‘It’s Not a Dying Art Form, Only a Changing One’: Marina Abramović on the Transformative Power of Opera

Opera is a very old form of art. It has been developed throughout the centuries. It has its own language and rules and a very particular and enthusiastic public. But now we are in the 21st century, and it’s time to change the rules and dismantle the structure and blow some fresh air into opera. In this way, we can succeed in creating a complete work of art.

In 2018 in Antwerp, I developed the concept and stage design for Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. It was the first time I had worked in opera and was a very inspiring moment for me. I worked on a ballet based on Ravel’s 15-minute suite Boléro together with the choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet. Compared to Debussy’s opera, the work has a rigid form and is consequently much
more difficult to penetrate. Debussy left a lot of space open for interpretation in his opera, which is essential for visual artists because this space leaves them room and freedom of imagination.

For Pelléas, my décor involved the use of large crystals; these, together with the video by Marco Brambilla, brought out the metaphysical aspect of the drama and made the invisible power of music more visible. We don’t know from where Mélisande comes; Golaud discovers her in the forest. Could she be an alien from another planet? The crystals could also be interpreted as the spaceships that brought her to us. Is she human? Is her love true? Does she die for love? All these questions are directed toward
the public, and they need to find their own answers.

Marina Abramović, Pelléas et Mélisande | Dir. / Chor. S. L. Cherkaoui & D. Jalet | Photo © Rahi Rezvani.

I’ve been thinking about this romantic idea of dying for love for a long time, and I’m a very romantic person. I almost died for love years ago. The experience was so painful and so totally absorbed my soul that I don’t think I could do it again. I’m happy that I survived because now I can make this work The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas, which has been my secret dream for more than thirty years.

Maria Callas has been my lifelong hero, and there is a real physical resemblance between us. For The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas, I needed to find singers for seven signature roles of the great Greek soprano: Tosca, Violetta, Cio-Cio San, Carmen, Lucia, Desdemona, and Norma. Of course, I had help from the Bayerische Staatsoper in choosing them. I wasn’t looking just for the voice but also for the energy and the type of women I needed for each role. In one case, I needed a strong and Viking-like woman, another needed to be passionate and Spanish, another delicate and Japanese. In each of these characters, the one common feature is that they are all dying for love. The singer has to believe and understand what she is doing in each of her roles—totally and absolutely.

Carson McCullers said: “I am so immersed in my characters that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man. I become the characters I write about, and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said: ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’”
This is a very similar approach to the one I take. You have to be in character; otherwise, the public will feel it and lose interest.

Marina Abramović, Pelléas et Mélisande | Dir. / Chor. S. L. Cherkaoui & D. Jalet | Photo © Rahi Rezvani.

Once, I received an excellent lesson from Bob Wilson: he said that when you stand on stage, you have to be there in the present; if you are already thinking about your next move, you will lose concentration. The next move always has to come with the body and the mind simultaneously—effortlessly.

At the beginning of my performance career, I didn’t think that a transformative experience was possible through theater or opera, but only through the type of long-durational performance art I was exploring. With the performance of Rhythm 10 at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome in 1973 and listening afterward to the wild applause from the audience, I knew I had succeeded in creating an unprecedented unity of time—present and past through random errors. I experienced absolute freedom. I felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless, that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all. I would never have thought that this could be possible in theater or opera, but after working with Bob Wilson and Willem Dafoe, and with choreographers Damien Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and now on my opera project with Willem again, I’ve changed my mind. You can go so deep into a performance that you become one with the character and create a charismatic state of unity with the public.

Now that I’m in my seventies, the idea that this is the last part of my life is very present. The question of how much time do you really have and how you translate what you have done in your life for future generations becomes more and more urgent. Regarding the future of opera and what it can offer to the younger generation, if you’d asked me this question twenty years ago, I would have answered that opera is a dying form of art. But if you ask me now, I would say that opera has a lot of potential and that a future generation of artists will undoubtedly offer new solutions. I don’t know if it will be called opera in the future or have a new name. Only time will tell. But it’s not a dying art form, only a changing art form.


Excerpted with permission from The Last Days of the Opera, edited by Denise Wendel-Poray, Gert Korentschnig and Christian Kircher, published by SKIRA Editore (released in the US Feb 28).

