GREECE AND OPERA
By Helena Matheopoulos
The relationship between Greece and opera is as close and vital as it is paradoxical. Opera as a genre was invented in 16th century Italy, because of Greece. In the wake of the mania for everything Greek that was the cause and essence of the Rennaissance, a group of composers, poets and noble patrons at the court of Duke Ferdinando dei Medici, - known as the Camerata (Society) and including the composers Giulio Caccini, Emilio de Cavalieri, Vincenzo Galilei and Jacopo Peri, the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and Counts Bardi and Corsi - set themselves the task of discovering the vocal music used by the ancient Greeks in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. As there are no surviving concrete data available about Greek music - notation, metre, or rhythms - the Florentine Camerata failed to fulfil their quest. But in the process they invented a completely new musical art form: opera.
The first opera ever performed was Jacopo Peri's (1561-1633) Dafne in 1597 in which the composer, who was also a distinguished singer, performed the role of Apollo. It was followed by several others, all with Greek themes, including his most successful, Euridice, in 1600, Tetide and Adone. But the composer who truly established opera as a popular new art form was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), whose masterpieces included several much loved works with Greek themes, Orfeo (1607), Arianna (1608), and Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, (1641). Opera literally took Italy by storm, with several composers of both the Neapolitan and the Venetian schools (including Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)- one of whose surviving operas, Olimpiade, was recently revived in the Greek town of Volos -, following suit and producing works, many of which had Greek themes. Indeed Naples's fabled Teatro San Carlo, the oldest and perhaps most famous and important theatre in Italy after La Scala, opened in 1737 with an opera by Domenico Sarro titled: Achille in Sciro.
Opera, or melodrama, (its Greek name), soon crossed the Alps and flourished in the classical era, through the great Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87), known as the second founder and reformer of melodrama, most of whose works - including Orfeo ed Euridice, (1762, with libretto by the poet Ranieri de Calsabigi), Telemacco (1765), Alceste (1767), Iphigenie en Aulide (1773), Iphigenie en Tauride (1779) - are based on ancient Greek heroes and heroines. Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759), followed suit, with Teseo, Oreste, Alessandro in India, Admetto and especially Semele (1744). Mozart's operas with Greek themes inclusde youthful compositions, such as the dazzling opera Mitridate, composed at the age of 14, Apollo and Hyacinthus, and one of his most moving works, Idomeneo (1781).
Greek antiquity remained a fashionable inspiration throughout the bel canto era through a plethora of Italian and German composers, including Pacini, Piccinni, Porpora Cherubini, Spontini, Paer, Mayr, , to name but a few. However, the apotheosis of its influence can be found in the 'Greek' operas of Richard Strauss (1864 -1949) - Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Aegyptische Helena, Daphne and Die Liebe der Danae. The influence continued into the 20th and is continuing into the 21rst century with composers from Igor Stravisky and Karl-Orff to Harrison Birtwhistle and John Tavener drawing inspiration from both the classical and the Byzantine heritage of Greece: its Greek-Orthodox musical tradition as well as folk themes.
But the paradox in the relationship between Greece and opera lies in the fact that while this sublime new art form was invented in its name, Greece itself, which was languishing under Ottoman rule from 1453 until 1829, was not only unable to participate and contribute to it, but blithely unaware of its existence! Only in the Ionian islands, which had escaped Ottoman domination and thrived as Venetian protectorates for over 300 years before becoming briefly a French and then a British colony (until they were formally returned to Greece by Britain in 1864 as a gift to its second King since the liberation, the Danish born George I, brother of England's Queen Alexandra) did opera flourish as a much loved form of entertainment. Indeed the Ionian, and especially the Corfiote, public was known to be so vocally knowledgeable and demanding that the certificate Applaudito a Corfu granted by the Theatre's governing committee to artists who had won an ovation, became an almost instant passport to Italian and German opera houses and used to be cabled by agents to their Directors as a recommendation for their singers.
This is where the first opera house, the charming Teatro San Giacomo, which opened its doors as a full scale theatre in 1720, the first orchestras and the first operas by Greek composers appeared, the first of which was Don Crepusculo in 1815, by Nicholas Halikiopoulos-Mantzaros (1795-1872), the composer of the Greek National Anthem. It had an Italian libretto as did all the operas produced at the San Giacomo until 1867 when the first opera with a Greek libretto was staged, Spiros Xyndas's O Ypopsifios Vouleftis (The Parliamentary Candidate). Other notable Ionian composers include Pavlos Karrer from Zante, Eduardos Lambelet and the most famous of them all, Spiros Samaras (1861-1917), the composer of the official Olympic Hymn. Many of his works, including Flora Mirabilis and Rhea, were performed at the Teatro San Carlo, La Scala and Munich.(Rumour has it that the famous aria "Ridi Pagliaccio" from Leoncavallo's popular opera I Pagliacci was based on an aria from Samaras's only failed opera at La Scala, Lionella, and which Samaras allegedly "gave" to Leoncavallo after the latter remarked on how much he liked it!).
