Callas, Resurrected, Dies Again (And Again) In Seven Famous Roles

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Actor Willem Dafoe appears on screen during ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas’ at the Opéra national de Paris. (Photos by Charles Duprat)

PARIS – The Opéra national de Paris opened its season Sept. 1 with a unique opera project created by, and starring, performance artist Marina Abramović.

Her 7 Deaths of Maria Callas had its premiere exactly one year earlier at the Bavarian State Opera before a live audience of only 200 people. That performance was then streamed to a large international audience. In July, the company revived it for a larger in-person audience. 7 Deaths is a co-production with four other companies, including the Paris Opera, which chose it to open the season here in the beautifully restored Palais Garnier.

It is an unusual project and not really an opera. Still, 7 Deaths does make some sense for the occasion. Although opening night galas are hardly rare, this project is really a mash-up of an opera gala and what Europeans sometimes call a “spectacle.” The seven deaths refer to death scenes from seven operas closely associated with Callas, each performed live by a different singer. One crucial difference from an opera gala, however, is that the latter tends to feature major stars, not young singers (this was the Paris Opera debut for the entire cast). Each sang in front of a giant screen showing slow-motion silent videos in which Abramović dies, sometimes via suicide but mostly at the hands of the actor Willem Dafoe.

Maria Abramović appears toward the end of ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas’ to sing “Casta diva” from ‘Norma.’

Between the death scenes, recordings of Abramović uttering platitudes (in English, such as “It is not dangerous to fall; it is when you land it gets dangerous”) are heard over an original score by Marko Nikodijević, who, like Abramović, is Serbian. The text, which sometimes comments on the opera scenes, has little to do with Callas but, like the videos, much to do with Abramović. Her work has long featured fire, snakes, and knives, and here these become instruments of death, which itself has long been a major obsession of hers.

During these scenes, Abramović lies in bed on the stage, “sleeping.” Then, after a musical interlude, the curtain opens on a recreation of Callas’ Paris bedroom. Abramović, at first still in bed, focuses her thoughts on what we soon realize is her final day. These are mostly about mundane details, like the feel of the “600-thread-count cotton sheets,” or what time of day it is, and things get tedious. Eventually she exits the room, and the singers, dressed as maids, arrive to straighten up the room and drape everything with black bunting.

With the singers appearing tiny onstage before the giant projections of Abramović and Dafoe, the singing often seems more like a soundtrack for the videos. It would have been quite exciting had it been more central to the evening. Hera Hyesang Park sang “Addio del passato” from La Traviata in a tremulous voice that might have been a bit light for the role. Selene Zanetti’s “Vissi d’arte” (Tosca) was sung sweetly but without sufficient power. Leah Hawkins was impressive, singing Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” from Otello with drama and power. Gabriella Reyes was a knockout Cio-Cio San, singing “Un bel di” (Madama Butterfly) with youthful sound and gorgeous colors. Mezzo-soprano Adèle Charvet sang the “Habanera” from Carmen with nice phrasing, but her top notes were not totally secure.

The work includes scenes from Act IV of ‘La Traviata.’

Adela Zaharia was perhaps the hit of the evening, singing an excerpt from Lucia’s Mad Scene in Lucia di Lammermoor with a radiant and flexible coloratura. Lauren Fagan sang “Casta diva” (Norma) with a big, dark voice and fine technique. None of the singers sounded remotely like Callas, though Zaharia at times sounded a bit like Joan Sutherland.

Nikodijević’s score is mostly about atmosphere. Partially pre-recorded, it succeeds best when it is being performed live by the orchestra, especially at the beginning when he prefaces La Traviata with a contrapuntal modernist score that builds from bits of the La Traviata score, and in the percussive second scene when it serves as a commentary on Abramović’s narration. A small women’s chorus, masked, sings from the boxes near the stage. During the pre-recorded music for the “Video Intermezzos” between death scenes, the sound system made them more like sound effects from an action movie in a movie house, with thumping bass turned up too much.

This wasn’t a night for the conductor to stand out, but Yoel Gamzou held things together nicely. Abramović is listed as the director, with Lynsey Peisinger as co-director. Nabil Elderkin directed the videos.

For the finale, Abramović reappears dressed in gold lamé and gestures along to Callas singing “Casta diva” from what I believe is the 1955 Tullio Serafin recording of Norma, about which Callas herself said, “If anyone ever wants to know what I was about … it’s all there.” And the overwhelming problem with this project is that it isn’t really focused on what Callas “was about.” By relegating her to the role of a phantom, Abramović has managed to upstage Callas, something that could never have happened when Callas was alive.

The dying Violetta images she is falling in a scene from ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas.’

Opéra national de Paris has a demographic that American opera companies can only dream of, with much of the under-40 audience busily keeping up with text messages during this 90-minute show. Neckties were quite rare, tuxedos almost nonexistent, and many wore blue jeans – quite a contrast with the Metropolitan Opera’s opening nights. Those entering the theater first passed through a metal detector, then had to show a “Pass sanitaire” (bar-coded proof of vaccination or a recent test). N95 masks were required all night. All seats were filled, with no distancing, and no one wore masks on stage. Audience reaction was polite, with no booing but none of the foot-stomping that happens here on good nights, and certainly no standing ovation.

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