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

More Than a Muse: A New Biography Casts Kiki de Montparnasse as a Leader in the Heady Art Swirl of 1920s Paris

If you know the name Kiki de Montparnasse, it’s probably as the subject of the famed 1924 Man Ray photograph Le Violon d’Ingres. The Surrealist masterpiece shows De Montaparnasse’s naked back marked in the dark room with the shapely f-holes of a violin, wittily comparing the curves of the female form to the string instrument.

Last May, a print of the image became the most expensive photograph ever to sell at auction, bringing in $12.4 million at Christie’s New York. (De Montparnasse’s own auction record is a still-respectable €19,275 [$23,406], set in 2021 at Fauve Paris for the 1927 painting L’acrobate, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.)

A model to a slew of major artists, including Alexander Calder, Francis Picabia, and Chaïm Soutine, to name just a few, De Montparnasse was Man Ray’s muse and lover for eight years, from 1921 through ’29.

But a new biography of the woman born Alice Ernestine Prin argues that she was in many ways the center of the Parisian avant-garde, highlighting her accomplishments as an actress, cabaret star, memoirist, and artist in her own right. Essentially, De Montparnasse was a talented multi-hyphenate who reinvented herself through an artistic persona—an act decades ahead of her time.

Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924). Courtesy of Christie's.

Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Written by Mark Braude, Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris takes a deep dive into the life of this largely forgotten figure, from her impoverished and illegitimate origins to her literal crowning as queen of Montparnasse—Paris’s thriving artist quarter and nightlife hotspot—to her premature death at just 51, suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism.

It also charts her tumultuous relationship with Man Ray, as well as his origins as Emmanuel Radnitzky, born in Brooklyn. He, of course, became a leading light of the Dada and Surrealist movements, creating innovative photographs, paintings, and sculptures.

The two were surrounded by a milieu of now-famous names—the book’s pages are sprinkled with appearances by the likes of Amedeo Modigliani, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Coco Chanel, and Peggy Guggenheim, to name just a few.

Man Ray, <em>Noire et Blanche</em> (1926). Photo courtesy of Christie's Paris.

Man Ray, Noire et Blanche (1926). Photo courtesy of Christie’s Paris.

The book’s biggest takeaway is that while one could certainly make a case for De Montparnasse as a pioneering performance artist, her ephemeral works were sadly created in an era that rendered them evanescent.

And as with so many women artists, De Montparnasse’s fame has faded in the decades since her death. But unlike paintings and sculptures, which are ripe for rediscovery, her primary medium of performance—the very nature of the work that made her the lifeblood of Parisian bohemia in the 1920s—makes it difficult for audiences to truly experience her art, or to understand its importance in her time.

Braude does an admirable job of trying to rectify that injustice. Here are just a few of the fascinating facts about De Montparnasse presented in his tome.


Her mom tried to put a stop to her modeling career.

Maurice Mendjizky, <em>Kiki<em>.

Maurice Mendjizky, Kiki.

Kiki de Montparnasse first moved to Paris at age 12. When she was 16, she started posing for artists after she lost her job at a bakery. To make money, she began posing nude for a sculptor who had been a regular at the shop.

After the initial discomfort wore off, De Montparnasse found the work both interesting and easy—but when her mother found out, she crashed the studio and threatened to alert the cops.

In her memoir, De Montparnasse said her mom called her a “miserable whore” and disowned her—irreversibly setting the young girl on her course in the art world.


She got her nickname from the artist who painted the earliest known work for which she posed.

Maurice Mendjizky, <em>Kiki de Montparnasse</em> (1921). Collection Fonds de Dotation Mendjisky- Écoles de Paris

Maurice Mendjizky, Kiki de Montparnasse (1921). Collection Fonds de Dotation Mendjisky- Écoles de Paris

In 1918, De Montparnasse, fresh off a case of the Spanish flu, fell in love with Polish artist Maurice Mendjizky. He did his first painting of her in 1919, and bestowed upon her the pet name Kiki, by which she would become famous.

“[It] stuck only because they liked how it sounded two quick breaths pushed with clenched tongue through bared teeth,” Braude wrote. “People used kiki as a bit of slang to describe all sorts of things: chicken giblets; someone’s neck (usually strangled or hanged); a cock’s crow; having a chat; having sex.”

Mendjizky and De Montparnasse lived together for three or four years, and there are six surviving oil paintings made depicting her, plus a drawing. Though De Montparnasse would credit the artist Moïse Kisling with “discovering” her, those pieces represent the true beginnings of the career of one of art history’s greatest muses.


