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    Revisiting the operatic life of Maria Callas

    Maria Callas in “Maria by Callas.”
    Sony Pictures Classics
    Maria Callas in “Maria by Callas.”

    Presumably, it wasn’t George Kalogeropoulos’s intent when he changed the family name to Callas that it would rhyme with “goddess.” But serendipity has a way of getting the job done. His daughter was named Maria.

    It’s not only impossible but ridiculous to say that a single pianist — or guitarist — or opera singer — is the best or most talented. What can be said, however, is that one is the most storied, the most electrifying, the one who truly stands apart: like Glenn Gould — like Jimi Hendrix — like, yes, Maria Callas.

    Watching a few minutes of “Maria by Callas” shows that it wasn’t just her artistry, overwhelming as it was, that made Maria Callas Maria Callas. Tom Volf’s distinctive and affecting documentary makes plain how much the persona also owed to appearance and intelligence and life history.

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    Volf takes a consciously distanced approach. An initial title card reads: “This is Maria Callas in her own words drawn directly from her interviews, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs.” The result is shrewdly complementary. If anyone ever collapsed distance, it was Callas.

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    There’s no voiceover, no ex post facto experts doing a talking-head preen for Volf’s camera. Instead, we see Callas in interviews with the likes of David Frost, Barbara Walters, Edward R. Murrow (on “Person to Person”! boy, was network television different way back when — so was the culture). There are press conferences, home movies, news clips, performance footage, still photographs. Joyce DiDonato, in English, and Fanny Ardant, in French, read from Callas’s writings. Both are excellent. DiDonato faces a particular challenge, having to capture Callas’s gloriously indeterminate accent without overdoing it.

    Volf bends his rules a little bit. He includes a clip of Callas’s much-idolized teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo, describing her pupil’s fierce dedication as a student. There’s another of Rudolf Bing, the legendary general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, explaining why he had not “fired” Callas. No, one does not apply so coarse a word to such a person. “Severed” relations would be better, he suggests with wonderfully bland malice.

    Callas returned to the Met, seven years later, and we hear from fans who have camped out overnight in hopes of getting tickets. The roar that greets Callas when she makes her entrance in “Tosca” sounds all but meteorological: Lear-quality cataracts and hurricanoes.

    Volf’s approach has its limits. As only the most exalted performers can be, Callas was effectively her own context. Yet uninitiated viewers — while still likely to find the documentary gripping — wouldn’t otherwise realize what a disaster her attempted “comeback” in the early ’70s was or understand the hows and whys of the transformation undergone by the pudgy teen briefly glimpsed in a few photos that resulted in the preposterously glamorous figure Callas became.

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    That’s another element of her impact, one the film conveys superbly: appearance. Callas was about as conventionally attractive as a coffin. Yet she was stunning: that severe, remorseless face, with its bitter-almond eyes and gash of a mouth, balanced so perilously between dark ugliness and radiant beauty.

    Callas was born in 1923, in New York. Her family returned to Greece when she was in her early teens, which meant she was there during the Nazi occupation. That’s another instance where strictly biographical elaboration would be welcome. “Hardship does one good,” she tells Frost. Callas became famous in Italy, which as it should be, Italian bel canto opera being the part of the repertory she made her own. She died in Paris, in 1977.

    She belonged to the first generation for whom stardom became truly international, a function of air travel, mass communication, and such developments in home entertainment as the LP and television. At various points we glimpse among audience members Grace Kelly, Jean Cocteau, Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother. The Ancien Regime meets “La Dolce Vita.” It’s all very much of a certain, highly stylized moment: the bulbous limos, the four-engine propeller airliners, the constant waving of cigarettes (though not by Callas), as attached to the hand of the smoker as if they were a sixth finger.

    There’s Callas in Monte Carlo, in Cannes, in Palm Beach — each of them a different form of stage from the one she dominated in a different sort of performance — the jewels, the full-length mink, the poodle in her arms. “There are two people in me,” she tells an interviewer. “I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas that I have to live up to.”

    There’s another interview, from 1963 or ’64, when with her modified bouffant hairstyle she could be Jacqueline Kennedy’s older sister — or young aunt. Viewers of a certain age will nod knowingly. That’s the Jacqueline Kennedy who would become Jacqueline Onassis in 1968.

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    The years-long relationship with Aristotle Onassis, one of the world’s richest (and perhaps most ruthless) men, was the final element in the Callas legend: both the relationship itself and its beyond-fiction denouement. “Aristo,” she calls him in several interviews, using that lower-case aristo accent of hers. Seeing them in home movies and newsreel footage, one notices she was taller.

    In Callas, Onassis had acquired one of the most famous women in the world. With Kennedy, he traded up: acquiring the most famous. Callas’s one role in a feature film was Medea, in Pasolini’s 1969 version. Of course it was.

    “I have written my memoirs,” Callas said. “They are in the music I interpret. The only language I really know.” There’s a becoming modesty — and self-understanding — in that word “interpret.” Callas knew she was a vessel, a lesser artist: an interpreter, a performer, not a creator. But taken past a very rare point, interpretation and performance become their own form of creation, perhaps even a higher form, since they retain the power and humanity that only flesh and blood have. She got further past that point than almost anyone else in the 20th century.

    ***

    MARIA BY CALLAS

    Written and directed by Tom Volf. At Kendall Square. 113 minutes. PG. In English, Italian, French, and Greek, with subtitles.

    Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.