“7 Deaths of Maria Callas”

Natalia Isaeva in Paris
9 January 2021


7 Deaths of Maria Callas is a co-production with the Bayerischen Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Greek National Opera, and the Opéra national de Paris. Marina Abramović prepared her collage/homage to the diva by inviting six wonderful sopranos and a mezzo-soprano (each one singing one of the classical, well-recognized famous arias). The film and stage performance was accompanied by a live orchestra under the baton of Israeli conductor Yoel Gamzou, a score by the contemporary Serbian composer Marko Nikodijevića, and of course the flying, ethereal music of Bellini, Donizetti, Bizet, Puccini, and Verdi.

How similar they are: this Serbian woman and that Greek one. Abramović likes to tell how when she was 14 and first heard a recording of Callas’s voice she could not tear herself away from the sound it. There was a despotic mother in both cases (they seemed to have hated their mothers even when children) and in general, as Abramović explains, both are under the astrological sign Sagittarius. Both are adventurous and rapidly get into a temper. But apart from all the declarations of love she expresses towards the opera singer, what is much more important for Abramović is how she deals with the gloss surrounding Callas and the swell of public admiration that invariably surrounds any classical opera adored by the public. Abramović suggests her own way by opposing the general tiredness of old artistic forms that are in need of renewal. “l want to do something different to normal opera. l want to deconstruct the old opera system and create something that is really mixed between video, performing, and singing”, she says when interviewed about this performance piece. Her approach is one of the possible deconstructions that might still save the genre; it is something fresh and touching in its fragility.

In the performance piece 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, as the title suggests, seven women featured in operas die — whether for the motherland or for a lover: Violetta Valéry, Floria Tosca, Desdemona, Cio-Cio-san, Lucia Ashton, Norma, and Carmen. Italian opera has long been a paragon of kitsch, of popular art, of accessible emotions that are easily promised — and easily provided —  for all fans… ln my opinion, opera has long needed something like a skilful mediation where the original impulse is retained even while it is reflected in the form of a modern, broken, torn, and blurred image. And this piece succeeds in retaining the classical while ultimately conveying opera in a fundamentally different way. There are six sopranos: Hera Hyesang Park, Whitney Morrison, Selene Zanetti, Leah Hawkins, Kiandra Howarth, Adela Zaharia, Lauren Fagan. Nadezhda Karyazina is the one mezzo-soprano. They enter the stage one after the other; each is dressed in identical, almost colourless greyish-beige dressing gowns with sailor suit collars. Abramović, covered up to the chin, lies in her bed. And on the huge screen — dwarfing all these tiny human figures on the stage and all the conductor’s musicians — seven separate stories are acted out. Each story has its own twist. Each is constructed for a man and a woman: a pair of lovers, traitors, partners. I don’t know to what extent the video director who is listed as the creator of “visual intermezzos”, Marco Brambilla, contributed to this, but Abramović herself is usually an excellent writer of scripts for her own performances and is listed alongside Petter Skavlan as one of two authors.


Marina Abramović in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. Photo credit: Wilfried Hösl.


The film actor Willem Dafoe is an asset alongside Abramović. He knows how to skilfully combine pop and avant-garde, kitsch and postmodern extravagance. (I loved him especially in Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist, and he is equally impressive in The Nymphomaniac). As I see it, the very male texture emanating from Dafoe — dry, as if scorched by fire from within — seems to be in contrast with feminine fluidity, feminine spontaneity. But I also think that Marina invited him as a partner because he has a lot of external similarity with her former performance partner and the love of her life, the German artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen). Her most remarkable performances had been with him, she had broken up with him in a formalized walk on top of the Great Wall of China, he had sued her for not financially recompensing him for his artistic collaborations, and then they had been drawn together again. Ulay, who had been seriously ill for several years, died at the beginning of March 2020, when the work on this latest performance was well under way.

Callas’s seven deaths are shown in seven independent short films featuring Abramović and projected behind her live and in bed. We see at first the dying Violetta of La Traviata. In a kind of mirror image of Abramović herself, she lies on her bed throughout the performance (she is accompanied by the voice of the singer Hera Hyesang Park). And then follows the fall from the fortress wall in Tosca (“Vissi d’arte …” — “l lived for my art, l lived for love”, sings Selene Zanetti), and Abramović leaps from the fortress wall, previously stretching herself horizontally over a chasm — just like rock singers do at concerts, rock singers who take the risk of never landing in the hands of their fans during stage-diving, (She later said in an interview, “I had to repeat it so many times, I got bruises all over me in the process!”) Then the film of strangled Desdemona, whose head is braided with a huge boa lovingly brought to her by Othello so that her face finally presents a mask like a gorgeous Klimt painting, in addition to being ornately decorated with a streak of blood dripping from her mouth. In a role-reversal, Verdi’s aria itself is sung by Leah Hawkins, an Afro-American.


William Dafoe and  Marina Abramović in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas.
Photo credit: Wilfried Hösl.


