Opera, short film, and performance art sound like an ambitious combination, no? Well, you would be right there. The English National Opera hosts the renowned performance artist Marina Abramović as she adorns the stage of the London Coliseum for five performances of the 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. It’s an interesting premise; staging seven operatic deaths through short films accompanied by performances of arias in celebration of Maria Callas, one of the most influential and acclaimed opera singers of the 20th century.
Marina Abramović is known for testing the boundaries of performance and for pushing her body to extremes in the name of art. Though if you’re expecting to be faced with something daring and dangerous, this performance definitely falls short. For much of the performance, Abramović is lay on a bed at the right of the stage, embodying Maria Callas as she sleeps, ‘haunted by her greatest roles in a set that recreates the Paris apartment where Callas died’. Whilst she lays motionless, the performance unfolds, divided into eight individual components where audio of Abramović’s voice starts to play as an introduction to each death. As she speaks, a hypnotic visual encompasses the stage. An array of clouds decked in mellow purples, blues and black visually float about the stage.
The first death to be enacted was Violetta’s aria from La Traviata, Act 3. As Abramović continues to lay motionlessly on the bed, Eri Nakamura enters onto the stage, bursting out in a beautiful rendition of the song whilst a short film plays behind her. This is the set up for the majority of the show, where the next six deaths unfold in the same manner. These include Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ (Elbenita Kajtazi), Desdemona's strangulation (Nadine Benjamin), Cio-Cio-San from Madama Butterfly (Karah Son), “L’amour est un oiseau rebel” from Carmen (Aigul Akhmetshina), Lucia’s aria from Lucia di Lammermoor (Sarah Tynan) and Norma’s “Casta Diva” (Sophie Bevan). Whilst the operatic performances were undeniably beautiful, leaving me with goose bumps and eliciting strong emotional responses from the audience, the performance felt repetitive, following the same structure throughout.
Of all the performances, the only one I was acquainted with beforehand was Otello. Abramović's interpretation of this was manifested as a short film of herself as Desdemona and Willem Dafoe as Otello. Straying from the original, where Desdemona is strangled by her husband, the audience watch as Abramović has snakes wrapped around her by Dafoe, as they slowly strangulate and ‘kill’ her. Amongst some of other short films, we see Abramović ‘die’ by throwing herself of a building, being stabbed by Dafoe, and walking into a fire alongside Dafoe. These films are certainly daring and offer a new interpretation of these famous operatic deaths, but they feel lackluster alongside Abramović’s other work. Through the use of film, we are removed from the shocking nature of Abramović’s usual performances, such as the infamous Rhythm 0, and are left with an underwhelming number of short films that feel too tame alongside her other work. Personally, what I love about Abramović's work is her dedication to shocking and challenging audiences through the use of performance art, so I wished she encompassed more in-person performance during this piece.
For the final death, Abramović acting as Callas finally rouses from her slumber and takes to the stage. Set in Callas’ bedroom in Paris, Abramovic gazes at photos of her lover lying on the bed, looks at herself in the mirror, glides over to open the window and then exits the stage. In the only part of the performance acted in-person, we don’t see the death occur; it seemingly happens off-stage. Then the opera singers return to the stage, dressed as maids, and begin cleaning the room; the performance concludes at this point.
The disappointing nature of a repetitive performance seemed to be shared by my fellow audience members. The man sat next to me whispered to his friend ‘this is a drag!’ and on the other side of me a couple noted ‘God, it’s only quarter past.’ Others also checked their phones throughout and one audience member even seemed to be sleeping. Though not all felt that it was a let-down, as I overheard many praising the performance once it had finished, with one woman noting that it was the best thing she’d ever seen.
I feel conflicted about the performance; I enjoyed it, but at times I found myself losing focus or getting carried away with random thoughts. I do think it could benefit from switching the pace at times and not using a repetitive structure that becomes apparent within the first fifteen minutes in order to engage the audience more.
Overall, the 7 Deaths of Maria Callas fell short of my expectations. As a huge fan of Abramović, I was left longing for more and wishing I got to see more of her acting out these deaths in person. Whilst the premise is certainly fascinating, I wanted it to be more daring and different as a reflection of Abramović’s legacy. I do think it is worth a watch, but I wouldn't be rushing to see it again.
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.