There is not a single thing in the history of legendary soprano Maria Callas and Chicago that has been routine. Why should it stop now?
The spectacularly and ferociously dramatic singer, who was to opera what Elvis Presley was to pop music and Marilyn Monroe was to movies, gave her American debut here, in 1954, at the invitation of 28-year-old impresario Carol Fox, in the first season of what we now call the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Callas played a Druid priestess whose hymn to the moon, “Casta diva,” will be reprised when the great diva returns to the Lyric Opera on Sept. 6 to sing it — 65 years after her Lyric debut and 42 years after her death.
This version of Callas is a lovingly crafted hologram, created from a body double whose face was digitally shape-shifted. She will be surrounded by the Lyric Opera Orchestra in the flesh, kept in sync by Irish conductor Eímear Noone.
Callas’ body double spent months under the tutelage of opera and theater director Stephen Wadsworth to develop a gestural language that was spot-on. Then this revivified “Maria” was filmed while singing, from different angles, so that her image, when projected on a transparent screen, would look like the real thing. The sound of the voice is Callas’ own, extracted (again digitally) from her recordings.
“It’s fascinating to watch audiences adjust,” says Wadsworth. “She’s weirdly alive. The first 10 or 15 minutes for people are definitely strange. You can see them cocking their heads side to side, like a Labrador Retriever holding a pose, like ‘What’s going on?’ Because it’s a complex equation — Is this historically apropos? Is it ethical? Is it ‘real’ or is this fake? Is it tacky or fantastic? The best way to think of it is that it’s an evening spent in contemplation of Callas.”
Considering that Bernstein called her “the Bible of Opera,” any chance to get this close will be hard to resist. The company that fashioned this intriguing illusion is Base Hologram, which has made similar traveling shows dedicated to Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Jurassic dinosaurs.
Wadsworth, 66, who grew up in New York aattended the Metropolitan Opera with his parents, never saw Callas in the flesh. He did come close to the diva when directing the Kennedy Center and Broadway revival of “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s play about Callas as the brilliant, frustrated diva in middle age. In that play, Callas puts gifted young singers through agonizing paces while recollecting on her global triumphs, her tempestuous love affair with Aristotle Onassis, and her sacrifices in the name of art. To this day one of Wadsworth’s jobs — as director of opera studies at Juilliard — is “to work with the very students who would have become the victims in those master classes.”
Chicago got a taste of Callas’ temper in 1955, after she had given an extra performance as the geisha Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly.” She walked backstage to be served with papers, stuffed into her kimono, on behalf of a disgruntled man claiming to be her agent. Callas, furious that the Lyric let it happen, vowed never to return, and the snarling backstage photo that somebody snapped earned her the epithet “The Tigress.”
The Maria Callas that Chicago’s audiences will encounter is from what Wadsworth calls the “post-Visconti years,” referring to the famous Italian director Luchino Visconti who provided Callas with vital theatrical grooming, then showcased her in lavish, internationally-acclaimed productions. “Visconti taught her how to bring the audience to her, like a film actor,” Wadsworth explains. “Not playing the big gestures. Communicating like film did, with the face. It elevated incredibly what she could do with a character.”
In turn, while working with the body double, Wadsworth says “every single move was considered. I had never worked with someone in that level of physical detail before. After a few months she had a whole vocabulary of motions, which she worked with so easily that it decreased the possibility not to see her as Callas no matter what she did.
Wadsworth is not traveling with the Callas show, but he was hired as creative director in its earliest stage.
“Base Hologram wanted me to make the film, to get the actor, find the music to be performed and come up with everything that you will see.”
He brought in a Who’s Who production team from the Broadway and opera world — William Ivey Long (“Dreamgirls,” “Chicago,” “The Producers”) designed her dress. Paul Huntley, wig designer from the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, had held Callas’ hair in his hands.
The end result was so realistic, Wadsorth says, that “even people who had worked with Callas at the Met and lifelong opera freaks would ask me, ‘Where did that film come from?’ which is what you want to hear.”
Wadworth himself came to hear her voice in his head. In fact, when the Base Hologram folks once mused about pairing the holographic Callas in a series of duets with live singers around the world — “or, as somebody put it, ‘you know, with some mezzo from Japan,’” Wadsworth says it was almost her voice in which he answered:
“No, No, No! Callas does not sing ‘with some mezzo from Japan.’ ”
Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.