Diva Back From the Dead

by Terry Teachout, November 14 2018

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Maria Callas gave a concert last week at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. That’s what the sign outside the hall said, anyway, even though the greatest operatic soprano of the 20th century has been dead since 1977. Nevertheless, she’s currently touring Europe, the U.S. and South America, with stops in more than a dozen additional cities between now and March, and if the turnout in Storrs was any indication, plenty of people are going to buy tickets.

Fine—but to what?

Yes, Callas is definitely dead, and no, that wasn’t her on stage at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, singing arias by Bellini, Bizet, Gounod, Ponchielli, Puccini and Verdi (including the popular “Habañera” from “Carmen”) with a 60-piece orchestra conducted by Eímear Noone. Nevertheless, “Callas in Concert” really happened, and those who saw it got their first taste of a technology that has the potential to revolutionize the concert business.

The “Callas Hologram Tour,” as it’s subtitled, is produced by BASE Hologram, an entertainment company that has also sent the late Roy Orbison “on tour” and is planning to do the same with Amy Winehouse next year. Using a modernized version of a 19th-century “magic” technique called “Pepper’s Ghost,” a video of Callas is projected onto a transparent screen in such a way as to make it appear that she is standing at center stage, flanked by two groups of orchestral musicians. While her full-color image is not in fact a real hologram, it closely resembles one. The 3-D “Callas” is translucent: You can see the orchestra players through her white gown as she walks past them. Otherwise, she looks startlingly, even disorientingly, like a living person lighted by a tightly focused pinspot.

The ghostly image of Callas was created by filming the movements of a body double who was coached to act like the singer by Stephen Wadsworth, the director of the 2011 Broadway revival of “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s play about Callas. Mr. Wadsworth used as his source material surviving films of telecasts from the ’50s and early ’60s in which the real Callas sang the same arias that the virtual Callas performs in “Callas in Concert.” (The audio comes from her commercial recordings.) Not only does the body double mimic the soprano’s slower-than-slow hand gestures and other physical mannerisms with eerie exactitude, but her face has been digitally altered to resemble the singer’s. When you watch the results—I sat in the fourth row of the Jorgensen Center, fairly close to the stage—the resemblance is close enough to fool even an expert.

The notion of combining live and virtual performers is nothing new, of course. Long before the rise of CGI, Carl Reiner and Steve Martin did it in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” a 1982 screen comedy in which actual film-noir footage of such movie stars of the ’40s as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck was seamlessly woven into an affectionate spoof of the genre. And back in the ’20s, player pianos were marketed with special concerts at which a soloist whose playing was reproduced on a piano roll “performed” a concerto accompanied by a live conductor and orchestra. Go to YouTube and you can see a telecast of a 1988 concert in which Percy Grainger, the great Australian pianist-composer, “appears” with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony via a pair of piano rolls of the Grieg Piano Concerto, one of Grainger’s specialties, that were cut in 1921. At first, the members of the audience are clearly disconcerted by the spectacle of an invisible soloist—they titter nervously when the piano starts playing itself—but then they buy into the experience, and at concerto’s end they unhesitatingly cheer Grainger, who died in 1961, a quarter-century before Mr. Davis gave the downbeat.

Much the same thing happened in Storrs last week. You could tell during the first couple of arias that the audience wasn’t quite sure how to respond to a soloist who wasn’t really there. Soon, though, the hall was filled with shouts of “Brava!” Even more revealing was the response of my wife, who loves grand opera but isn’t a full-fledged buff and had never previously shown any special interest in Maria Callas. As we left the hall, she said, “Now I can finally see what all the fuss is about!”

For my part, I never saw Callas on stage, but I’ve loved her passionately expressive singing ever since I first heard her records in college, and I’m closely familiar with her performance films. Even so, I found “Callas in Concert” to be revelatory, though it wasn’t until the first encore, Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte,” which comes from “Tosca,” one of the operas with which the soprano is most closely identified, that I connected on an emotional level with the virtual Callas. Tears came to my eyes without warning, and I thought, This must be how it felt to have really seen her on stage.

What next? Digital Domain, a Los Angeles visual-effects company, is already scanning the faces of movie stars so that their digitized replicas can appear in films of the future. As for musicians, I can think of plenty of candidates for the holographic-concert treatment, starting with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. But the big question has now been answered: What BASE Hologram has done to Callas and Orbison is far more than just another clever gimmick with a catchy name. It’s a technological development of real consequence, one that concert presenters throughout the world are bound to find irresistible. Why take a chance on booking an up-and-coming singer when you can hire a legendary one for a fraction of the cost—and be sure that she won’t catch a cold and cancel at the last minute?

So get ready to welcome Maria Callas to a concert hall near you. She’s coming…back.