She was the consummate hostess.

Artists at the Jockey in Paris (ca. 1921). Back row from left to right: Bill Bird, unknown, Holger Cahill, Miller, Les Copeland, Hilaire Hiler, Curtiss Moffitt. Middle: Kiki de Montparnasse, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, unknown, Ezra Pound. Front: Man Ray, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau.

De Montparnasse acted as Man Ray’s assistant by managing his schedule and helping with translations when his French skills fell short—all while keeping house.

“Kiki did the shopping and cooking and serving,” Braude wrote. “She stretched their money to create fabulous Burgundian dishes with artfully prepared salads and expertly chosen cheeses, always paired with good wine and followed by brandy.”

Despite her humble beginnings and lack of means, De Montparnasse was blessed with a “seemingly innate ability to serve just the right food and drink according to the social situation, and to have attained that knowledge without money or much exposure to traditional forms of ‘high’ culture.”


And the consummate performer.

Brassaï, The Singer Kiki of Montparnasse (1933). Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Tom E. Hinson Catalogue of Photography, ©the Brassaï Estate - RMN.

Brassaï, The Singer Kiki of Montparnasse (1933). Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Tom E. Hinson Catalogue of Photography, ©the Brassaï Estate – RMN.

In her memoirs, De Montparnasse wrote of singing for coins at bars as a child. But she was part of Paris’s artistic scene for several years as an adult before she started singing at the popular artist hangout the Jockey in 1924. Quickly, she became a famed chanteuse and local celebrity.

“Kiki’s shows were imbued with the spirit of artistic experimentation going on around her,” Braude wrote. “If a singing voice could smell, hers would be garlic hitting a pan’s hot butter and wine.”


She sold out her first solo show.

Kiki De Montparnasse, <em>L’acrobate</em> (1927). The painting set an auction record for the artist with a €19,275 ($23,406) sale in 2021 at Fauve Paris.

Kiki de Montparnasse, L’acrobate (1927). The painting set an auction record for the artist with a €19,275 ($23,406) sale in 2021 at Fauve Paris.

De Montparnasse began making art at an early age, drawing quick portraits of bar patrons and selling them to help make ends meet as a teenager. As she grew older, her work attracted the attention of the dealer Henri-Pierre Roché, who eventually bought 10 of her paintings.

In 1924, he wrote in his diary of purchasing a De Montparnasse watercolor he dubbed a “super-Matisse.”

Three years later, she had her first solo show at Au Sacre du Printemps in Paris, selling all 27 pieces on view—and getting good reviews to boot.


She appeared on the silver screen, although film stardom eluded her.

De Montparnasse’s first performance on film came in Le Retour à la raison, a hastily glued together three-minute film Man Ray made on two days notice for a Dada art show organized by Tristan Tzara in 1923. The event was marred by violence, with the police arriving after André Breton broke poet Pierre de Massot’s arm, and the night devolving into drunken fist fights in the streets.

Later that year, De Montparnasse traveled to New York, where she made a go of breaking into the movie business. The anecdotes vary, but for one reason or another, she returned to Paris without filming anything in the U.S.

There, she went on to have small parts in four pictures in quick succession, including Jaque Catelain’s feature film The Gallery of Monsters, credited as Kiki Ray. Her most prominent role came courtesy of Fernand Léger, in Ballet mécanique, in which De Montparnasse’s face is juxtaposed with close up shots of various objects and machines.


She wrote her memoirs at just 28.

Kiki's Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse, translated from the French by Samuel Putnam, and published in the U.S. by Black Manikin.

Kiki’s Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse, translated from the French by Samuel Putnam, and published in the U.S. by Black Manikin.

After splitting with Man Ray, De Montparnasse began dating the cartoonist Henri Broca, and paying to publish his new magazine, Paris-Montparnasse. That led in turn to the release of De Montparnasse’s memoirs, pairing her writings recounting her life with various artworks she had featured in over the years.

She was just 28 years old. She was also undeniably famous.

“Who doesn’t know Kiki, in Montparnasse, and therefore the whole world?” one reviewer asked. Another proclaimed that “Kiki is a lively girl, rowdy painter, and bohemian writer, rolled into one. She is everything.”

Bookseller Edward Titus arranged to bring a translation of the book by Samuel Putnam to the U.S. It was to have a preface by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote that De Montparnasse “dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.”

