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Face to face with death

Interview with Marina Abramović

By Marion Mirande 31 August 2021

© Bayerische Staatsoper / W. Höesl

Face to face with death

Fascinated by Maria Callas, Marina Abramović presents 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, a production at the crossroads of opera, video art and live performance. Bringing together great arias from the repertoire of the American diva, the artist - a major figure and pioneer of performance art - composes a visual litany in which the tragic and multifaceted motif of the death of love unfolds.  

Under what circumstances did you discover Maria Callas?

I was 14 years old, having breakfast in my grandmother's kitchen in Belgrade, Serbia. We were listening to the radio on an old Bakelite wireless that played music and news over and over again. Suddenly Maria Callas' voice came on. I didn't know who was singing, but I remember experiencing a very strong emotional reaction. I stood with my eyes closed and started to cry. The presenter announced her name and I immediately wanted to know everything about her. That's how my passion began.

When did you first think of involving her in your work? How did she come to be at the heart of your creation? 

In 1989, the Centre Pompidou devoted an exhibition to me, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin. At the same time, the Ministry of Culture, which was inviting projects on the emotions caused by death, suggested that I apply. We find it truly difficult to confront the reality of death. If on the TV you see images of beheadings, torture, in the context of war, you immediately change the channel. On the other hand, if you are confronted with death in the context of a film, with over-aesthetised actresses and actors, you will have no trouble identifying with their characters and feeling their emotions. So I asked myself how I might combine these two experiences of death. I went to the north of Brazil, to the Amazon, where there were gold mines that are now closed. A place where women did not venture, at the risk of being raped and killed. I witnessed the daily deaths of workers, victims of landslides in the earth they were digging in extremely dangerous conditions. I wanted to film these deaths and assemble the images with scenes of sacrifices at the opera. The project was considered too complicated and crazy at the time, but the idea of combining death and the stage remained with me. About ten years ago, I had the idea of bringing together seven directors to direct me in seven deaths linked to love and sacrifice. But the project proved impossible. In the end it was the director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, Nikolaus Bachler, who asked me to work on a production of Bluebeard. Instead, I proposed the 7 Deaths project.

How did the choice of the seven arias and the dramaturgical construction of this show involving different media proceed?

Initially, there are two contradictory aspects: the brevity of death as an event and the duration of opera performances, which I often find long. So I thought: why not concentrate on the end of the works and show only those deaths by love, whose arias we all find so haunting? The production is also driven by the desire to renew opera audiences by reaching out to younger generations and audiences unfamiliar with the art form, to revitalise the genre and offer new perspectives. I have thus combined films with live performance. Although opera scenography often makes use of video, the video I use does not play a background role. It contributes to the complexity of the installation, where it is not always clear whether the actors are embedded in the image or alive. In the films, William Dafoe has the role of killing me over and over again. These sequences are accompanied by well-known Callas arias, performed by women I wanted to be different from one another, reflecting the plurality of the dead represented. In some scenes, such as Otello, I also allude to my work in which snakes are recurrent.

Your performance practice offers you a direct relationship with the audience from whom you are separated on stage. How did you approach the theatrical convention of the “fourth wall”?

At the beginning of my career, I hated theatre. I found it terribly artificial to embody someone other than oneself and to play the same role every night. Things are different now. With my artistic practice clearly established, I am very comfortable with forms different from mine, and I welcome them with great curiosity. When I collaborated with William Dafoe on Robert Wilson's Life and Death of Marina Abramović he opened my eyes to the possibility of injecting self and truth into a character. I was very interested in theatrical work. Opera is something else again, which requires directing singers. I had never tried this when I designed the scenography and concept for Pelléas et Mélisande in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet's production.

You mentioned injecting yourself into a role. But here you go beyond the interpretation of Callas and create an ambivalence with regard to the character we are looking at...

We forget that these seven deaths are followed by an eighth that transports us into the exact replica of the room where Callas died. The paintings, her sleeping pills on the bedside table, everything is there. While I am in this space interpreting Callas, I am also interpreting myself. When she looks at the photos of Visconti, Pasolini and Onassis, with whom she shared important moments, it is not these men I am contemplating but my family, my friends, my own broken marriage that almost killed me. The emotional registers of two people are superimposed on the same plane. It is effectively a dual role.

By choosing scenes involving death, you set the piece in the context of your performances which emphasise the tragedy of life, whilst at the same time celebrating it...

Death is one of life's essential events. The more we talk about death and confront it, the more we appreciate life. We understand just how fleeting it is and that it can end at any instant. This idea infuses my work and explains my interest in these different ways of dying. But here, death is really linked to love, to that universal and age-old feeling of heartbreak. We all fall in love and feel as if the world is going to fall apart after a break-up. Anyone in the audience can share this with me and project their own story onto mine or Callas.  

These female deaths are the work of 19th century composers and contemporary with an era of largely male-dominated relationships. In some respects, doesn't it seem to you that Maria Callas made her own the sacrificial status of the characters she embodied?

After seeing the film Maria by Callas, which reveals unpublished interviews, I must admit that I was angry with her. Her submission to men is blatant. She says that if Onassis had married her and they had had a child together, she would have given up singing, her life. She was that kind of woman. As for me, I thought I would die of love when my husband left me. But my work empowered and saved me. When you have a talent like hers, which is akin to a divine gift, you have to share it with others.

Pushing your limits is one of the things that connects you to Maria Callas. Could you talk about the physical challenges of your work?

There are many things that link us: we both had difficult childhoods, very tough mothers with whom we were at odds. When I was younger, I used to compare myself to photos of Callas and tell myself how much I looked like her physically. But more than the physical aspect, it is the combination of fragility and strength that brings us together. She was emotionally vulnerable, delicate, and at the same time so charismatic and generous on stage. She was an extraordinary artist who gave everything. In the same sense, people think I am indestructible, but my friends know how fragile I am. She expressed herself in words I can fully relate to: "When I perform, one part of my brain is totally under control, the other part is set loose and free. You then have to find a balance between these two states in order to perform at your best." This balance between absolute control and total freedom is exactly what I seek when I perform. Ghandi said something that exemplifies the life of struggles and sadness but also of victory that I share with Maria Callas: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and finally you win."

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