For the finale of Georges Bizet’s beloved opera Carmen, the titular character is killed by her rejected lover in front of the bullring in Seville, however the fifth of these Seven Deaths begins with a tug of war between another fictional couple, with the assassin Dafoe in black, wielding a rope and knife, and Abramović dressed in the full traje de luces (suit of lights) as worn by the traditionally male bullfighter, albeit modified and re-designed by Burberry’s principal designer, Riccardo Tisci. In their final embrace, Dafoe indeed plunges the knife into her stomach, as Callas warns all those who profess to love Carmen that they should be on their guard and vice versa – as she is both prey and predator.
“He has played multiple roles: my lover, my father, my killer,” says Abramović of her frequent double act with Willem Dafoe, who here plays the various operatic roles of Alfredo, Cavaradossi, Otello, Pinkerton, José, Edgardo, Pollione, as well as Maria Callas’s husband, Aristotle Onassis. “Working with him was really critical, because he taught me how to act. In the case of Carmen, there is a moment of overpowering – who is taking the rope, him or me? And at the moment of killing, that has to be as real as possible.”
The themes of unrequited love and betrayal are not merely operatic tropes either, but resonate with many solo works by Abramović. Her performance Lips of Thomas (1975), for example, involved her masochistically carving a cross into her own belly in honour of a brief affair with an Austrian artist, while she explores the specific threat of the knife in the 1973 performance of Rhythm 10, a dangerous spin on an old Slavic drinking game in which she attempted to stab the gaps between her splayed fingers using ten different blades (illustrated above).