The film star embodies one of opera’s greatest divas in the solo show Maria Callas: Letters & Memoirs coming to the Beacon Theater. A black-and-white portrait of Monica Bellucci wearing long straight hair and a dark outfit. Monica Bellucci who has been playing Maria Callas in a one-woman show off and on since 2019 will bring her performance to New York this week.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times Birgit Nilsson or Luciano Pavarotti may have been great but they haven’t sung posthumously. Callas on the other hand has toured as a hologram decades after her death. Few have heard of the William Luce play Bravo Caruso! about that classic tenor but Terrence McNally’s Master Class which revolves around Callas’s exacting methods as a teacher won a Tony Award in 1996 and is regularly revived.
This soprano’s fans — the fiercest of whom the critic Anthony Tommasini affectionately dubbed Callas crazoids — will be kept busy this year which marks the 100th anniversary of her birth. Early out of the gate in New York is the actress Monica Bellucci who is bringing her solo show Maria Callas: Letters & Memoirs to the Beacon Theater on Friday. Bellucci 58 has been performing the piece in which she reads selections from Callas’s writings on and off since 2019. Yet she still finds it hard to explain the peculiar enduring hold that the soprano often referred to as La Divina still has on the collective imagination.
She had an aura Bellucci said during a recent visit to New York.
Bellucci herself was regally resplendent that day projecting the kind of smoky-voiced elegance often associated with marquee names of Golden Age Hollywood. But her résumé is less predictable than that reference might suggest: She has leapfrogged from intimate dramas to the James Bond movie Spectre from Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to the victim of a brutal rape in the French provoc-auteur Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. Her reputation as a symbol of European glamour and sophistication is so firmly established that she made fun of it in an episode of the series Call My Agent! One crucial difference from that guest appearance: I never had a relationship with my agent she clarified with a laugh.
Maria Callas one of the most storied sopranos in opera greeting fans at Carnegie Hall in 1974.Credit…: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times
Still as open to new adventures as Bellucci has been she had steered clear of theater. Undaunted the director writer and photographer Tom Volf who had made the 2018 documentary Maria by Callas trekked to her apartment to pitch a project based on his book Maria Callas: Lettres & Mémoires.
I remember we were in the living room and she opened the book randomly and started reading out loud Volf 37 said in a video interview. That’s when I really saw the alchemy right away. Suddenly her physique her attitude her emotion were matching the one that I sensed was Callas’s especially in some specific letters where you can see the woman and not the artist or the public figure. I call it an alchemy; I think it’s beyond resemblance he continued. I believe in destiny like Callas did. Whenever Callas comes up quasi-spiritual references to aura and destiny have a way of seeping into the conversation. Equally bowled over Bellucci forgot her longstanding reservations about appearing onstage. The sense of beauty I felt was stronger than being scared she said. I wanted to share what I felt with other people. It was through theater that I could get into that.
It’s hard to deny that a Callas-Bellucci pairing feels like it was predestined. Bellucci even played a Callas-like Italian opera star nicknamed La Fiamma in Season 3 of the series Mozart in the Jungle. Beyond their physical resemblance Bellucci an Italian-born Parisian has led a border-crossing multilingual international career just like Callas a Greek New York-born singer decades earlier. Both had to navigate the specific tests that greet famous female celebrities. I think that Monica can very instinctively and strongly relate to Callas as a woman Volf said. Perhaps because she understands the duality between trying to lead a life as a woman and an artist with worldwide fame and all the difficulties and the challenges that come with it.
The Callas mystique beyond her acting and singing talent was fed by an agitated to put it mildly personal life. She was rumored to have bitter rivalries with colleagues; was crushed by a torrid and unhappy affair with the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis; and had a conflicted relationship with her body. She lost a considerable amount of weight in a crash diet which some blame for her eventual vocal issues. She’s someone who had the courage to follow her heart so that’s why when people say she had a tragic life. … Bellucci said trailing off. She had a brave life. She wanted to divorce in a moment when in Italy divorce was forbidden. She’s still inspiring today because she had everybody against her and she was a fighter.
Callas’s physical reinvention can be also be seen as a sign of autonomy rather than of weakness. She created what she wanted to be like many many many people in the business Bellucci said sympathetically. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t the blonde bombshell when she started. We call this ‘les femmes du spectacle’: They know how to create illusion. An artist uses her own body as a transmitter as a way to show themselves. The body becomes an instrument.
At the Beacon Bellucci’s instrument will be sheathed in one of Callas’s actual dresses a black Saint Laurent number that Volf borrowed from a private collection in Milan. The couch that plays a central role however is only a replica of one Callas had at her apartment on Avenue Georges-Mandel in Paris. The idea was a ghost of Callas is coming back to her house Bellucci said. So I move to different places on the sofa as if it represents this circuit of her life from when she’s young full of excitement and then when she was more mature finding a balance between work and private life. And then the end when she was in her sadness and melancholy but so elegant in that.
Because this is not a biographical show per se but rather a peek into the singer’s more intimate side in conversation Bellucci and Volf often differentiated between Callas and Maria as a way to separate her public and private personas. They also pointed out that Master Class for example focused on a very specific element of her life: This was the hard part of her Bellucci said. People used to say that she had a temper. Actually she was uncompromising and completely dedicated to her work with her soul her heart. But the more intimate part of her Bellucci continued the one that nobody knows was so fragile and sensitive. And this sensitivity was also the base of her talent: She had the capacity to perceive things like a child. But nobody protected this child — not her mother not her family. No men protected this child. So the child gets destroyed and the artist as well.
As rich as her experience with Letters & Memoirs has been Bellucci is not sure she will stick with theater. She said she had turned down at least for now an offer to play Medea — not coincidentally perhaps the role that gave Callas her sole movie experience under the direction of Pier Paolo Pasolini. I think maybe Callas did the one film and I’m going to do one experience in theater Bellucci said. I’m very thankful for the experience and I’m going away like I came.