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Celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović makes her ENO debut with her production of 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, receiving its UK premiere, exploring the life, work and death of one of opera’s greatest stars. Callas – whose private life was never quite able to be separated from her performances – has fascinated Abramović for decades, conceiving this operatic project as a homage and exploration of the great prima donna.
Immortalised through her place in popular culture, Callas (sometimes referred to as ‘La Divina’ – the divine one) is invoked on stage through a series of her most famous arias from La traviata, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, Carmen, Otello, Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, with new music by Serbian Composer Marko Nikodijević.
An Opera Project by Marina Abramović
With music by Marko Nikodijević (b. 1980)
Scenes from works by Vincenzo Bellini, Georges Bizet, Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Petter Skavlan & Marina Abramović
Conductor, Yoel Gamzou
Director & Set Designer, Marina Abramović
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A century after her birth, Maria Callas, the legendary soprano, is as present in our lives as ever. New colourings of her operatic highlights are being made and released, biographies and novels about her life fill the musical sections of every bookshop and a biopic about Callas with Angelina Jolie in the main role will be premiered in 2024. The distinguished and audience-challenging artist Marina Abramovic joins the party with her opera project 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, a multifaceted show that pays homage to one of the Serbian performer’s most adored idols.
Traditionally, opera is about singing and acting, at least in what involves the people we see on stage. However, in this ENO production Abramovic becomes the undisputed main character by doing neither of the two: for most of the show’s duration, she lays in a bed while seven sopranos sing arias from the classic repertoire and short films starring herself and the American actor Willem Dafoe are played in the background. Later on, she embodies Maria Callas during her last moments in a hotel room, displaying a stage presence that is powerful, melancholic and moving without saying a word. All that is well-accompanied by the ENO orchestra in a supportive role under the (too distracting at times) conducting of Yoel Gamzou.
Whereas Abramovic’s talent and creativity is undeniable and easily noticeable in this production, the performance lacks some cohesion overall. The films aren’t well-connected to each other and are shown with little context, with which the audience would have understood better why these arias were relevant to Callas or what life situations caused each of the “7 Deaths”. Furthermore, all the footage is played in slow-motion, a technique that, when overused, loses its dramatic effect and ends up being nonsensical. Perhaps a live performance of those scenes, with actors and a stage decoration, would have been a better choice to illustrate Maria Callas’ thoughts as death approaches her.
Even if the immortal voice of Maria Callas is almost impossible to equal, and the audience will have the chance of experience it during the show, the seven divas are one of the most appealing attractions of the whole production. All of them are talented singers with established operatic careers and perform the arias with brilliance and passion, particularly Karah Son (unforgettable as a despaired Cio-Cio San), Aigul Akhmetshina (who sparked the audience’s greatest ovation with her rendition of Carmen’s Habanera) and Sarah Tynan (portraying Lucia in a highly virtuosic performance).
As a whole, the production looks like a sharp idea with a not very polished execution. The apparent similarities between Abramovic and Callas’s life paths seemed curious beforehand, but they were never explained during the opera, and the artistic decision of merging together different art disciplines ended up being confusing and misleading. Nevertheless, the biggest triumph of ENO’s 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is placing the soprano as a symbol of female oppression, an approach which became clear thanks to Abramovic’s voice-overs and some of the strong images shown.
Marina Abramović has always been provocative. But to only view her work through that lens is to miss what makes her so popular and often so profound. The ENO’s 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, which she directs and set designs, will provoke avid opera fans but there are some gestures toward profundity here if one is willing to engage with Abramović herself.
The ENO refer to this as an ‘opera project’ and one sympathises with their ambiguity. This is neither opera nor performance art in the usual sense; it sits uncomfortably between the two.
Abramović appears as Callas, bedbound and still. Seven different singers give renditions of Callas’ most famous arias including Verdi, Puccini and Bizet. Each is introduced by a voiceover (cowritten by Abramović and Petter Skavlan) and performed in front of a huge screen on which Abramović and Willem Dafoe act out the related death scene.
An epilogue follows in which Abramović as Callas awakens in the Paris hotel room in which she died and follows a voiceover, together asking the audience to what extent Callas has really died (or how Abramović could) when her legacy and art survive.
There are interesting tensions at the production’s heart. Abramović is driven by a lifelong obsession with Callas yet recently declared opera to be ‘boring.’ Her artistic obsession is the relationship between artist and audience, yet it is hard to think of a live medium where the audience is as uninvolved as opera.
These tensions both power and undermine the production. While it may superficially appear to be a celebration of opera, there is real criticism here. Abramović highlights the constant misery inflicted on female characters and dresses each singer drably, subjugating them to her towering cinematic reinterpretations that occupy the lion’s share of the stage.
