Maria Callas once famously declared: “I don’t need the money, dear. I work for art.”
As the most revered diva of her generation, the soprano known as “La Divina” was known for her scrupulous attention to conveying truth through her performances — so much so that her public regarded Callas as the first Method actor of opera. Her signature role in Puccini’s “Tosca” underscored the point with the show-stopping aria “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”).
And so, what would she would have thought of “Maria Callas in Concert: The Hologram Tour”? If the audience reaction Saturday night at the Civic Opera House served as any indication, she would have been thrilled. Accompanied by members of Lyric Opera Orchestra, led by Irish conductor Eimear Noone, Callas stepped out of the past and back into the hearts of her ardent fans.
During her career, the soprano attracted a following that rose to rock-star dimensions and has only continued to grow ever since. Though she died at age 53 of a heart attack in 1977, she has returned to life through pioneering technology developed by Base Hologram, a Los Angeles-based firm (which has produced similar showcases featuring Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, and next, Whitney Houston). Using digital and laser projection, the soprano appears on a transparent screen as she sings to digitally remastered recordings of her actual performances.
After the orchestra played the overture from Rossini’s “La gazza ladra,” gasps went up from the audience as “Callas” took the stage and launched into “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which begins with the lines “I want to live/In this dream that intoxicates me/Again this day!” Thanks to technology, the dream could not have been more intoxicating as dazzle she did in some of her best-known repertoire, including the “Habanera” aria and the Card Scene from Bizet’s “Carmen,” and the Letter and Sleepwalking scenes from Verdi’s “Macbeth.”
With this performance, La Divina returned triumphantly to the city and the company that had been so crucial to the star’s rise. Callas put herself and Lyric Theatre (now Lyric Opera of Chicago) on the map when she made her U.S. debut there in 1954. Too bad that connection couldn’t have been acknowledged from the stage, but at this point, holograms can only sing, and not speak extemporaneously.
The 90-minute concert unfolded seamlessly, save for a few glitches. The illusion was disrupted when she passed in front of the orchestra, seated onstage, and then her image turned ghostly as the musicians could be seen through her projected figure. Though the hologram is lip-synching to state-of-the-art recordings, her disembodied voice often sounds boxy and lacks full resonance. At one point, the hologram sputtered, disappeared for a second or two and sparked back to life. Apparently even holograms can have their diva moments.
The production, directed by stage veteran Stephen Wadsworth (who oversees the opera studies program at Juilliard), overdoes the grand lady mannerisms, as the hologram frequently gestures to the audience and seemingly bats her eyelashes in approval. Once she even stops the orchestra in a “request” to start over.
As for the mighty Lyric Opera orchestra, it was largely reduced to fulfilling the role of a supporting player. That said, the intermission-less program offered at least one too many purely orchestral selections, perhaps because Base Hologram hasn’t yet generated enough Callas performance material (which takes months and most likely millions to produce).
However, for La Divina’s die-hard fans, “Callas in Concert” is a must-see. Though the format might be better-suited to pop-rock artists (I’m looking forward to the Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra editions), any chance to experience the Callas legend “live” can’t be dismissed. At its best moments, as such as the climaxes of the arias “Ebben, ne andro lontana” from Catalani’s “La Wally” and “Suicidio!” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda,” the performance generated genuine emotion — pinch-me moments — and swept up the audience in its magic.
However, the skeptical among us might have thought of another role that Callas never sang but seemed especially germane as the evening progressed: Emilia Marty in Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case,” about an opera diva who has managed to stay alive for centuries, through a secret elixir, but eventually realizes that life has no meaning unless it ends: Only through death does one achieve true humanity. Wonder what the real Maria Callas would think about that?
Laura Emerick is a local freelance writer.