Back in 2019, Tom Volf, the director of the famed “Marias by Callas” set out to put on a play that, in a similar vein to his famed documentary, allowed the iconic soprano to tell her story through a trove of letters and memoirs she had written. His choice to bring the famed diva to life? Iconic film star Monica Bellucci.
Per IMDB, the Italian actor has appeared in over 80 films and TV shows throughout her extensive career. She has been in everything from “The Matrix” trilogy, “Mozart in the Jungle,” “Spectre,” “The Miracle,” “Twin Peaks,” “Call My Agent,” “Shoot ‘Em Up,” “Irreversible,” “Dracula…” the list goes on and on.
But she had never performed on a theater stage. Never. And by her own admission, it resulted from crippling stage fright.
So Volf had his work cut out for him in bringing the superstar actress to the stage to undertake a project in which she would have to personify one of the most famous cultural icons of the 20th century.
His efforts paid off. Over the past three years, the duo and their team have brought “Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs” to Paris, Athens, Rome, Milan, and London. And now, on Jan. 27, 2023, in the year of Callas’ centennial (she was born on December 2, 1923), the tour will come to an end at the Beacon Theater in New York City, the birthplace of La Divina.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with Bellucci prior to her New York performance about how she pushed past her stage fright for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
OperaWire: What is your relationship to opera? When were you first exposed to it?
Monica Bellucci: I’m Italian, so you know, it’s part of the culture. I’m not completely into it, but those kinds of voices, those kinds of sounds – la Tosca, la Norma – it’s in our hearts.
OW: And what about Maria Callas? What did you know about her? Had you heard recordings?
MB: I knew the great singer, the performer. Even when I did “Mozart in the Jungle,” I approached Callas to get to know the attitude, like I did with [Anna] Netrebko and [Montserrat] Caballé. But I didn’t know anything about Maria, the story about Onassis, or that she was an incredible diva Divina.
But then, when Tom Volf came to me with this project, he gave me these letters, these memoirs, and I realized the woman, the person. It was a completely different story because I could get into her vulnerabilities and her sensibility. That’s why, even though it was my first time on stage when I read those letters and memoirs, I couldn’t resist. I said, “I’m scared, but I want to do it because those letters and memoirs really inspired me, and I want to share them with someone else.”
OW: In other interviews, you mentioned that you have stage fright and that it is like doing violence to yourself. How has that evolved as you have done more performances of the play?
MB: I have to say that I’m always scared, even now. I come from cinema; I am not a theater beast. It is another world. When you make cinema, even if it is a big production, you are in a closed place. You can repeat things if you’re wrong. You know everyone. You feel protected.
But here, it’s a small project. We started in [Studio] Marigny, which is nice but 400 people. And then we performed in Herodeon Atticus. That was 4,000 people. We never expected that it could become such an international tour in three languages. But even now, I’m still scared, and I ask myself why I am doing this. But the answer is that it’s because it’s so beautiful. We give beauty. We give poetry. We give a moment of reality and truth because the relationship with the public is completely different from cinema. It’s so real, direct, unique, and it’s like you share the same breath for one hour. You can’t lie. People can feel your soul. They can see your soul.
At Atticus, which is open and antique, you could see the moon up in the sky. I have to say that those places also really inspire you. When you are in beautiful places, with history and energy coming from so far, you get inspired by it. When you are inspired, you want to share beauty. You share with the audience, but also you receive a lot as well.
OW: What about doing this play made you finally decide to step into theater?
MB: This was something that I felt right away. Tom [Volf] came to my house, and I read a letter to Onassis and a memory about music. And I said, “Thank you Tom for thinking about me.” I didn’t ask for a few days. I said immediately, “Okay.” He came to my house in October, and then we did the first performances in November, so we didn’t have much time to prepare. I thought they were crazy to do it so fast, but they all believed in me. And they gave me the strength to do it. And until now, I feel protected.
OW: Has your experience in this play affected how you approach your work in cinema?