But for De Montparnasse, Transatlantic fame was not to be. U.S. customs officials seized the first shipment of the book as obscene, and no more English language copies were printed.


She was crowned Queen of Montparnasse.

A photo by Kiki de Montparnasse by Julien Mandel.

A photo of Kiki de Montparnasse by Julien Mandel. Public domain.

Kiki earned the second half of her name in 1929, at a variety show hosted by Paris-Montparnasse ahead of the publication of her memoirs. She sang her most popular numbers before packed house, paying tribute to the neighborhood’s already fading glory days.

At the end of the night, there was an over-the-top coronation ceremony, crowning her Queen of Montparnasse. Her new name, Kiki de Montparnasse, not only recognized her as artistic royalty, it inextricably tied her to the neighborhood that had birthed such inspiring and groundbreaking art. It recognized her foremost position among the artists of Montparnasse, not only as muse and model, but as an equal party to the creative process.

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

An American Curator Wrote a Memoir About Building Tehran’s Legendary $3 Billion Art Collection. In Iran, It Hasn’t Been Greeted Warmly

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) has for decades been a beacon for the Iranian people. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a human shield formed around the building to protect the art inside. In 2016, when plans to privatize the museum were made public, protests filled the street. 

After two years of renovations, TMoCA—which houses the most valuable collection of Modern Western art outside Europe and North America—swung open its doors again on January 28. But that’s not the only reason the museum is back in the limelight. 

Its reopening coincided with the publication of a new book by Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran between 1975 and 1977 and assisted with the assembly of the famed collection. The 208-page book, The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Rejected and Rediscovered Modern Art, has garnered international headlines—and sparked controversy in the Iranian art world. 

The Museum of Modern Art, Tehran, Iran.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

Iranian art critics, patrons, and founding members of the museum say that Stein’s book—and the international coverage of it—perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Iranian society. They also claim that her role in building the collection is not as central as she suggests. 

Stein disputes these characterizations. “My book is an effort to tell my story, what I know and remember, and I have documents and letters to support my conclusions,” she told Midnight Publishing Group News. “After 50 years, I think a picture of that time from a participant’s point of view is valuable and I want people to know the truth about the art and my role as an American woman living in Tehran during the mid-’70s.” 

What is “true” in regards to the establishment of TMoCA’s famed collection, however, changes based on who tells its story.


The Role of the Museum

When TMoCA was inaugurated by Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at the height of Iran’s oil boom in 1977, it was lauded around the world for its impressive collection of Western art. Iran, a nation the world has come to know as repressive, was then open to the world and free. 

To put things in perspective: The museum was inaugurated the same year as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and 25 years before the Tate Modern in London. Works by art history’s most esteemed names—Francis Bacon, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, and many more—were there. The collection is now valued at $3 billion to $4 billion, according to Kamran Diba, the museum’s architect and former director. Its vision was to display Western art alongside the work of Modern and contemporary Iranian artists.

From left: Empress Farah Pahlavi, founding patron of TMoCA; Kamran Diba, founding architect and director of TMoCA; and David Galloway, founding curator of TMoCA. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

From left: Empress Farah Pahlavi, founding patron of TMoCA; Kamran Diba, founding architect and director of TMoCA; and David Galloway, founding curator of TMoCA. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

“TMoCA is a unique institution because it is the first museum of Modern art of international standards established in the Middle East and still not surpassed,” the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi told Midnight Publishing Group News. “The museum and its world-class collection represent a symbol of modernity, which is a source of national pride for Iranians, offering collaboration with artists throughout the world.” 

Then came the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In January of that year, the Empress and the Shah fled, never to return to their country again. The Shah died in exile in 1980 while the Empress divides her time between Paris and Washington, D.C. She continues to be a fervent supporter of the Iranian art scene from afar. 


Controversial Claims

This backstory helps explain why the museum—and the narrative that surrounds it—is so precious to many Iranians. It is also why they feel aggrieved when that narrative is, in their minds, misinterpreted. 

Critics of Stein’s book, three of whom spoke to Midnight Publishing Group News, feel her story perpetuates harmful misrepresentations of the museum. When asked about these claims, the Empress, who is pictured with Stein on the cover of the book, declined to provide further comment.

