Monica Bellucci tries on the dress, and life, of Maria Callas

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Monica Bellucci tries on the dress, and life, of Maria Callas
Maria Callas, one of the most storied sopranos in opera, greeting fans at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1974. The film star Monica Bellucci embodies one of opera’s greatest divas in the solo show “Maria Callas: Letters & Memoirs,” coming to the Beacon Theater. (Larry C. Morris/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- There are opera stars, and then there is Maria Callas.

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’ exacting methods as a teacher, won a Tony Award in 1996 and is regularly revived.

This soprano’s fans — the fiercest of whom 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 actor 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’ 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 resume 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.)

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’, 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 long-standing 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 three 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 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’ physical reinvention can 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 blond 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’ 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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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