What a Hologram of Maria Callas Can Teach Us About Opera

Callas In Concert
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

When Maria Callas appeared onstage at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Sunday night, she looked a little pale, a little spectral.

This was understandable, perhaps: She has been dead since 1977. This Callas was a three-dimensional hologram, the latest in a series of musical-visual resurrections that have included Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Ronnie James Dio. She shared the program, in fact, with Roy Orbison, who died in 1988.

Arguably the greatest singer of the 20th century, Callas — eerily, well, radiant in a white satiny gown and rich red stole — was recreated for the occasion, down to the minutest movements of her hands and the subtlest facial gestures. Her voice, in arias from Bizet’s “Carmen” and Verdi’s “Macbeth,” came from her own recordings, backed by a live orchestra at the Rose Theater. We in the audience saw only about 30 minutes of what will eventually be an evening-length concert. (The finished program, created by a division of the company Base Entertainment, begins an international tour this May in Tokyo.)

It was amazing, yet also absurd; strangely captivating, yet also campy and ridiculous. And in a way, 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.

But no full operas by one of the greatest singing actresses in history; 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?

The respected stage director Stephen Wadsworth, with a distinguished record in opera and theater (including a production of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” about Callas), is the creative director for this “Callas in Concert.” In introductory comments, Mr. Wadsworth said that the project has tried to present Callas with “restraint, subtlety and delicacy.” The notion of a singing hologram might seem incompatible with such a goal. Yet moments during Sunday’s preview were surprisingly affecting.

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