Makeup artist James Kaliardos discusses the surprisingly emotional video.

In the latest operatic music video by Visionaire, actress Marisa Tomei channels Maria Callas by donning the famous soprano’s iconic make-up and breathing new life into one of opera’s most admired, revered, and undermined stars. The film is part of Glass Handel, an opera styled by Raf Simons and choreographed by Justin Peck for Calvin Klein, and shows Tomei emoting over an aria by George Frideric Handel, sung by Grammy-nominated countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. 

Callas, known as La Divina, was followed by clichés typical for an emboldened female performer during the middle of the last century. She was often deemed bad-tempered and hot-headed, but by today’s standards the Greek-born singer would be nothing less than a boss; she turned down her first major role in the US, playing Madame Butterfly at the Met, because she wasn’t prepared to settle with what she was offered. “It was frankly a beginner’s contract,” the Met’s then-general manager later acknowledged in a 1958 interview with the New York Post.

Callas’s tumultuous relationship with international shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis often superseded her on-stage talent. She became known as one half of one of Opera’s most famous love affairs, before the other half ended it for Jackie Kennedy, who later adopted the Onassis name.

Document asked Visionaire co-founder James Kaliardos, who directed the film and created Tomei’s Callas-inspired make-up, how the entire Glass Handel project came about—and why opera needs to be examined under a contemporary cultural lens.

Caroline Christie—Why did you want to create an opera music video?

James Kaliardos—I’ve loved Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” since I was 12 and, hearing Anthony Costanzo sing it, I had an immediate vision of Marisa Tomei transforming into Maria Callas. Marisa and I had wanted to do a short film for some time, so this arrived as a perfect fit. Marisa is one of our greatest actresses, she brings such depth and truth to her work, so I knew she would drop into Maria’s pain and artistic quest within this performance. Marisa is a natural beauty, she doesn’t usually wear heavy dramatic makeup, so this was something unusual for us to try.

“Maria had to fight for her right to perform the way she wanted in a male dominated world and arena, where often the specifics of being female are reproached.”

Caroline—When did you first approach Marisa for the role?

James—It came about over dinner and I just asked her if we could do an opera music video of her as Maria. Visionaire’s entire Glass Handel project happened like this. We all just asked for people’s involvement, and everyone came on board for the sake of artistic freedom and love of art and opera. Rupert Sanders, Tilda Swinton, Justin Peck, James Ivory, George Condo, Raf Simons…it was an extraordinary group endeavor.

The ideas were bouncing around and we were researching Maria’s life, and what struck us was the song’s lyrics about a woman’s quest for liberty. Marisa and I are both politically active. She strongly supports #MeToo and women’s movements, and the lyrics coincide with what is happening in America right now. The aria’s lament over loss of freedom moved us both, as you can see, to tears.

Caroline—Can you talk about Maria and her career as a female soprano?

James—Maria had to fight for her right to perform the way she wanted in a male dominated world and arena, where often the specifics of being female are reproached. She was constantly attacked and called a diva in the press, and was even dismissed from performing at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera House for years. Imagine Maria Callas, the greatest singer in the world, not being allowed, by a man, to perform at the MET! It’s scandalous. Many women’s stories are now coming to light that shed a new idea of what was really going on. Marisa dropped into becoming Maria and her emotion flowed between her strong beauty and her deep sense of pain and injustice.