Yanking the arias out of their context reduces their power. Anyone unfamiliar with the wider stories will be at a particular loss. Though undoubtedly intentional, we’re left with some beautiful performances that struggle to provide any emotional heft beyond appreciation of their undeniable technical excellence.
And there is a lot of excellence to be found here. The performers are all fantastic, especially Nadine Benjamin as Desdemona. The orchestra, led by conductor Yoel Gamzou, miraculously sews the distinct pieces together and builds the tension with Marko Nikodjević’s new pieces during the epilogue. Nabil Elderkin’s films offer some unforgettable images throughout.
But the final product is rather llifeless. Intellectually interesting, but in a scientific way. By decontextualising the pieces, Abramović dissects and presents Callas’ legacy uniquely, but she cannot keep the production’s heart beating. Viewed as part of Abramović’s ongoing tussle with mortality, it’s an audacious if stultifying attempt to look death in the face.
There is a lack of coherence in translating the story of one genre’s star into this other medium. For all the intentional ambiguity, one leaves wondering what has been said about Callas here that is genuinely new and what we learned about Abramović that she hasn’t expressed herself more effectively before.
As I take my seat in the Coliseum’s stalls, I’m struck by the array of flamboyant outfits and marvellous headpieces worn by many of the opera goers. It’s clear that the Serbian conceptual performance artist, Marina Abramović, has attracted a younger, more diverse audience than the ENO is used to.
The show begins with a captivating opening score and a spotlight illuminating Abramović who plays a sleeping Maria Callas- the famous Greek soprano singer who suffered an untimely death in 1977. A beautiful oboe solo is peppered with staccato harp chords, conjuring up an eerie mood to compliment the cloudscape that’s projected on the backstage wall. The anticipation swells within the audience, everyone unsure of what to expect, but excited, nonetheless.
Yoel Gamzou’s bold and passionate conducting is interrupted by a recording of Abramović’s voice, wrecking the tension the orchestra had so perfectly built. She recites words and phrases meant to evoke specific images and feelings relating to the upcoming aria.
Eri Nakamura, the first diva, is dressed as a maid and walks just a few feet on to the stage. As she performs Verdi’s ‘Addio del passato’, the dreamy holograph is replaced by a self-indulgent slow-motion film (each one more ridiculous than the last) starring Abramović as Violetta and award-winning American actor Willem Dafoe as her lover.
Once the scene is over Nakamura walks awkwardly off stage and a new cloudscape starts as the next diva appears. This stagnant format continues for much of the opera, and it’s not long before my attention begins to waver.
7 Deaths of Maria Callas, written and directed by Abramović, attempts to meditate on the artist’s parasocial relationship with Callas which first began when she heard her sing on the radio aged 16. The seven arias/deaths, all once performed by Callas, explore the parallels between her and opera’s famous heroines using projections and film to push the boundaries of a typical opera performance.
But it’s precisely these multimedia elements, as well as the repetitive structure, that cause this experiment to fail. No aria, no matter how well sung, can achieve its full emotional impact when robbed of its narrative and musical crescendo.
Two-thirds into the show, Abramović finally awakens in the Epilogue set in Callas’ Parisian apartment. After smashing a vase and being dictated around the stage she dies, signified through the uninspired metaphor of walking through a brightly lit door. She returns one final time in a glamorously gold gown and mimes to a recording of Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’.
Despite the opera posing as an ode to the life and work of the opera star, I came away with no deeper understanding of Callas or further appreciation for Abramović. Unlike the artist’s other creative conceptual works this show is neither intense nor thought provoking.
It’s just a shame the real talent in this performance, the magnificent singers and talented musicians, are suffocated by images of Abramović being choked by a live snake.
I came for opera; instead I got 90 minutes of perfume advertisements. 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is not only tame by performing artist Marina Abramović’s usual gruelling standards, but to the casual attendee, there will be very little of value to appreciate in this “opera project.”
The evening is divided into two parts. Part I features the titular seven deaths, with seven sopranos performing arias from operas by Bellini, Bizet, Donizetti, Puccini and Verdi. Projected against the backdrop are short films featuring Abramović and Willem Dafoe, each related in some way to the death of the heroines. The stage is bare save a bed off to the side, in which Abramović lies motionless.
The sopranos all give fine performances of their respective arias, Sarah Tynan’s cadenzas in “Ardon gli incensi” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor deserving exceptional praise. However, every aspect of Abramović’s conception serves to minimise the effect of these singers’ performances. Divorcing the arias from their dramatic contexts robs them of any lasting impact – there is no invocation of horror from Lucia, no dread of the inevitable underlying Desdemona’s “Ave Maria.” Each individual aria left me emotionally cold, wishing that I was instead watching the opera from which it was sourced. Conductor Yoel Gamzou is stiff and inflexible in his tempi, a flaw enforced by the need to accommpany the projected films; Sophie Bevan was noticeably uncomfortable with the stilted tempo compelled upon her in “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma. Staging gets in the way as a gauze screen forms a blockade between soprano and audience, hampering projection.