Cio-Cio-san (sung by Kiandra Howarth), somewhere on the moon in an airless space is Madama Butterfly, presumably so familiar to us; she places an American flag in her son’s hands and pushes him forward towards his father, the astronaut in a yellow spacesuit, while she unbuttons her own identically designed spacesuit so that her large bare breasts fall out and she trembles like a pale fish, dying in that arid lunar landscape. And then the beautiful Carmen as a red-clad matador (sung by Nadezhda Karyazina), to the sounds of Bizet’s infinitely vulgar and infinitely delightful Habanera, threatening the primordial man in black with a huge knife; this is the man with whom she alternately falls in and out of love. Ultimately, the knife is wedged between them forever during the tight inal embrace, and it is pure chance that it enters her flesh and not his.

We next witness the mad Lady Lucia Ashton in Lucia di Lammermoor (sung by Adela Zaharia). This Lady Ashton with her face covered by chintz and lace who is the heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s gothic novel, is a character in a black-and-white horror film; colour only starts to seep into the image as she is drawn closer to death: the reddish colour of dried blood covering everything, leaking from under her wedding dress, staining her chest, her elbows, her feet and legs – and ultimately that damp face as well, which turns scarlet. And the last film? The crowning aria of Callas, the famous “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma. Here comes a moment when the five minutes of film simply cannot be watched without tears … I remember how Ulay and Marina Abramović long insisted that together they formed a kind of coherent unity (they called it “The Other”), not ever to be severed either on grounds of gender or to gratify some intimate, narrow psychology. Here, in the short film, Willem Dafoe and Marina reverse classic gender roles: it’s him walking towards the funeral pyre as the vestal Norma in Maria Callas’s concert dress, with his lips shamelessly painted over in red. Marina, on the other hand, is dressed in black and white male attire; she grabs the hand of her lover to atone for this final march towards death as Pollione the cheater. Thin Willem and big, gorgeous Marina go on and on towards the fiery sparks, towards the tattered tongues of flame flying in the hot air … Towards that light which burns and scorches the flesh, about to swallow them both.


Marina Abramović in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas at the Bavarian State Opera.
Set design by Anna Schöttl. Photo credit: Wilfried Hösl.


And the eighth death, which begins right before our eyes, starts with getting out of bed in earnest. As Abramović tells us thinking aloud, she has to walk exactly 17 steps: to the window, to the last breath, to lonely death. A huge crystal vase with white flowers is smashed into shards, and Callas, abandoned by everybody, is slowly, slowly moving to her Parisian flat. She still has to open a window on the boulevard, and then to go over sideways, to disappear completely.

And now our little band of seven young sopranos is on the stage again. I see why they had to wear those clumsy dressing gowns with folded collars now that they are also wearing rubber gloves. They bring buckets, brushes, and mops. They deftly wipe down smooth surfaces and furniture, rearrange beds, spray antiseptic everywhere, and cover huge mirrors with black tulle… After the pandemic, after death, after fame… And then there’s Marina Abramović’s final entrance, wearing the same gold concert dress that Dafoe wore in a film, and a record is playing – now with the authentic voice of Callas, the same “Casta Diva”.

Why change, why shift the meaning? It is like a silhouette being reflected in a cloudy mirror. I am able to see powerful filters in place here – the most powerful derived from the short video films which are coherently based on the moulds of past performances. The most clearly reflected here is the 1980 Dublin performance where Abramović and Ulay publicly presented a balance exercise (Rest Energy) with a military bow. Ulay was struggling to hold an arrow aimed straight at Marina’s heart in a tensioned bowstring, but the bow itself rested in his friend’s outstretched hand. Each of them bent back to the limit, kept on their feet only by the weight of their partner while the tiny microphones attached to their white shirts transmitted the frantic sound of their beating hearts. For those four or five minutes (perhaps commensurate with the time of an aria or a cavatina) the world froze, breathless . . . . It was a dangerous performance relying on bodily energy, trust, and vulnerability. In general, a circus or a sports event depends on skill and perfection, on schooling and technical literacy (it is of the same nature as a skilful opera singer being trained to hit a high note), but this performance, which mocked any technical perfection, was nurtured by their fatigue and lack of confidence, by their secret fears. Only the performance itself, Abramović’s contribution, reminds us of the aging Callas, whose range closer to her death had in fact already shifted nearer to that of a mezzo-soprano because of the nodules on her vocal chords: Abramović reminds us of that — the present-day Marina, who is herself over eighty now.

Once upon a time (in fact, circa the fifth century CE), there lived a great Sanskrit philosopher and grammarian, Bhartrhari. With my teacher helping, I once tried to translate texts from his only known poetry collection, Tri-Śataka (“Three hundred” [poems]). One of the verses I remember approximately might be of use to us here: “The pearl scratched on grindstone, / The warrior, turned grey-haired in battles, / ln the dark-blue sky the thin crescent, / The maiden after the stormy night of caresses… / All these, having lost their strength, shine with their weakness.” The verb Bhartrhari uses here is “prabhāsante”, which is a verb that plays a special role in metaphysical constructions where “-bhā” is the unbearable radiance of Brahman itself — only now that radiance has become temporarily smeared and weakened to resemble the dim lustre of the underground underworld . . . and so the 7 Deaths of Maria Callas seem to me to be: a brilliant aria in homage to the faded dead.


7 Deaths of Maria Callas. Visual intermezzo Marco Brambilla. Photo credit: Wilfried Hösl.