If you missed the 2011 UK premiere of The Life and Death of Mariana Abramović, the quasi-opera directed by Robert Wilson based on the life and fictitious death of the artist, you’re in luck: the star-studded production opened at the Teatro Real in Madrid last week and will run until April 22nd. Though many a Brit critic lamented the show’s dragging second act, audiences who’ve seen the latest staging seem to be more understanding of the facts that a) It’s an opera, and b) We’re watching the ceremonial death of Abramović as a portrait of its author (who’s quite alive and well).
The cast includes Willem Dafoe as a psychotic, multifaceted narrator, Antony Hegarty (the fantastic frontman of Antony and the Jonsons’), and of course, Abramović herself. Hegarty, who doubles as the show’s musical director, co-wrote the score that comprises his own heart-wrenchingly hopeful sounds intertwined with the folkish wails of Serbian songstress Svetlana Spajić.
Seeds for the Wilson/Abramović collaboration were sown more than four decades ago when the visionary director met the budding artist in her native Belgrade. They always talked about doing something together, and their plans finally gained speed a few years ago when Abramović asked Wilson to design her funeral. He agreed, whereupon she handed him letters, photos and diaries, along with the reins to the project.
The storyline follows Abramović from childhood in communist Serbia to her career as a performance artist. Interestingly, her span of work with Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) is mentioned only in passing, while Wilson chose to focus on things like Abramović’s abusive mother (also played by Abramović), who’s given a prominent role.
A press conference revealed that, for each artist, the project has presented unique challenges: Abramović, in her inaugural acting stint, had to adjust to the theater’s ritual of choreographed performance; folk-singing Hegarty had to somehow find common ground with classical music; Wilson’s desire for the artificial butted heads with Abramović’s need for reality; and Dafoe held down the fort as the lone trained actor in the cast. Asked when the showcase would come to New York, Wilson said they haven’t found a home in the city just yet.