“This is the opposite of opera — it’s folk”

Artist Marina Abramovic and musician Antony Hegarty unite for the Teatro Real's new show ‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’ opens in Madrid this week The work also features actor Willem Dafoe

Antony Hegarty and Marina Abramovic, in the hotel where they are staying during their Teatro Real run.
Antony Hegarty and Marina Abramovic, in the hotel where they are staying during their Teatro Real run. GORKA LEJARCEGI

They first met at a lunch organized by Björk and her artist husband Matthew Barney. Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic remembers that Antony Hegarty was sitting quietly at a table when the Icelandic singer introduced them: “A great musician,” she told her. They said hello and goodbye and nothing more, but over the months a friendship blossomed between the artist and the shy singer with the angelic voice.

Out of that, in part, emerged The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, which opens at the Teatro Real in Madrid on Wednesday. Created by Robert Wilson, the show also features Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe and represents another example of Teatro Real director Gerard Mortier’s attempts to probe the limits of opera.

Marina Abramovic. Rufus Wainwright invited me to a concert at Carnegie Hall that he was organizing with his family in which Antony was singing. When I heard his voice, and it was for the first time, I had to stand up and I started to cry. My friend Klaus introduced us, but you left straight away.

Antony. Oops... I am very bad at these things... Sorry! But afterwards Klaus took me to your house.

M. A. I asked him to. And then I celebrated my 60th birthday in the Guggenheim and Antony sang three songs. But it is not just a friendship. I understand the essence of his music, I know where his soul is coming from — he is completely unique.

Question. Many people are asking if this show you’re bringing to the Teatro Real is an opera.

A. For me it isn’t. That word defines the work of Bob [Wilson], which has an operatic scale and epicness. But the music is very intimate, it’s the opposite of opera; it’s folk.

M. A. When you say opera it is just opera. But now many artists are attacking that fortress in order to modernize it. Opera hasn’t changed at all since it was invented and each attempt is heavily criticized. I don’t know why it’s such a taboo subject, but it’s still like entering another century.

A. This is one more piece in our artistic projects. But the artwork is hidden behind the piece of theater: Marina’s handing over of her life story as narrative material to other people. The public assumes it is her biography, but what they are seeing is a tremendous artistic gesture of surrender — the surrender of control of her life so that someone else can do what they want with it. It has been a fascinating creative process. It’s an intersection of many desperate coming togethers that create a strange alchemy.

Q. And Bob Wilson is now the one experimenting with Marina’s life.

A. In reality it’s all of us. The work also forces me to do it. In my own way I have had to compose a soundtrack that creates an impression of the story of her life.

M. A. At first Antony was saying to me all the time: “How come you are letting just men tell your story?” Everything is seen through masculine eyes, and that is very interesting, but it irritated him. [...] What Bob has done with this work has been very therapeutic. I was crying at each of the rehearsals in Manchester, but the emotions have been transformed. I have repeated stories from my childhood, for instance, so many times, so many slapstick jokes about my nose, that I don’t care. But I didn’t realize that about the men. Antony has opened my eyes. This is the most detached biography that I have made, in the next one a woman will do me. I promise you, Antony.

A. Wow!

M. A. My work has developed in a world of men. I am not a feminist: art does not have a gender. I feel like a soldier of art. But Antony, talk about the songs you have composed about suffering...

A. I tried to respond to the story from different perspectives. One of those is Cut the World. It’s about different ways of containing, transforming and transcending suffering. Stoically, as a form of toughening and strengthening. [...] The first half of the work is a chronicle of abuse and suffering with an almost humorous, slapstick approach. And that is the way many survivors choose to overcome it. The second part tackles transformation and creation.

M. A. There is another incredible song that he asked me to sing called Salt in My Wounds...

A. To rub salt into a wound is to irritate it, so it hurts more. But you gain control over what victimizes you. And that is part of the gesture that Marina has made with her work, even sometimes letting you touch and wound. She hasn’t told me that, but it is what I see and project. Then the song transforms into Gold in my Womb. My perception of her is of moving between different types of agony.

M. A. I don’t want to suffer, but it sometimes happens. Artists are very sensitive, perhaps that is the difference. Some things that have been very painful for me, are perhaps tiny things for other people. [...] I think there is no art without suffering.

A. I don’t agree. A lot of mythology exists about that, but I would prefer to change the word for “strong feelings.” It is not necessary to suffer. To be open, to have empathy and be receptive to the world is the state you need to create. I don’t feel any kind of romanticism for suffering. You simply have to be awake and feel.

Q. Both of you started in the underground scene and now you are performing in an opera theater. Has something been lost on this trip?

A. I don’t know about the Teatro Real’s associations with conservatism. I am naive about that topic. For me it is a beautiful theater and an opportunity to do what we have always done.

M. A. I see it a bit differently. I have always wanted my performances to be mainstream. It’s wonderful to be able to say something different to what an audience linked to opera, to a certain conservatism and used to expensive ticket prices, is expecting.

Q. You are both so used to controlling your work down to the last detail. How has it been handing over that power to Robert Wilson?

M. A. He cares about all the detail, the position of your little finger, your shadow. Yesterday a strand of hair was covering part of my face and he made me pull it back because it stopped a part of the audience from seeing. He creates architecture out of every gesture.

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