MB: I think now I am more secure and able to control myself. It usually takes me two days to come from a performance. Especially with the orchestra because the music gets into your veins. The next morning I wake up with the music in my head because the emotion brings me so high that I have to take time to calm down.
OW: How would you describe your experience of stepping into the life of Maria Callas on stage?
MB: It was so intimate. It’s just the sofa, the gramophone, and the lights. People have told me they feel we start with Monica and finish with Maria. And so much of this comes from the lights, which create a certain magic.
But the experience is an evolution. The sofa and each movement around the sofa is a new period of life. It’s like a ghost. It’s like Maria’s ghost coming into the apartment and revisiting her life. From her youth, full of excitement and waiting for success, and then her maturity and trying to find the balance between her work and her private life, and then her last years, waiting in her apartment when she handled her extreme melancholy with elegance. So it’s all of her life in some way. Even the voice changed. I do a younger voice at the start and then little by little you can hear her getting tired.
I’m a mature woman. I can understand her better. When she died, she was 52. I am already older than she was, so I could understand a lot of what was going through her mind at that time.
OW: What kind of other research or preparation did you do for the role?
MB: Tom Volf helped me a lot with his documentary. It is a beautiful piece. When I saw this document about her life, I learned so much. It’s incredible when she was talking about her work, she was so secure and firm. But then, when she talked about her own life, she was someone that could be so childish.
She sacrificed all of her youth for work. So she didn’t have so much experience in real life, and you can feel that. So when she met Onassis, it was an incredible moment of light for her. Through him, she discovered her femininity, and she wanted to explore it to the fullest. Because her first husband was like a father but not a true father. He took all her money, and when she wanted to divorce, she didn’t have anything. When she died, she had only an apartment and some jewels and nothing else. Life destroyed the human being, the person. Even the artist wasn’t there anymore.’
OW: When you look back at Maria Callas, what do you think makes her so special?
MB: I think that she is a great example for women today. She really fought for her freedom because she fought for divorce during a moment when it wasn’t permitted. She really had the courage to follow her heart. Before she sacrificed her youth for work and then she sacrificed her career for love. So all those sacrifices, there is something very sincere about her. That’s why she died of a broken heart. Because if you aren’t sincere, no one is going to break your heart.
And that’s why I think she is still alive today. Of course, she was one of the best sopranos ever, but also, there is more than that. People were going to hear Callas but also to see Callas. There was an aura about her. Opera is a beautiful world, but it is a closed world. And she transcended even that. She was as popular as a rock star. When she came to New York, people were waiting in line just to see her. She was like one of the Rolling Stones. People were sleeping in front of the theater to see her. There was something about her that was beyond her artistry. That’s why we are still here talking about her.
I think it’s no coincidence that she was born in New York in 1923 and we will perform the last day of this tour here in New York in 2023. This is amazing. This is special.
OW: Do you have any favorite recordings of Callas?
MB: Every time before going on stage, I would listen to her “Carmen” [habanera] from Hamburg. It is so full of energy. I feel she is happy. Not just in the singing, but I can see a happy woman in love. This gave me strength.
OW: There is going to be a documentary about this tour over the years. Can you speak a bit about that?
MB: We recorded in Istanbul, Venice, London, Châtelet, and now we will do it in the Beacon. Then we will go to an apartment in Paris and shoot for a few days there. It will be a feature documentary on this process. Sometimes when you do theater, you have this experience, but then it disappears. So here we will stop time with this documentary and see what we did over three years.
OW: Finally, you have repeatedly said that you believe this will be your only theater experience of your career. Coincidentally, Maria Callas only appeared in one film in her career – Pasolini’s “Medea.” What was your experience of Callas’ performance in this movie?
MB: She was great. I was shocked when I saw it. She was coming from opera, where everything is larger than life, and it was shocking to me how subtle she was. The emotions are real. The pain is real. Everything that she is going through is so clear and real.
It’s great that today we are still here talking about her. And she inspires so many artists today. I was in Paris, and I saw Marina Abramovic’s show. She is still alive in all of this work. Her story is so unique. Her life is like a Greek tragedy.