Tag Archives: Maria Callas

Don’t underestimate the Athenians

12 Oct

All you read in the news is stories of poverty, shock and horror from Athens. What doesn’t get reported quite as widely is the perseverance and mettle of the Athenians and how the battered artistic institutions are responding to the financial crash.

Every year since 1977, when Maria Callas passed away on 16th September, the anniversary of her death, a unique event in the Greek classical music calendar takes place, a concert at the Herod Atticus Amphitheatre in her memory. This year due to financial pressures this concert didn’t take place. Instead the National Opera of Greece took to the streets  (as they have done many times in the last few years to promote their work) and brought arias that Callas sang in her illustrious career to the streets and squares of Athens. The processional event was attended by at least 5.000 people, starting at the New Acropolis Museum and concluding with a full orchestral and soloist recital on the steps of the National Archaeological Museum (in whose rooms and garden I spent many of my childhood summers) A venue suitably a stone’s throw away from the flat that the Greek-American diva rented during her stay.

Every time you think of Greece as the pariah of the European family do also spare a thought for the indomitable spirit of us Greeks. We didn’t give up during four centuries of Ottoman occupation and whatever the difficulties thrown at us we always find a way to come together and celebrate what makes us unique. So instead of thinking of all the negatives, let’s watch the Athenians assemble to celebrate the life and work of Maria Callas and regain some pride via the power of music and the collective memories of a great artist.

The Glamazon question*

2 Feb

For days I had been reading demeaning little snide comments against a piece that Danielle de Niese wrote for the New York Times. It was a fashion blog and it was not exactly claiming to be a de profundis look at her performing career or the world of opera.

When I raised the issue on Twitter yesterday morning having had the hunch, that a lot of the comments came from other ladies and that maybe they were envious of an attractive fellow colleague getting this ‘wrong type of media attention‘. The piece was roundly dismissed as fluff and shallow self-promotion. Just a consumerist, fashion label loving rant with no merit. I just found the reaction to be surprisingly humourless and not in accordance to the usual etiquette amongst colleagues. If the article annoyed you just let it go by, it will be forgotten in a couple of weeks.

To her credit de Niese responded with fairly good humour and pointing the obvious that I mentioned from the start. But this storm in a very small teacup made me think about ideas of promotion for a niche scene like opera.

Of course the two big questions are how to get a classical/operatic singers in a mass media medium like the NYT / a major TV channel and if glamour has a place within the operatic circuit.

The first question seems to be the source of most consternation by performers as it point to two obvious trends at getting mass media attention. It is either to diss you colleagues (a certain pop tenor comes to mind) or to talk about your pets, clothing, ways to spend your dosh …you get the idea. I would love to be able to open any paper worldwide and not to be amazed that there is an insightful article about a composer or musician that focuses on their works and career only…but I would be terribly naive to expect that.

The Classical and Opera category has been relegated to the back pages of listings magazines e.g. London edition of Time Out has the listings and feature after the main (not aptly named) Music section. It’s obvious the pop/rock scene pays Time Out a lot of money for all the gig adverts, while the Classical section has only one advert from the ROH and one from the Barbican over just four pages. Mass market publications like Time Out and all the major broadsheets are commercial enterprises that thrive on advertising, most classical and operatic venues have minuscule advertising capabilities that furtherly puts them in the margin. For a wide swathe of readers the whole classical scene is invisible, with major documentaries on opera and performances frequently being relegated to minor channels, no wonder the profile is low. On that front Miss de Niese at least showed the average Joe that reads the NYT that there are beautiful, vibrant opera singers out there, totally against the expectation for monstrous sopranos with horned helmets. And that is serious publicity, which benefits everyone with an interest in the scene or anyone that makes their living as a performer.

The question about glamour and performers is another thorny one. As I get as annoyed by seeing hyper airbrushed images of artists that are trying to sell classical to an audience used to pop iconography. But we have to concede that it is part of the whole package and we cannot pretend it doesn’t matter and discount it as record company fluff. Believe it or not good looking performers create a different set of expectations for a wider audience, they are an almost reassuring sign that maybe classical music and opera is not an arcane world inhabited by strange looking people who live only for their craft and nothing else. Any solo artist in any capacity (and increasingly orchestras) have realised that what they wear and how they look on covers helps them sell more.

Being popular and selling a lot of CDs and downloads is not an anathema, it should be the target of any artist that gives their all and want to be heard by as many people possible. Almost 35 years since the death of Maria Callas her recordings for EMI still sell like hot cakes. You can attribute that enduring success to her archetypal look of the glamorous diva, all bonnets and beautiful silk dresses. And of course her captivating presence in those recordings.

Sorry ladies (that had issues with Danielle’s fashion blog), she is continuing on a long line of glamorous singers that can do the day job with distinction and yet manage to captivate interest from outside the rather myopic world of opera. And even if you don’t want to recognise it, any mention of opera or classical performance by the non specialist media is an antidote for obscurity and irrelevance. And for goodness sake LIGHTEN UP!

*with apologies to RuPaul

Cherubini’s Medea, Maria Kalogeropoulou* and the start of a lasting obsession

11 Mar

Callas filming Medea in Turkey

In the last fifteen years I have been exposed to a lot of singers but one that will always have a central place in my heart and mind is Callas. My first encounter was through the media in Greece, for years seeing photographs and brief excerpts of performances. They were intriguing but had no suitable opportunities to investigate further.

My best friend at school (also a George, not surprisingly) was a curious, arty guy and we were discussing that it would be fun to try and get some student standby tickets for the opera house in Athens. A few weeks later we saw a performance of Rigoletto and the whole spectacle made a great impact on us and decided to go back for more. The next year (1997) it was the anniversary of Callas’ death and the Megaron (the splendid Athens Concert Hall) revived Cherubini’s Medea in Italian for the occasion. It was very tricky getting tickets for it and unfortunately didn’t manage to get any to see Grace Bumbry perform, but we got to see Rosalind Plowright who was in rather bad voice on the night. An interesting fact was that it was conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario, who had conducted Callas’ last few Toscas at Covent Garden (of course at the time I was oblivious to this fact). My best friend was obsessed with ancient Greek mythology and Medea set to music seemed a great prospect. Have to admit that we had a great time watching the drama unfold from the presidential box (which at the time was on sale as day tickets for students, which seems bizarre, but true).

A couple of days later, armed with the knowledge from the programme, that Callas had recorded the role in the studio in 1957, went to a couple of small record shops that specialised in classical and opera repertoire. None of them could help me, the answer I got was…oh it’s such an old recording, buy something more recent blah blah blah. So I walked into Metropolis, the largest music store in Athens and rushed to the miniscule classical department and asked for Callas’ Medea. The assistant looked it up that they did not have it in stock and offered to order it for me if I could wait for a few days. After I count my pocket money and was satisfied I had enough, I asked him to order it for me. (Ah how much easier has this process been made today with Amazon and Spotify?) 4-5 days later I got a phone call that Medea was waiting for me! Got myself on a bus and central Athens, here I come! I remember the assistant showing me the disc set asking me if it was the right item, I took a look at the cover and a Callas with long hair and intensely outstretched arms was the heroine I had imagined.

I think the fact that the live performance was about a week behind me when I listened for the first time to the recording, accentuated the effect it had on me. I was taken into a trip of seduction with the lush sound of the strings (La Scala’s highly competent orchestra), much more lush than anything a Greek orchestra could ever muster. And when it came to the appearance of Medea in front of Creonte and the Corinthians I was speechless at this moving, aggressive, knowing and still desperate character. It seemed to me to suggest more images than the live performance I had witnessed. Something I would never had thought possible. And I believe this is the first reason why Callas’ artistry matters to me, it totally transforms a character and shapes the listener’s imagination and totally transfixes. An effect totally mystical and inexplicable, especially with the shoddy 1950s-60s EMI sound engineering.

When I left Greece a few months later this double CD was one of the few things I took with me for my new life in Britain. Medea’s laments and curses filling my tiny student room and galvanising me on difficult days and keeping me company when writing art history essays based on the latest Hayward Gallery exhibition. That recording was a constant companion for at least five years and it became a familiar motif to anyone that met me at University. Every single person I became close friends with, had gone through a two hour “Medeathlon” with me. It was a sort of a rite of passage for the fledging friendship.

That Medea opened the door to all her other recordings and on to a myriad of other singers. It gave me a perfect way to escape in an exciting secret universe. That is the very reason why I get furious when I get off the cuff comments about how awful and overrated Callas is. For me she is a shinning beacon of beauty, truth and meaningful musicianship. If it wasn’t for her incandescent recordings I would possibly not have discovered, Birgit, Elisabeth, Kirsten, Renata, Giulietta, Anna, Montserrat, Beverly, Cecilia, Joyce, Anne Sofie, Patricia, Natalie, Teresa, Leontyne, Jessye, Vaso, Ebe, Angela, Joan, Katia, Shirley, Marilyn, Regina,Veronique, Fiorenza, Miriam, Regine, Magda, Kiri, Tatianna, Agnes, Petra, Karita, Hildegard, Margaret…I will always be thankful for that, dare say, life changing live Medea. And it is highly disappointing that due to copyright and licensing issues this magnificent performance it’s near impossible to buy, depriving a new generation of fans from discovering it.

*Thought it would be fun to use her full name for a change.

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