Marina Abramović has returned to London this season to bless us with her presence. A world leader in performance art, she has brought herself and her disciples, the Marina Abramović Institute, to take over the Southbank Centre with new work (which concluded on 8 October 2023). Additionally, a major retrospective of her life’s work is now on at the Royal Academy (until 1 January 2024).
In 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, Abramović sees much of the legendary late soprano Maria Callas in herself. The virtuosic works of both the artist and the singer cannot be separated from their personal lives. This is the motivation for Abramović’s English National Opera intervention: an evening of opera featuring live performance and video art, with a beautiful soundscape overture by Marko Nikodijevic. Abramović plays Callas in her final moments, watching her life pass by in seven arias. It’s quite a feat, which has had buy-in from Europe’s major opera houses in Germany, Greece, Paris and Italy, all of which are the show’s co-producers.
What manifests is this: Abramović on stage, tucked up in bed with seven ‘greatest hits’ performances from the murdered women of La traviata, Tosca, Otello, Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma. All of these are performed by seven sopranos, whilst a gigantic film depicting the actor Willem Dafoe and Abramović is projected as a backdrop.
The singing is on point throughout, although much of the feeling of the arias is lost to the sopranos being directed to stand stock still. Despite doing a lot of distracting flapping, conductor Yoel Gamzou doesn’t bring any interesting interpretation to the music.
The film backdrops are curious and beguiling. The juxtaposition of, to name only one example, slow-mo Abramović falling from a Manhattan rooftop and having Dafoe wrap snakes around her neck, again in slow-mo, whilst ‘Vissi d’arte’ and ‘Ave maria’ are sung is odd but very watchable. It’s like being stuck in an hour and a half-long perfume ad.
It’s an easy ninety minutes that doesn’t attempt to go too deep into Callas or anywhere in particular. Everything is beautiful but nothing makes any sense. This is, of course, at least half the point; it is certainly more art than opera. The concept, although woolly in substance, is well produced. The films are well made (a bit camp) but awesome in scale on the stage. The new music and soundscapes make a great myth out of both Callas and Abramović, with great energetic horns setting Callas’ last moments.
Abramović’s work over the last 50 years has been challenging for audiences and critics. It has also been dangerous for the artist both personally and politically, setting high standards for her kin. She has, for instance, allowed audiences to cut up her clothes, pierce her with thorns and has left space for the possibility of her murder. In 1997, her Golden Lion award-winning piece included scrubbing bloody cow bones clean to protest the war in Bosnia, much to the distaste of the Italian authorities at the Venice Biennale, which attempted to stop her performance. Of course, we don’t expect any of that sort of thing on the respectable stage of the Coliseum, but we might hope that she would have leaned more heavily on the performance part of performance art.
Directed by: Marina Abramović
Conducted by: Yoel Gamzou
New music by: Marko Nikodijevic
7 Deaths of Maria Callas plays at London Coliseum until 11 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.