Critics claim Stein takes credit for playing a larger role in the museum’s formation than she actually did. “In my opinion, Donna Stein was a young employee without much experience,” Diba, who is also the Empress’s first cousin, told Midnight Publishing Group News. As director, he was personally responsible for purchasing key works, including Andy Warhol’s Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1965), for $81,400, and Jasper Johns’s Passage Two (1966) for $255,000.

Andy Warhol’s Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1965). Courtesy of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

Andy Warhol’s Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) (1965). Courtesy of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

TMoCA’s acquisition process was a collaborative effort. In two interviews given to Dubai-based journalist Myrna Ayad for Canvas and The Art Newspaper, Farah Diba Pahlavi credited founding director Diba, chief of staff Karim Pasha Bahadori, founding curator David Galloway, and lastly, Stein for “shaping the collection.” 

While Stein claimed to have played a central role in selecting works on paper (including prints, drawings, and photographs) as well as paintings and sculptures, Diba said she was involved largely in building the photography collection, which he does not consider to be the strongest part of the museum’s holdings. 

“Going through the pages of the photography collection catalogue alongside prints which she helped assemble, it quickly became obvious to anyone in the know that none of the key pieces that should have been acquired as part of a worthwhile collection of contemporary art of the time were in fact acquired,” he told Midnight Publishing Group News. 

Author and curator Donna Stein. Courtesy of Skira.

Author and curator Donna Stein. Courtesy of Skira.

Stein—who had previously worked as an assistant curator in the prints and illustrated books department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was hired after traveling to Iran on a National Endowment for the Arts grant—says her contribution was underplayed because of her nationality and gender. 

“Many people took credit for the work that I had done,” Stein said, noting that the empress did not acknowledge her involvement officially until 2013, when she contributed a chapter about her experience to a book on Iranian visual culture. 

In an interview with Midnight Publishing Group News, Stein went even further than she did in the book, contending that she also advised on Iranian artists for the collection in consultation with other curators. “What I didn’t say in the book was that not only was I choosing the Western works in the collection, but I also was choosing Iranian works,” she said. (She added that she kept “careful files of both the Western and contemporary Iranian acquisitions, which I recently learned are archived at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.”)


Culture Clash

In addition to the story of TMoCA and its collection, Stein also recounts her experiences as a single American woman living in Tehran during the mid-’70s and how she was often mocked for what Iranians then saw as her unusual lifestyle. 

“Iranians at the time had no conception of women who lived alone; a woman either lived with her family or was married,” she said. “I was neither. It was a strange society for someone like myself who was young and adventurous and a hard worker.”

Kamran Diba in the center, with his predominantly female curatorial / museum staff. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

Kamran Diba in the center, with his curatorial and museum staff. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

But some in the Iranian art world interpreted her account, accompanied by her comments in international press, as what Maryam Eisler, former chair of the Middle East acquisitions committee at the Tate, called an “accusatory chronicle of an Iranian society.” Eisler points to a New York Times interview in which Stein described Iran as “the Third World” and the museum’s audience as “uneducated.” 

“Perhaps a reminder is in order to counter such stale ‘orientalist’ narratives; in fact, the ‘educated’ amongst us universally recognize Iran to be one of the greatest cradles of civilization,” Eisler said. 


Testament to Iran’s Living Memory

Against a backdrop of political repression, rising inflation, and continued sanctions in Iran, some might question why the story of the TMoCA matters at all, or why those involved in the museum are going to such lengths to, in their minds, correct the record—both in regard to Stein’s book and international news coverage. 

“Each time TMoCA’s Western art is exhibited, someone writes an article about how this is the first time this art has been seen since the revolution, usually accompanied by a photograph of a veiled woman looking at Warhol or Giacometti,” said Shiva Balaghi, a cultural historian specializing in Middle Eastern art. “Maintaining the myth of novelty—for whatever reason—becomes an act of cultural erasure. It erases the traces, often ephemeral, with which we write histories of art and develop better understandings of the role of art in society.”

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Kamran Diba.

For a country that has been secluded to the world for decades, it has always been through its art that Iran has communicated with the outside world. TMoCA is the epitome of Iran’s powerful belief in art and culture; in many ways, it is its last symbol of freedom.

“What people tend to forget is that this museum was just as much about creating an important cultural dialogue and interplay between the great Western artists of the period and their Iranian counterparts, me being one,” prominent Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli told Midnight Publishing Group News. “That, to me, is the greatest legacy of the collection—not only internationally, but also, and most importantly, for the people of Iran.”

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook: