When Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo, the oldest active opera house in the world, joins forces with several other major theatres to produce Marina Abramović’s latest work, one can’t but hope – to paraphrase Shirley Jackson – that it might stand, anything but silent, for centuries more. In fact, if opera as a genre has become an elusive, complicated affair, music-centred theatre remains living matter.

Marina Abramović in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas
© Luciano Romano

Abramović’s project, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, isn’t an opera. Indeed, while its constitutive elements are those of an opera production – music, singing, setting, text – its aim is not to tell a story, but rather to meditate on a relationship, that of the artist with the celebrated soprano. Merging different art forms together is Abramović’s way to convey the complexity of all relationships, where sensations and memories meet, overlap and clash. While her debut on operatic stages may seem anomalous, the project follows Abramović’s lifelong credo: an unyielding exploration of her own self, carried out with daring lucidity.

Marina Abramović in 7 Deaths of Maria Callas
© Luciano Romano

As Abramović recalls, her coup de foudre for Callas at 14 quickly developed into a more rooted passion, fuelled by similarities between the two women’s biographies. This identification constitutes the very premise of 7 Deaths of Maria Callas – a superimposition of Maria and Marina, where the latter lends her body to the former and re-enacts her death. However, the assimilation comes with strings attached: just like Abramović knows death through performance, so did Callas, whose reputation as a singer is closely tied to her renditions of tragic roles. By performing the role of a performer, Abramović extends the network of resemblances to Callas’ own characters. The interplay of correspondences conjures up the image of two mirrors facing each other, reflecting a figure ad infinitum. Abramović’s personal experience is thus expanded towards a collective dimension, where she is at once herself, another and every woman.

7 Deaths of Maria Callas
© Luciano Romano

As the title suggests, seven are the operatic heroines played by Callas that Abramović singled out for the project: Violetta, Tosca, Desdemona, Cio-Cio-san, Carmen, Lucia and Norma. While a callous melomaniac – as I sometimes happen to be – could argue that some of these weren’t exactly La Divina's signature roles, Abramović selected them as prime examples of death by love. In the first half, seven sopranos each take a turn on stage to sing an aria, while Abramović lies in a bed perfectly still, as if sleeping and dreaming of them. In the background, videos are projected where the artist re-enacts each scene, often together with long-standing collaborator Willem Dafoe. The succession of slow-paced, ill-fated scenes has the hypnotic, hieratic quality of a ritual, which culminates with Norma and Pollione’s sacrifice – the heroine not being alone any more, togetherness and equality being achieved through simultaneous death.

7 Deaths of Maria Callas
© Luciano Romano

In order to avoid abrupt cuts between arias, Abramović worked with Serbian composer Marko Nikodijević to design a dramatic and musical frame. The result was what the composer refers to as cloud sequences: moments of junction during which the videos recede and a cloudy sky appears in the background, as Abramović’s pre-recorded voice is heard over Nikodijević’s music, reciting an introductory text to the following aria. Vaguely reminiscent of Berio’s “cement” in Rendering, the original score re-elaborates motifs and minimal elements from the arias – even single intervals – and includes them in a droning, pulsating musical texture which mixes orchestral and electronic sounds. Somewhat emphatic during the arias, conductor Yoel Gamzou was more at ease with Nikodijevic’s score and proved up to the chameleonic task of blending the different sections together.

Previously confined to speckled apparitions, Nikodijevic’s music and Abramović’s voice prevail in the second half of the work, which follows the last of the series of deaths – Callas’ own. The audience is thus introduced to the singer’s apartment in Paris, on the day of her death. The woman’s simple, self-imposed gestures intermingle with memories, fluctuating between discipline and absent-mindedness. After a loud crash, Callas dies quietly, opening the window, letting the noises of Paris into the room and leaving. But when the scene fades to dark, Abramović appears again, miming Callas’ gestures as her recording of “Casta Diva” plays, quietly accompanied by the orchestra – past and present, Maria and Marina reconciled, the soprano’s legacy outliving her death.

7 Deaths of Maria Callas
© Luciano Romano

Abramović’s truthful and mesmerising declaration of love to Callas brought the audience to burst into a long roar of applause. Yet the evening wouldn’t have been as successful without the performance of the seven sopranos. As with recitals, the task of sketching out a convincing portrayal within the span of an aria is particularly demanding – even more so if said aria has ear-wormed its way into wide popularity. All the more reason, then, to praise Roberta Mantegna’s gleaming, wistful rendition of “Casta Diva”, and Kristine Opolais’ defiantly proud “Un bel dì vedremo”. And if Nino Machaidze fell maybe a little short as Desdemona, Jessica Pratt’s astonishing Lucia gave a lesson in coloratura to be treasured for years, her cadenza with the flute being no less than a wonder. 

*****