NEW YORK – Though she passed away in 1977, Maria Callas returned to the stage for a performance on Jan. 14 at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. As the New York Times reported in the article “What a Hologram of Maria Callas Can Teach Us about Opera,” the great diva performed as a three-dimensional hologram, sharing the stage with another late singer, Roy Orbison who passed away in 1988.
“She looked a little pale, a little spectral,” the Times noted and now joins the “series of musical-visual resurrections that have included Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Ronnie James Dio.”
Recreated for the performance, Callas, one of the greatest singers of her time, appeared on stage wearing white satin and a red stole for “Callas in Concert.” The hologram incorporated hand movements and facial gestures along with her vocal performance from recordings made during her lifetime of arias from Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Macbeth, as the Times reported, adding that she was “backed by a live orchestra at the Rose Theater.”
The audience experienced a half hour of the show which “will eventually be an evening-length concert,” as the Times reported, adding that the “finished program, created by a division of the company Base Entertainment, begins an international tour this May in Tokyo.”
The performance of the Habanera from Carmen was “amazing, yet also absurd; strangely captivating, yet also campy and ridiculous,” as the Times reported, noting that “it made the most sense of any of the musical holograms produced so far. More than rock or hip-hop fans — and even more, you could say, than fans of instrumental classical music — opera lovers dwell in the past. We are known for our obsessive devotion to dead divas and old recordings; it can sometimes seem like an element of necrophilia, even, drives the most fanatical buffs.”
Callas fans, as is well-known, are a particularly enthusiastic group for anything related to La Divina. The number of recordings available is probably more than any other singer with many “issued, reissued, remastered and re-re-mastered, several times over,” as the Times reported, adding that “Callas would have been dismayed to know that even her most flawed live performances have been legitimized and released.”
Sadly for Callas fans, her performances in the operas themselves were not filmed live as so many now are, though concert footage does exist, as the Times noted, video of the 1964 Act II of Puccini’s Tosca does exist, “but no full operas by one of the greatest singing actresses in history.”
The Times reported that “this hologram performance can seem to fill in a bit of that gap. The operatic voice, and the art form itself, can feel so fragile. What better way to represent that fragility — while also reviving it, in a kind of séance — than a hologram?”
Stephen Wadsworth, an esteemed stage director for opera and theater, whose credits include Master Class by Terence McNally about Callas, is the creative director for this new Callas show. He said that one of the aims has been to “present Callas with ‘restraint, subtlety, and delicacy,’” as the Times reported. A hologram might seem unlikely to fulfill that aim, but the Times noted that “moments during Sunday’s preview were surprisingly affecting.”
The issue may be that opera fans will dwell in the past and not appreciate today’s opera and singing stars.
The performance on Sunday continued with a scene from Carmen Act III “in which Carmen reads her fortune in some cards and sees death foretold for herself and her lover” with “Callas’ singing… chillingly subtle and sad” in the recording used, as the Times reported, adding that “the sound was a little spotty, at times tinny (the producers say they are still tweaking the technology).”
When the hologram Callas threw the cards in the air, they seemed to hover then slowly drift down, giving the conductor time to move to the aria from Macbeth with melodramatic effect. As the Times noted, “If you’re going to use hologram technology, then it makes sense to go all out and create something new, rather than just copy a standard concert.”
The singing hologram may introduce a whole new audience to Callas’ remarkable talent who can then further enjoy her work through the many recordings available. Holograms and recordings should also encourage opera fans to experience live opera performed by the current singing stars of today, especially when the Metropolitan Opera has an exciting season.