Marina Abramović is known for taking near-lethal risks in her five decades of work as a performance artist. Now she has created, and performs in, a radically new venture for her – an opera that pays homage to the cult opera singer Maria Callas. The 75-year-old took time out to discuss the necessity of pushing boundaries to create art.
Maria Callas is hardly an obscure figure – why use her as the focus for a production? Is there anything new to say about Maria Callas?
You have to go back in time to when I’m 14. I was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen having breakfast. She had this old Bakelite radio. And suddenly there was this amazing voice. I stood up in the middle of the kitchen and started crying. It was so emotional. I don’t even remember what she was singing, it was just the vibration of the voice. At the end of the song they said, “That was Maria Callas.” And then I wanted to know everything about her. It was love from the age of 14. I read all her biographies. I started thinking there are similarities between us. She’s a Sagittarius, like I am. She had this incredible stage presence – the charisma – and then, at the same time, the mixture between strength and terrible fragility. I then had my own experience of almost dying for love: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t do anything. And the only thing that really saved me is my own work. But Maria Callas, her work didn’t save her. She literally died from love.
How did the production come about?
Nikolaus Bachler, then the director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, asked me to do something for him and suggested Barbe-Bleue. I said, I don’t care about Barbe-Bleue. I care about Callas. In many operas, the woman dies for love at the end. I want to do just the dying. I want to do the knifing and jumping and the heartbreak and the burning. And I want to call it 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. And he said this was a great idea. He was going to be leaving the Bayerische Staatsoper, and it could be his last production, because then he would show seven operas in one evening. Not bad. It felt like a retrospective.
Can you describe the piece?
It has a performance element, with you on the stage, and film elements with Willem Dafoe. We filmed all the dying scenes in Los Angeles, one after another. For each opera there is one singer singing. I got rid of the choruses, all the huge cast. And there is a bed on the stage. I’m lying in this bed as the dead Callas, physically present. After you see the seven deaths, there is a short intermezzo, and then the stage changes completely into the very 20th-century bourgeois room where Maria Callas died in Paris. I actually reconstructed it from all the materials and all the images I could find. Even the sleeping pills next to the bed, and the photo of Onassis there. This is the eighth death that we never talk about.
Your work is usually quite intimate, involving frequent direct contact with an audience. Was this kind of work a different experience?
I made a very big piece with Bob Wilson called The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. And that was my first encounter with the theatre. It was after I walked the Great Wall of China and split with Ulay, my partner of 12 years. And I remember I was so depressed, so much in pain. And I thought, the only way that I can cure myself is if I actually stage all my emotions in a theatre piece, and share it in a theatre. It was something I never thought I would do as a performance artist, because for me, everything in theatre was fake – blood is not blood, pain is not pain. But I had real pain, and I invited the real Ulay with his new wife, his pregnant new wife, to come see this. And said goodbye on the stage to him in the audience. So there was a kind of mix of the reality of my own life and the theatre.
You frequently put yourself in extreme danger to do your performances. Is it important to push yourself out of your comfort zone in order to make art?
Yeah, it is, because I never like ideas that are comfortable. It doesn’t make any sense to do them because then you’re not changing anything. I like to stage difficult situations in front of audiences and see how far you can go – and be a kind of inspiration. If I can do this, if I can go to the other side of consciousness and actually get rid of the fear of dying, then you can do the same. I’m interested in how to lift and free the human spirit of pain and suffering, and of the fear of pain and suffering.
Maria Callas had to suffer for her work because of her great love. There’s a cliché that you have to suffer for your art. Do you think that’s true?
I used to think this. Because nobody gets anywhere from happiness, because happiness is a stage you don’t want to change. All the great artists in history, if you look at their lives, they’re full of suffering and pain. But if you live long enough, you actually gain wisdom. That’s what is happening now with me. I’m 76 this year. I actually am happy. The wisdom of old age is incredible. And now I really think that it’s possible to create very beautiful, very meaningful work from a peaceful state of mind. And this is new for me. I have no idea what will happen, but that’s where I am now.
You die seven or eight times on the stage in this. And in your work, you’ve often put yourself at risk of death. Should one be prepared to die for one’s art?
You know, I never have been. I’m pretty healthy. It’s like when drunk people fall but they never hurt themselves because somehow God saves them. I always think, when I’m doing the work, that I have a real strong control of how far I can go. There’s only the one time when I was close to death, in ‘Rhythm 0’, when I gave the pistol and bullet to the public. It’s the only time that I understood that the public can kill you. But I was 23 years old. You have to excuse my young age. And I don’t think that dying for art is necessary. I think transcending the content and giving the message is more important.
You have said that the greatest singer of all time wouldn’t have batted an eyelid over becoming a housewife in order to bind a man to herself. Is that something that you could ever have contemplated?
This is why I’m angry with Callas. She said she would give everything to have a child with Onassis and be a housewife. But I almost believe, if you have this kind of talent, you are not allowed to do this. The talent that she had, her voice, it didn’t belong to her anymore. It belongs to everybody. It’s given for a purpose. This is why I will never stop being an artist, ever. This is why the three really dramatic relationships in my life all finished badly. I always choose art in the end. Every time.
Deutsche Oper D: Marina Abramović Apr 8, 10 (English surtitles).
Born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Marina Abramović is frequently referred to as the grandmother of performance art. Throughout her 50 years of performance, the body has always been both her subject and the medium through which she explores the physical and mental limits of existence: pain, exhaustion, vulnerability and danger. From 1975 to 1988, she performed with her partner, the German artist Ulay. She has won numerous top prizes and collaborated with galleries, venues and other artists around the world.
For her piece ‘The Artist is Present’, as part of her major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thousands queued for days to take part in a performance in which she sat silently across from them, one at a time – a piece which made her an international sensation.