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7 Deaths of Maria Callas

  • Music, Classical and opera
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
7 Deaths of Maria Callas, London Coliseum, 2023
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Marina Abramović’s ‘hipster opera’ pays tribute to a legendary singer through a megamix of classic arias

Autumn has truly been the Marina Abramović season in London. The legendary performance artist has already completed a full takeover of the Southbank Centre, has an ongoing retrospective at the RA, and is now completing the trifecta with a pivot to opera in ‘7 Deaths of Maria Callas’. 

Why’s she done this? Well, Callas had long been a fascination for Abramović. The opera singer’s life was never quite separated from her performances (perhaps there’s a parallel there); she became a superstar in her scene, had a public affair with Aristotle Onassis and eventually died alone in her Paris flat in 1977.

But Abramović also believes she ‘died’ onstage dozens of times. So it’s only right that she’s immortalised here, through ‘La Traviata’, ‘Tosca’, ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Carmen’, ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘Norma’ – all performed like a greatest hits medley. 

Combining art and live music, '7 Deaths of Maria Callas' is a hipster opera. A cool spin on an intimating genre. It feels like a good entryway for first-timers like myself who may only be a little familiar with the music. I very much fitted in with the Central Saint Martin-types speculating what ‘the mother of performance art’ had up her sleeve. 

I couldn’t help but notice ENO’s fervent attempt to reach out to a younger audience. Posters advertise free tickets for those under 21 (you can sit anywhere! Even the front!) and hefty discounts for under-35s. The merch stand is flogging black T-shirts embellished with glittering gold ‘Choose Opera’ across the chest. Make of that what you will.  

The show consists of two parts. The first half is 65 minutes and the second just 25, with no intermission. For most of it, Abramović (as Callas) is lying on her deathbed while a conveyor belt of singers recites her most famous arias. Behind them, projections show Abramović in various brutal demises, often co-starring Willem Dafoe as her murderous lover. 

There’s a clear message around the anguish of love and opera’s objectification of its heroines in the films, which grow in intensity as the show progresses. But they do also look a little like ’00s nu-metal music videos. When ‘Habanera’ is performed, we see her and Dafoe face-off as matadors – a little on the nose. ‘Madama Butterfly’ comes set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with her in hazmat for some reason. Abramović is even thrown off a building, Evanescence-style. 

One actually emotional moment comes from Sarah Tynan, who is tasked with singing Lucia’s aria ‘Il dolce suono’, from ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. While her predecessors are overshadowed by the dramatics happening on screen behind them (don’t get me wrong, they still sound phenomenal), she has a certain spine-chilling quality to her vocals that's impossible to ignore. Coupled with a black and white Abramović smashing a vase to her chest and smearing blood over her body, it's a convincing portrayal of an unravelling mind. 

The second act is significantly shorter and less dramatic. Abramović pulls herself out of bed to a choir, while her voiceover says things like, ‘Oh Ari. It is me’, referring to Callas’ former lover. This sparse ‘inner monologue’ is present throughout and the only real way to understand what’s going on. As she continues to instruct herself out of bed, she eventually smashes a vase to the ground and bam, she walks out. We can assume she’s dead now. 

It all comes to a conclusion as Callas’ actual voice sings ‘Casta diva’ from Norma through a crackling record player. Abramović enters, dripping in a golden gown, palms up like the messiah. It’s very much her show. We’re all just witness to it. 

The show itself hardly measures up to the greatness of the pieces you’d see in her retrospective. And while you can tell she’s trying to create a heartfelt tribute to one of her personal heroes, it unavoidably feels like an operatic megamix at times. Sadly, Dafoe didn't make an IRL guest appearance. It made me want to go back and watch a classic opera. And to listen to some Maria Callas from time to time. Maybe she’s on Spotify.

Georgia Evans
Written by
Georgia Evans


£70-£180. Runs 1hr 30min
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