I anticipated this 6.30pm concert with a sense of unease, and entered Hamer Hall not really knowing what to expect. But I also knew almost exactly what to expect, as I had done some pre-show research and discovered the soundtrack of the Callas recordings of works used by the Hologram concert (available on streaming services). There are also several YouTube videos of items from the Hologram concerts already performed in other countries, having been first performed in 2018.
The current Australian “tour” (Maria Callas never performed in Australia during her lifetime) celebrates the centenary of Callas’ birth and is presented by the European Union in association with the participating orchestras in Australia. Sophie Galaise, Managing Director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra spoke of embracing innovation in the MSO’s programming, and welcomed the official guests. Gabriele Visentin, EU Ambassador to Australia spoke of strengthening the cultural ties between the EU and Australia through celebrating talent, technology and art.
Opening with a beautifully played wind arrangement of Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s musical Acknowledgement of Country, Long Time Living Here, the Callas concert began in earnest with Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra overture, performed with stylish crisp clarity by the small orchestra. It allowed us time to become accustomed to the large black box with solid side panels concealing the choir seats, an artificial “roof” over the musicians, who were set on two sides of the stage – violins, harp and woodwind stage right, and conductor Daniel Schlosberg, lower strings, horns and percussion on stage left. A large space in the centre of the stage was vacant, awaiting the arrival of “La Divina” for her first aria, Juliet’s “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.
Amplified high heels approached the stage, heralding the appearance of Callas, who arrived headfirst as though teleported from another galaxy, her white gown’s hem appearing last. Applause from the audience was acknowledged by the hologram, and with a nod, she was ready to thrill us with that wonderful voice. The orchestra accompanied the wonderful soprano effectively, the conductor responding to every tempo variation without needing to look at her. He knew exactly what she was doing!
And here lies the problem with this concept – live music that cannot respond in the moment; live music that may as well be pre-recorded. Audience applause at the conclusion of the aria was warm and generous, but the programmed avatar continued to acknowledge the applause for a while after it had ceased in the venue, and often at the conclusion of works held up a hand to signal the applause to stop when it had already done so. As an audience member, you felt that you needed to continue to applaud to fill in those slightly embarrassing gaps. Live performance is a two-way experience – the audience plays a part too, and because of this it is never the same every time.
The variable in this concert was the balance between orchestra and soloist. With the additional structure around the stage, the sound of the orchestra was already providing us with a different acoustic experience, more like hearing them from a pit. While the technology involved in removing Callas’ voice from the original recorded orchestral accompaniment is overall very good, it seems to radiate from around the stage, rather than coming directly from the hologram. A changed angle of the head didn’t change the sound direction at all. You get used to it, but it is not real. The lighting on her face was dim from up in the balcony, and from that distance it wasn’t clear as to how well the lip-synching worked, although the videos available on YouTube seem very good.
The concert program contained the titles of works performed, a list of the MSO musicians involved, and a brief biography of Maria Callas and the conductor Daniel Schlosberg. A paragraph explained the involvement of BASE Xperiential, the production company responsible for developing holographic concert productions, which now also include Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Whitney Houston, but no information about the way the hologram itself is constructed. I did discover that the process involves filming a body double with actor imitating the gestures used by Callas to create a lifelike digital avatar. A QR code invited audience members to scan for more about Maria Callas and EU-Australia Relations and to provide feedback on the performance, but it offered no further information.
Following Juliet’s aria, we heard the letter scene from Verdi’s Macbeth, where hologram Callas appeared to hold and read from the letter. She disappeared again while the orchestra played the Carmen Prelude, then heels clomping loudly again announced her return, this time with a red stole over the dress. The Habanera was followed by the Card Aria “En vain pour eviter”, showcasing the darker side of Callas’ magnificent voice. This concluded with the cards being thrown away, remaining suspended in the air for some time before eventually falling and disappearing. The singer’s beautiful voice in the Carmen arias appeared rather shrill at times, with some strange resonances and less than even sound production – another reminder that this was recorded sound, and that the adjustment was artificial.
The Prelude to Act 4 of Catalani’s La Wally gave the hologram a little rest before Wally’s well-known aria “Ebben? Ne andro lontana”, Ophelia’s Mad Scene from Thomas’ Hamlet, and “Suicido! Ecco il velen di Laura” from La Gioconda by Ponchielli. These more dramatic arias allowed us to hear some real fireworks from Maria Callas. What really made her “La Divina” was the way she used her whole being to inhabit her characters, and took that to the extreme in her voice, face and body. Although the “personality rights” of Maria Callas are described in the program as having been used with the permission of the Maria Callas Estate, I couldn’t help but wonder what Callas herself would feel about her personality being expressed in such a controlled way.
Warm applause, again not quite long enough to fill the allotted gap, was rewarded with “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma, and “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca by Puccini, both already listed in the program as the Encores.
We had heard some truly beautiful singing, and well-judged orchestral accompaniment, but I couldn’t help but think I might as well have listened at home, although the Diva was magically holding her red rose as she vanished into the ether. As an audience member, there was no opportunity to really feel a connection with the performer.
Photo credit: Laura Manariti
Margaret Arnold reviewed “Maria Callas: A concert in Hologram”, presented by the European Union together with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on December 7, 2023.