The films themselves are visually uninteresting – kitsch, cliché and sickeningly glossy, with constant use of slow motion. Abramović’s ridiculous facial expressions invited derisive sneers from members of the audience around me. They do indeed resemble perfume adverts rather than anything of serious artistic merit.
Following a much-too-long set change (which also provoked bemused chatter and a few premature departures from the audience), the curtain rises upon the Paris hotel room in which Callas died in 1977 for Part II. It takes 25 minutes for Marina/Maria (as the programme refers to her in self-centred fashion) to get out of bed, smash a vase, open a window, and leave the stage. A ludicrously banal voice-over from Marina as Callas and Marko Nikodijević’s bland, featureless mush of an incidental score do nothing to enliven the turgid drag that is the evening’s final half hour. The work ends with Marina’s return to the stage, dressed in glittering gold, miming to a recording of “Casta diva” by Callas.
That these final moments are Callas’ only true representation in the work is a massive flaw in what is supposedly a homage to her – an obvious betrayal of the fact that the homage is to Marina, not Maria, who in the final moments seemingly posseses the body of La Divina in an attempt to portray herself as divine. Alas, there is no divinity to be found here, only a vapid installation piece dressed in theatrical clothing.
Fans of renowned performance artist Marina Abramović have waited three years for her 7 Deaths of Maria Callas to arrive in London. Knowing Abramović’s history of direct, confrontational, affecting installations, and the reputation of the opera star her show commemorates – a great actor, known for playing tormented heroines, living passionately, and dying tragically – they might have expected to be emotionally churned by the production. Instead, I suspect they went away moved.
This show requires some explanation. Seven sopranos each sing an aria from an archetypal Callas role. Behind them, films of Abramović and collaborator Willem Dafoe represent and/or riff on each of those characters’ deaths. Each film-aria-character segment is interspersed with projections of swirling clouds, Abramović’s booming voiceover (reflecting on the next character), and haunting music by composer Marko Nikodijević.
Maria (played by Marina) lies in bed onstage throughout, dreaming of these roles. Indeed, the pattern only breaks at the end when Marina/Maria wakes up, the set changing to the Paris hotel room where Callas died alone. We watch Abramović enact that eighth, actual death of Maria Callas, before imitating the diva performing onstage, accompanied by a recording of Callas singing. The body is gone, but the unforgettable voice lives on. Indeed, it clearly continues to speak to Abramović, in this reflection on herself through the prism of the star, the women equally passionate, Abramović believes, in life, art and love.
This is an interesting intellectual exercise. It encourages reflection on artistic relationships with the operatic repertory. Arias from nineteenth-century Italian greats mingle with pieces from young, avant-garde, electronic-influenced composer Nikodijević. Like Callas, Aigul Akhmetshina, who sings Carmen, has shot to fame while still young. With slightly angled hips and a hand resting lightly on her thigh, Akhmetshina embodied Carmen’s seductiveness in ‘Habanera’, employing Callas’ famous postural subtlety and expressiveness. A meditation on an opera titan becomes a showcase for the next young star.
Elbenita Kajtazi’s voice as Tosca bloomed, unreserved, with passion for art and love, and Sarah Tynan’s coloratura as mad Lucia was impressively agile. The orchestra, conducted energetically by Yoel Gamzou, created the great diversity of textures this patchwork piece requires. Riccardo Tisci erased the sopranos’ individuality by costuming them identically, in dowdy maids’ clothes – they are but handmaidens to Marina/Maria’s self-reflection. And ENO, with this formally challenging production, also admirably builds on its reputation for innovation.
But despite all this, the show left me emotionally cold. I was more drawn to the singing, ignoring the films, or finding them actively bathetic – the complete bizarreness of Dafoe, in a bedazzled suit, armed with a boa constrictor, undermined instead of added to the profundity of Desdemona’s aria, sung by Nadine Benjamin.
The show is too focussed on creating, and asking us to admire, a clever concept. It asks to be explained and understood, rather than experienced or felt. Callas’ inexplicable X factor was what made her compelling, intoxicating to her fans. This production fails to capture that visceral, immediately affective power of the figure it purports to commemorate.
Controversial performance artist Marina Abramović is famed for insane willpower (her words), pushing her body to extreme limits, and her mortality obsession.
She went on record in The Guardian, 2010, saying “to be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake. Performance is the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.” So, it was with interest I came to this performance wondering how she would pull it off. Sadly, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is utterly unsatisfying and underwhelming.
