternoon to go indulge my inner documentary dork.

Besides mixing things up a bit, it was a chance to prove I could stay home three nights in a row and I know I have friends who doubted I could.

It was hardly surprising how uncrowded the Movieland parking lot was, not to mention finding only three other people in the tiny Criterion Cinema where I was seeing "Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words."

Two of them were older and obviously on a date, but they'd both lost the ability to whisper, so their frequent exchanges were loud enough for me and the other loner to hear every word. And he was one of those men who felt the need to explain every preview to her as if she hadn't just seen it with her own eyes.

Red flag, honey, cut bait while you can.

As for the documentary's subject matter, Maria Callas has interested me since the whole Jackie business. Back in those days, my family had subscriptions to three daily newspapers and I recall quite clearly that the Washington Daily News, an afternoon tabloid-format paper, always had the best juice in it.

So when they ran a piece about Onassis' plans to marry JFK's widow, they didn't stint on the fact that it broke Callas' heart because of their long-time relationship. It may have been the first time I'd ever read in a newspaper about a woman having an affair, so it piqued my curiosity and stuck.

Years later, I picked up "Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend" by Arianna Stossinopolous at one of the library's used book sales and learned a lot more about the diva. So it only took seeing the previews to tonight's movie once to know I needed to come back and hear the story of her life in her own words.

Because that was really the cool part of this non-traditional documentary. Director Tom Volf chose to only use interviews of Callas, along with home movies, filmed performances and press footage with an occasional overdub of American opera singer Joyce di Donato reading Callas' letters aloud.

Letters to people like Grace Kelley. Letters to Onassis. Letters that explained exactly where her head and heart were at any given time.

So without a talking head in sight, the story truly felt like it was being told by Maria herself, in all her perfect make-up and fashionable splendor.

An added bonus of the film was the extensive and dated footage of Europe, meaning I go to see Athens and the Acropolis in 1937 and Paris in 1963, neither much resembling the crowded metropolises I saw in the 21st century.

Pushed into a career in opera by a demanding stage mother, Callas talked repeatedly about a woman's value being in having a family and children, but that wasn't the hand she'd been dealt. "Destiny is destiny," she tells the interviewer. "There's no way out."

To add to the vintage vibe, some of the old footage had been colorized, giving it that over-saturated '50s look where yellow, orange and red reign supreme and blue is tough to find.

It was obvious how much of a Callas fan the director was because of the multiple live performances he included, and not just a snippet, but the entire aria. Seeing her perform onstage made it easy to see why her acting skills had been touted, along with her voice and technical skill.

But like with that long-ago Daily News, I reveled in the details of her love affair with Aristotle Onassis, whom she referred to as "Aristo," but whom she always described as a friend, not a lover. Tellingly, she said that Aristo made her feel "liberated and feminine" and that he was more than happy for her to take a break from a demanding career that had begun at 13 and never let up.

As a side note, I'd only seen photographs of Onassis in his late '50s and early '60s, but seeing him in his '40s revealed that he'd once been a very handsome, if very Greek-looking, man.

Everyone may know now who worships at the altar of divas, but back when Callas returned to New York City, her hometown, to sing after having been gone for seven years, it wasn't all that much different. A CBS correspondent roams the long line of people waiting to get into the Met, asking them why she's worth waiting all day to see.

All three men asked responded with praise and deference to the magnificent woman they idolized and, without profiling anyone, I'd guess that every single one of them was a gay boy. Slender, attractive and absolutely enthralled at seeing their heroine, they positively fawned as long as the CBS microphone was held in their face. One said he expected the ovation to be "standing and last 30 minutes."

 That's a true fan. Adorable.

But also of note was what that before there were rock stars, Maria Callas was an opera star of the rock star magnitude, the kind greeted at every airport and train station where she arrived with a gaggle of paparazzi hanging on her every word, at least when she deigned to talk to them. Performances sold out overnight when her name was announced as part of the cast.

And yet, the sad part was she didn't get the family and children she craved nor did she get the one man she truly loved, even if he did go back to meeting her in secret after marrying the world's most famous window.

It's like she told David Frost, "There are two people in me. I am Maria, but there is Callas that I have to live up to." Helluva trade-off to be considered the finest operatic female voice of the 20th century.

There are two people in me, too, but since I'm not the finest anything, I get to do whatever I want, even when it's not what others expect.

Destiny, shmestiny. Like Emerson said, the only person you're destined to become is the person you decide to be.

I'm shooting for liberated, feminine and almost always hungry. I like to think it's enough to keep me out of the diva category.

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