The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas, by Marina Abramović

by Dr Christos Hadjiyiannis, Scientific Project Manager, NetMAR

Maria Callas didn’t have long to prepare the part of Elvira in I Puritani. Memorising the music though not the words, she found herself – assured but shortsighted – having to rely on the prompter to feed her the lines. So when the time came to sing Vincenzo Bellini’s arresting aria, ‘Son vergin vezzosa’, she sang instead ‘Son vergin viziosa’.

We can’t know whether the audience on that January night in 1949 at the famous La Fenice in Venice made out Elvira as a charming (vezzosa) or a vicious (viziosa) virgin, but the distinction that Callas inadvertently blurred has always been a fiddly one. It is certainly a distinction negotiated (and transgressed) by many late antique/early medieval martyr texts that commemorate Christian women. In texts such as the second-century Acts of Thekla, the virgin martyr Thekla is celebrated both as a ‘pure’ woman suffering at the hands of male perpetrators and as powerfully resilient and dangerous until the very end; as an idealised male construction perishing in the name of a male God and as an autonomous, charismatic individual with her own agency. Crossing boundaries – charming/vicious, female/male, victim/perpetrator – is the prerogative of many Christian female martyrs, virgin and not. In one of her visions, narrated in the third-century Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, a fascinating text written partly as an autobiography (although the modern term has no ancient analogue), the noble mother Via Perpetua is thrown onto the arena to fight a scary-looking Egyptian man. Perpetua takes off her clothes to reveal – to her astonishment, to that of her perpetrators, and to ours – that she has actually become a man.

These boundaries, these difficult distinctions, and the idea of the tragic woman as passive (which Christian female martyr texts undercut), lie at the core of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović’s new opera, The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas. Despite its flaws (and there are plenty), the work will be engrossing for those interested in rituals and ideas and notions we find in late antique and Byzantine hagiographical texts. Its very title, after all, explicitly (and maybe rather lazily?) alludes to the seven sorrows of Callas’s namesake Mary.

Abramović as Callas; Bayerische Staatsoper

The opera, co-written with Petter Skavlan and co-directed by Lynsey Peisinger, opened at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich on 3 September 2020 (and was soon made available to stream on the Staatsoper’s website). It’s now on tour, and will soon play at the Greek National Opera. Marko Nikodijević’s piercing score, conducted superbly by Yoel Gamzou, punctuates arias made famous by Callas and performed here admirably by seven sopranos and mezzos at their prime. Not much happens either side of each of song, so it does feel like a ‘best of’ gala concert – or even, as Harry Rose complained in The Observer, something of a vocal competition. All seven arias restage death scenes immortalised by Callas, and they are all killers. Hera Hyesang Park’s Violetta is tremendous; Selene Zanetti as Tosca is similarly breathtaking; Nadezhda Karyazine’s singing of Habanera is close to perfect, as is Adela Zaharia’s rendition of Donizetti’s Lucia. Lauren Faga has perhaps the most trying task of all as Norma – for no one has sung Norma as many times or as movingly as Callas. It was, after all, her performance of Norma in London in 1957 that forced John Pritchard, the conductor, to break Covent Garden’s ancient rule against encores. Faga sings ‘Casta Diva’ beautifully here even if, inevitably, when at the closing we hear it in Callas’s voice, we are reminded why Franco Zeffirelli felt that ‘to see Maria Callas in Norma – what is there to compare to it?’

The stage design (Abramović/Anna Schöttl) is wonderfully pristine and no doubt much easier on the eye than Callas’s extravagant Parisian abode, here the setting of the final scene. Not that Callas’s Louis quinze aesthetic is lost on the eye. The videos (directed by Nabil Elderkin) projected on giant screens at the backdrop of the stage are quite kitsch; for sure, they are very extra. In one, Abramović (who plays Callas) is seen flying through gold-laced clouds; in another, we watch on as seasoned Hollywood star Willem Dafoe wraps a giant python around a naked Abramović. Dafoe is actually an inspired choice: his chiseled face; his composed, sinister presence; his sly movement in slick Burberry suits specially designed by Riccardo Tisci – it’s impossible to lift your eyes off him. But of course it is Abramović who dominates the proceedings. She is literally everywhere to be seen, lying in bed onstage throughout. Is the idea that all this is a dream or that Callas watches her life pass in front of her on her deathbed? It’s not entirely clear, and Abramović’s presence and grandiose gestures are mawkish – when they are not superfluous and self-indulgent. In fact, there’s a veneer of vanity to the whole project. There are many reasons why we should commemorate Callas, but those given by Abramović in an interview (they share looks, she said, and star sign – Sagittarius) are surely too self involved.

Roles inversed: Abramović as Pollione and Willem Dafoe as Norma; Bayerische Staatsoper

And yet, as with many of Abramović’s performances, distasteful or self-important as we may judge them, The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas manages to test and question (in this case much more subtly than some of her most famous works of live art) boundaries between victimhood and autonomy, passivity and agency. That it does so on the opera stage, where roles for women were written to appease male audiences and where audiences have long loved to watch women suffer on stage is all the sharper.

Abramović ends her story of Callas with Norma. In Bellini’s opera, Norma, the Druid high priestess, is burnt at the stake together with Pollione, the Roman proconsul of Gaul, for whom Norma broke her Druid chastity vows. Channeling the transgendering of iconic Christian martyrs – think Thekla, Perpetua, and the later Joan of Arc – Abramović appears as Pollione alongside Dafoe’s Norma. Soon afterwards, now back as Callas, Abramović gets out of bed and, defying directorial instructions, she shutters centre stage a large vase. When she appears dressed as Norma in the final scene, it’s clear that this woman is both charming and vicious.

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