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World Premiere of Marko Nikodijevic's “7 Deaths of Maria Callas” at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich

Why interpretations by probably the most legendary opera diva of the 20th century sound so uniquely stirring can hardly be described in words. Maria Callas’ ability to make tones blossom and let the soul literally come out in sound could is barely possible to emulate by any other singer. Furthermore, Callas’ unsurpassed role characterization and charisma shine through as they did in her public performances.

In 2017 the music world commemorated the 40th anniversary of Maria Callas’ death. The last years before the early death of the 53-year-old on September 16, 1977 were difficult for the Greek-American soprano. In 1969 she had appeared in Paolo Pasolini’s film “Medea” and gave several master classes at New York’s Juilliard School in the early 1970s, but a real comeback on the stage never materialised.

A truly spectacular opera entitled "7 Deaths of Maria Callas" by the Serbian composer Marko Nikodijevic was to be premiered on April 11, 2020 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. After the Munich premiere, the work was originally planned to be shown in Florence, Athens, Berlin and Paris. The Corona crisis, however, changed everything unexpectedly. How great was the joy when the Bavarian State Opera in Munich could announce the premiere of the work at the opening of the season on September 1, 2020 before the summer break. Due to the occasion, however, the decision was made to present a version that was slightly reduced in the orchestration. 

The idea and the concept for this unusually structured piece originates from the director Marina Abramović, the musical direction is by Yoel Gamzou.

Marina Abramović, born in Belgrade, has been a pioneer in the field of performance art since the 1970s.  Her body is both object and medium in her pieces. Among many others, her performances have been staged at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the New National Gallery in Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and at Documenta Abramović has received numerous awards, including the Golden Lion as best artist of the 47th Biennale di Venezia for her work Balkan Baroque. Her retrospective “The Cleaner” was to be seen in numerous European cities from 2017 to January 2020. At the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp she designed the stage and concept for “Pelléas et Mélisande”.

In “7 Deaths of Maria Callas” the magic number seven plays a prominent role. In the mythology of fairy tales and legends and the symbolism of the late Middle Ages in particular, the number seven has special significance. As the sum of the numbers three and four, the number seven is interpreted as a combination of spirit and soul as well as the human being. In fairy tales we encounter the Seven in several examples such as the Seven Dwarfs, the Seven Ravens or the Seven Swabians.

In Abramović’s piece, seven historical arias by Maria Callas are the source material. They are linked together by Marko Nikodijević’s intermezzo-like interludes. In addition, seven films are shown, in which Marina Abramović herself and Willem Dafoe present seven deaths, which are the subject of the famous arias sung by Callas. After which the focus of the evening becomes the real death of Maria Callas in an acting performance.

“In the performance blood is the material and the razor blade or knife are the instruments. It is about the here and now in real time. You can't rehearse a performance because many things cannot be repeated - ever," explains Marina Abramović in an interview. "(...) All people are afraid of simple things. We are afraid of suffering, we are afraid of pain, we are afraid of mortality. And I perform these fears in front of an audience. I use your energy, and with this energy I can push my body to the limits. Then I free myself from these fears. I am your mirror. If I can do it for me, you can do it for you.”

Exclusive interview with the composer Marko Nikodijević:

What gave you the idea for this project?

Nikodijević: Marina Abramović has carried this idea of the seven deaths of Maria Callas around with her for years. It changed several times. Then Nikolaus Bachler convinced her of its worth and asked her if she could imagine an opera based on this idea. After which they asked for a composer and Teodor Currentzis and Nikolaus Bachler suggested me.

I got to know Marina Abramović. And as is the case among Serbs: either you like each other in the first second or you don't like each other at all. We got along very well right away.

Do you have a special relationship to Maria Callas?

Nikodijević: She really is the prima donna assoluta of the 20th century. There is the singer's very short career, her tragic life and the story, that creates a mystery. And then at the age of 53 she died quite young. Like an unfinished, but actually very finished singer, as she reached a peak extremely young. And then very quickly withdrew from the stage again. Callas was a personality who packed the gossip pages during her lifetime. An interesting woman, of course, with a life story that doesn't appear that conventional.

I have the idea that in this opera original recordings are combined with your music. Is that correct?

Nikodijević: There are seven historical arias associated with Maria Callas. And that happens in the first part of the evening. And these seven arias are connected by my music. In addition to these seven arias, seven films were made with Willem Dafoe and Marina Abramović, where the seven ways of death we associate with these arias are shown. For Madame Butterfly it is hara-kiri, for Carmen it is murder by knife, for "La Traviata" it is death by tuberculosis, etc.

Then comes a second part, which, so to speak, represents the real death with Marina on stage. There is actually a modified Maria Callas voice coming out of the loudspeaker.

It's also an opera about the fact that in this genre something terrible happens so often, especially to women. In this sense, it is also a reflection of the fact that women are constantly having to take on some manner of the victim role in opera.

Are the seven arias to be heard in their original historical recordings?

Nikodijević: They can be heard in the original. But they are connected with music like in a huge movie. Against this background Marina Abramović tells us what we will see on each occasion.

Can you say a few words about your connecting musical parts? How are we to imagine them?

Nikodijević: It is music that sounds as if the arias are flowing on. It's conceived in the way a DJ would mix two songs. An element from one song meets an element from the other and both are mixed together. This goes from one piece of music to the other without any transitory means. So in no way, do you have the feeling that any aria has been erased from what follows on. My composite music is a transition piece that solves this as imperceptibly as possible. 

World Premiere Marko Nikodijević,
“7 Deaths of Maria Callas”
(Bavarian State Opera Munich, Director: Marina Abramović
Conductor: Yoel Gamzou)

Further performances:
Berlin: Deutsche Oper, February 2021
Athens: Greek National Opera, July 2021
Paris: Opéra Garnier, September 2021 

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