Opera + Classical Music Reviews

7 Deaths of Maria Callas @ Bavarian State Opera, Munich

4 September 2020

Bavarian State Opera continues its live attended opera performances. Keith McDonnell was there

7 Deaths of Maria Callas

Marina Abramović (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Whether or not artist Marina Abramović’s latest all-consuming multimedia work is an ‘opera’ in the truest sense of the word is open for debate. But does it really matter? Sometimes dispensing with labels is a good thing. And while 7 Deaths occasionally raised more questions than it answered, which is no bad thing as it certainly got you thinking, the seriousness of the undertaking, and commitment of all involved couldn’t be faltered. The Bavarian State Opera has certainly spared no expense in staging the Covid delayed world premiere (shared with a raft of other prestigious opera houses across the continent), and deployed all the resources at its disposal to ensure 7 Deaths received the best possible send off.

A 90 minute homage to the legendary Greek soprano Maria Callas, 7 Deaths focuses not only on Callas’ actual death, alone from a heart attack in her Parisian flat, but seven on stage deaths of the characters she was most well known for portraying on stage. 7 Deaths is split into two distinct parts. The first is a kind of opera gala, with seven sopranos identically dressed in maid’s outfits, each singing the most famous aria, usually describing or depicting death, from seven operas.

7 Deaths of Maria Callas

Marina Abramović (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Alone on stage, apart from Abramović prone in an oversized bed, each aria is accompanied by a film featuring her and the actor Willem Dafoe. In each, Defoe is the assassin – according to Abramović, he represents Aristotle Onassis – and each film, atmospherically shot by Nabil Elderkin, gives a surprisingly literal interpretation of the aria/opera. Of course, such an approach is not without precedent. Don Boyd’s 1987 film, Aria, showcased 10 different film directors, including Derek Jarman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell, interpreting 10 operatic arias visually, allowing their imaginations to run riot.

“The Bavarian State Opera has certainly spared no expense in staging the Covid delayed world premiere…”

Abramović and Elderkin took a more faithful path, but nevertheless they were breathtakingly stunning to watch, each linked with a voiceover (in English) by the artist – the text was written by Abramović and Petter Skavlan – and gloriously sung by seven distinguished sopranos: Hera Hysesang Park (Violetta), Selene Zanetti (Tosca), Leah Hawkins (Desdemona), Kiandra Howarth (Cio-Cio-San), Nadezhda Karyazina (Carmen), Adela Zaharia (Lucia) and Lauren Fagan (Norma).

The second part focuses on Callas (Abramović) in her Parisian apartment, faithfully recreated in Anna Schöttl’s stunning designs, and this is where the performance really took flight. Marko Nikodijević’s score provided the perfect sound world for the mental disintegration of Callas on stage – pounding percussion, rasping brass and glissandi strings, and was superbly conducted and played by Yoel Gamzou and the orchestra, attentive to the constant shifting of textures and harmonies at every turn.

The final image is one that lingers long in the memory. Abramović, resplendent in a gold lamé dress (sumptuous costume designs throughout by Riccardo Tisci for Burberry), is alone on stage as we hear a scratchy recording of the Greek diva singing ‘Casta Diva’, which abruptly ends partway through. Blackout. Intriguing, often baffling, yet never boring – 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is a strange, enigmatic, yet engrossing piece of theatre/part art installation, that reflects Abramović’s lifelong obsession with the Greek soprano in a unique way. It defies categorisation, yet demands to be seen by anyone prepared to leave their prejudices at the door, and willing to open their minds to something that challenges preconceptions in such an unflinching way.

• 7 Deaths of Maria Callas is free to watch on demand for 30 days from September 7 at staatsoper.de

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7 Deaths of Maria Callas @ Bavarian State Opera, Munich