It failed as performance art because for most of this “opera project” Abramović lay statue-still in bed as Callas. When she finally moved, it was merely to pace about enacting superstitious forms reminiscent of her Four Crosses, but not as dramatic. Before this we watched seven slow-motion CGI short films, which could have been adapted for the stage as live performances. There were some nice touches: menacing lighting of co-actor Willem Dafoe in Otello, water flowing down a mirror, allusions to Mr Rochester’s first wife and the beautiful set in Lucia di Lammermoor… But why comment on something pre-recorded and not a true Abramović performance?
It failed the singers, constrained to sing between two muffling projection screens and directed to walk limply across then off stage. The best of them was ENO-trained Nadine Benjamin who sang Desdemona’s aria in perfect pitch, but there was none of the usual rapport between cast and audience.
It failed the musicians, who were under-used. The overture and electronic linking music, composed by Marko Nikodijević, is best described as a long-drawn-out musical anxiety attack, aiming to keep the audience in a constant state of fear. This unhappy merger between electronic and live music surprised me as Abramović is on record saying that “music is the highest art because [it’s the] most immaterial” but both interfere with each other and, considering Nikodijević’s orchestral work, it’s a shame he didn’t rescore the whole opera project to be played by the talent in front of him.
It failed Maria Callas, conspicuously absent from a project supposedly in her honour. Only a small segment of her voice was included at the very end, from a record player, like an unimportant afterthought, as all the cast were off-stage.
It failed the audience who were unengaged throughout, some of whom voted with their feet before the finale. There were sharp intakes of breath during a bit of exhibitionism acceptable in a live performance but gratuitous and distasteful here. Balanced with the unintended hilarity of Abramović’s powerless on-screen incarnation as Carmen, the audience’s reaction was the only striking thing about the whole production.
Most importantly, it failed Maria Abramović herself, going against everything she used to stand for. Her obsession with superstition, under the guise of art, has become all-consuming and satisfies neither modern performance artists, opera lovers nor musicians. In her own words: “performance art has to live”. Abramović has lost her edge.
This ENO season’s most ambitious opera, Marina Abramović’s 7 Deaths of Maria Callas makes a long-awaited entrance at the London Coliseum, the final stop of a European tour that began in 2020. 7 Deaths is born of Abramović’s lifelong fascination and identification with the opera star – This avant-garde tribute has Callas (played by the performance artist herself) lying on her deathbed for almost the entirety of the work, reliving the seven deaths of her most celebrated operatic roles.
The production itself is compelling, and extremely well-made. Abramović’s scenography, matched in theatrics by Marko Nikodijević’s harrowing linking music, impeccably captures the essence of a dream. In each sequence, a soprano performs an iconic aria from Maria Callas’ greatest roles, while a film screen in the background plays dramatic, often slow-motion renditions of Callas meeting her demise in various ways. Abramović’s set design for the final sequence was particularly impressive, portraying the opera legend’s actual death in her lavish Paris apartment adorned with gold-framed oil paintings and regal furniture. On top of this, Marco Brambilla’s arthouse video intermezzo design, with surreal projections of weather patterns and a metaphor-ridden monologue voiced by Abramović playing in the background, truly distinguishes 7 Deaths as a piece of performance art.
Perhaps a little too much, really. The issue with Abramović’s artistry is that it diminishes the actual opera performance, and only gets further away from a seamless blend with the opera form as the show progresses. The seven sopranos flawlessly deliver emotional arias – Aigul Akhmetshina’s exquisite song as Carmen and Eri Nakamura performing Violetta’s tragic ‘Addio, del passato’ in particular left a striking impression – yet all is forgotten after Abramović’s long, disorienting sequence in Callas’ bedroom.
The interludes, though beautifully designed from a standalone perspective, create an odd genre shift that repeatedly keeps you from giving the singing the attention it deserves. It certainly doesn’t help that the sopranos, clothed in plain frocks, merely stand still at the side of the stage while close-ups of Abramović writhing in excruciating pain play from a giant screen behind them. These brilliant sopranos return to the stage just to clean up after Abramović in Callas’ apartment, echoing the sentiment that the 7 lives of Maria Callas function primarily to serve the performance of Abramović herself.
Since its premiere in Munich, 7 Deaths has garnered mixed reviews, characteristic of Marina Abramović’s work and possibly intended by the experimental artist. Audiences familiar with Abramović’s past installations, along with the figure, backstory, and operas that inspired it, may find appreciation in this opera project as an eccentric piece of performance art and tribute piece. Yet, for an opera that warrants this amount of context, Abramović delivers an abstract concept that ends up overshadowing the story it pays homage to. 7 Deaths is, ultimately, a story better suited for the Tate than the Coliseum.