Five artists for Maria Callas

Five artists for Maria Callas

The exhibition "Fantasmagoria Callas," curated by Francesco Stocchi, brings together the voices of five of today’s creatives to reflect on the legacy of Maria Callas on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

callas intervista stocchi

This year, for the centennial celebrations of Maria Callas, La Scala envisioned a different tribute than usual: an exhibition that would evoke the legend that is Maria Callas, rather than recount it from a historical perspective as has been done on other occasions. To do so, Theatre Museum Director Donatella Brunazzi enlisted Francesco Stocchi, who was recently appointed Artistic Director of the Maxxi in Rome. The result was "Fantasmagoria Callas," in which five creatives from the contemporary art scene were asked to reflect on the meaning and significance of Maria Callas' story, from both an artistic and human perspective. They include Giorgio Armani, Alvin Curran, Latifa Echakhch, Mario Martone and Francesco Vezzoli, who came together for the exhibition designed by Margherita Palli, which Stocchi calls "a multi-author score".


MP Maria Callas, from the world of opera to the world of art. How, in your opinion, did this transition take place that transformed an idol of melomaniacs into an idol of artists? The examples are endless: from Andy Warhol and Marina Abramović to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster last year at the Bourse in Paris and now the artists in this exhibition.

FS Maria Callas is a figure of such intensity that she already lends herself to fetishizing and mythologizing. "I am a woman and a serious artist," she asserted. I think this interest on the part of visual artists of recent generations is related to the evolution of the term diva. Diva, as we know, was used to describe opera singers in the 19th century. In the last century, it evolved in the popular sphere and became more ambiguous. I think the artists have begun to work on this multiplicity, on the depth of a term that is no longer just laudatory.


MP Can you explain the title of the exhibition, “Fantasmagoria Callas”.

FS This exhibition aims to present the plurality of the features and abundance of a one-of-a-kind figure. We know that phantasmagoria refers to a very sophisticated theatrical technique used to depict supernatural or fantastic elements. Thus, phantasmagoria contains various voices that are sometimes rich even in their dissonance but together offer an image of the complexity of a rare figure. If we think about it, it is a complexity that finds a connection between professional and private life: in the case of Maria Callas, I imagine it is the former that inspired the latter. Then around the age of 40, Callas changed dramatically and, it is the beginning of the end in her private life. I like to think that there might have been some confusion about where her stage was, so totalizing was the immediacy she could express on stage.


MP As a matter of fact, in their work, the artists were greatly inspired by the personal life of Maria Callas.

FS For many artists, art is a way of expressing what they cannot otherwise express. So, for them it is a way to externalize their intimate sphere. Perhaps through a play of mirrors they find the reverse movement in Callas, the transition from the stage to her personal life. This I find interesting.


MP Tell us how the individual artists have interpreted the character of Maria Callas.

FS The exhibition is divided into five acts, each of which is summarized in each artist's own language. It starts with composer Alvin Curran, so with music, which created a sound texture that we set in a dark space. This is an immersive experience for the audience; when you enter, you find yourself enveloped by Callas' elaborate voice, through original recordings. We continue with an installation by Latifa Echakhch, an artist who usually works with memory, and legacy through material or details. The composition is made of glass and beads whose colours have symbolic connotations. The result is a physical re-enactment, or not entirely; it feels like a ghost or apparition, recalling the figure of Maria Callas. The exhibition then arrives at a small cinema, where one can watch a short film shot by Mario Martone that is very dense and visually rich, a re-enactment of an episode concerning Maria Callas, through which the fragilities and the inner self of her figure are evoked. The fourth act is entrusted to Francesco Vezzoli, an artist who has always been interested in the public image of characters, stardom, and television; she can be considered a parallel of eighteenth-century opera. The work we are exhibiting is an early piece by Vezzoli, a kind of story in images of the life of Maria Callas: they are 63 images of Callas embroidered in various poses that make up a universe of looks, grimaces and gestures. It may be reminiscent of the stories that were told in the late Middle Ages, think of the frescoes that told the lives of saints, as with St. Francis in Assisi. The last act is that of Giorgio Armani, a dress made for the 2021 Privé collection, presented as if it were a sculpture. It is a tribute to Milan, because Milan is the link between Giorgio Armani and Maria Callas: a social and contextual connection, linked to a common success.


MP Opera could be considered the ultimate outdated art form. Yet the "melodramatic" category is not foreign to the contemporary art world. Is there, in your opinion, a component of today's artistic languages that recalls if not opera at least operatic imagery?

FS By melodrama, I mean acting colourfully, with often romanticized characters. Certainly, contemporary art of the last generation has made use of the tool of narrative. It was also a reaction to formalism, which, developed from idea and concept through conceptual language, took the form of a narrative. When I think of melodrama applied to the visual arts, I think of an intensity of the image. And art has always resorted to this strength, of course. Especially lately, partly because of technological evolutions that have allowed artists to achieve a much more intense expressiveness, sometimes related to the dramaturgy of immediacy. So, I don't know if I would talk about melodramatic art, but we can say that in art today there is a narrative aspect that wasn't there before, and a relationship between narrative and melodrama seems evident.


MP And there are a great many artists of the past and present who have tried their hand at opera sets, from Giorgio De Chirico to Anselm Kiefer.

FS But we can also make the reverse argument. In the art of our time, we are increasingly experiencing an exit from the "white cube" (Ed. the typical exhibition space of modernism), and it is more and more common to find exhibitions with real sets within which the works are set up. In artistic productions and even more so in the presentations of exhibitions in recent years, we can see a gradual exit from the tenets of the "white cube" in favour of mise-en-scène that in the past were more common in other artistic contexts, other disciplines. The intention is not to isolate the works, but to relate them to each other in a more evocative way, often tying them to a narrative. There is no doubt that entering an exhibition today is often similar to a theatrical experience.


MP It is also a new way of interpreting the role of a museum, which should not only preserve the past, but bring to life what it contains.

FS While up until a few years ago, museum requests were tied to the object hanging on the wall, to the work in the space, suddenly now the landscape has expanded, both as disciplines, insofar as we no longer speak of "art" but of "arts," and as language, because the museum today no longer seems to be in charge of expressing absolute truths. It no longer wants to only teach but positions itself in a much more horizontal way. Asking questions, engaging and stimulating has taken the place of the answers that we used to seek upon entering a museum up until a few years ago. In fact, the spaces used to be larger and indirectly inspired by places of worship, partly because of the almost one-on-one relationship they had with the visitor, but now they have become places where we experiment, where we try things out and also expose mistakes. The museum is no longer the home of the Muses, but a laboratory.

Mattia Palma
Translation by Alexa Ahern