On the mainland, opera began to be popular in the-mid 1840s, after visits by Italian touring companies. Before long, Greek composers such as Dionysios Lavrangas (1864-1941), produced new operas and formed their own company in this case To Elliniko Melodrama in 1900. Among the best known are Manolis Kalomiris (1883-1962), who also formed a company, 'Ethnikos Melodramatikos Omilos' (National Opera Society), which was closed in 1935 and whose pioneering opera O Protomastoras ('The Master Builder') with a libretto by Nikos Kazantzakis, was premiered in 1916, and was followed by To Daktylidi tis Manas ('Mother's Ring') in 1919, Xotika Nera ('Haunted waters') in 1950 and Constantine Palaiologos in 1962. Other distinguished names include Menelaos Pallandios (1914- ) and, among contemporaries, Yannis Markopoulos, (The Mask of Orpheus). Thanos Mikroutsikos, (Eleni), Perikles Koukos, i Yorgos Kouroupos, and the 'national composer', Mikis Theodorakis of Zorba fame, who in recent years has turned his hand to opera, based exclusively on ancient Greek heroines such as Medea, Antigone and Lysistrata while the first perforamnces of George Hadzinassios' first attempt at opera, El Greco, are eagerly awaited
As far as performance is concerned, there have always been distinguished Greek artists on the international operatic circuit: both conductors, such as the great Dimitris Mitropoulos, and singers such as Alexandra Triandi (1901-77), and Margarita Pera (1908-89) who enjoyed international careers, the former chielfy as a Lieder singer. Then came the unique and inimitable Maria Callas who revolutionized opera through performances of searing emotional intensity and penetration that endowed it with a unique degree of musical-dramatic unity. This 'Callas Revolution', supported at the time by inspired stage directors such as Wieland Wagner and Luchino Visconti, thoroughly modernized opera, enabling it to survive and thrive in an era dominated by cinematic and televisual criteria of dramatic credibility.
At the same time, other great Greek singers were developing important international careers: the Metropolitan opera-based mezzo Elena Nicolai (short for Nicolaidi), the bass Nicola Zaccaria (Nikos Zahariou)., the baritone Constantino Ego (Engolfopoulos), both of whom sang with Callas, the mezzo Arda Mandikian and the soprano Jeanette Pilou. The next Greek operatic megastar was the baritone Kostas Paskalis, one of the most distinguished international interpreters of, among others, Rigoletto, Nabucco, Don Giovanni and Macbeth (arguably the greatest Macbeth of his day), and the sopranos Teresa Stratas, a delectable artist and big star at the Metropolitan Opera and Elena Suliotis, whose career was spectacular but short-lived. They were followed by soprano Vasso Papantoniou, a distinguished and effective interpreter of bel canto, Herbert von Karajan's favourite mezzo, Agnes Baltsa, whose expressive, highly individual voice and rivetting stage presence propelled to operatic superstardom, and the late lamented mezzo Tatiana Troyanos, a compelling artist who gave herself to her roles body and soul.
The mid Nineties saw a remarkable revival of opera in Greece, both in terms of its widening popularity and the remarkable flowering of plentiful Greek vocal talent, including lyric soprano Elena Kelessidi, a frequent and popular performer at Covent Garden, Irene Tsirakidis, who has also made successful appearances at Covent Garden, and several others, including some of tonight's performers. Of course, it's always difficult to analyze why there should be a sudden abundance of good voices in this or that place. But as far as Greece is concerned, several recent developments have contributed to the nurturing of emerging talent to international standards: Firstly, the impetus and constant support offered by the Athens Megaron - along with Tokyo's Suntory Hall one of the world's two finest modern concert halls - which was inaugurated in spring 1991 and which, through the unstinting efforts of its Founder and President, Christos Lambrakis, a passionate and profound connoisseur of the voice, has proved a decisive factor in the discovery and development of local talent. Secondly, the marked improvement of performing standards at the Athens National Opera.(Which was founded in 1939 and inaugurated in 1940 with Samaras's Rhea and where Callas made her debut during the war). Thirdly, the opening of the Megaron at Thessaloniki and the emergence of smaller local opera houses which can now provide platforms for many more young singers than was previously possible. Lastly, the invaluable financial support provided by the Maria Callas and the Alexandra Triandi Scholarships (the former started by Callas herself with the cachet from her 1960 performances of Norma at Epidaurus), that enable deserving young voices to polish and perfect their technique and performance style abroad, with distinguished teachers and coaches. This, combined with the generosity of individual sponsors, has enabled some of tonight's artists to reach a standard that makes it possible for them to appear with orchestras such as the Cameristi della Scala in venues such as the Teatro dal Verme, in the heart of Milan, the Mecca of all true opera lovers. .
One fervently hopes that tonight's performers, some of whom are already enjoying international careers, (and some of whom, including Marita Paparizou and Christoforos Stamboglis benefited from the above mentioned scholarships), will continue Greece's distinguished operatic record. They have been chosen both because of the quality and beauty of their voices, their stage presence and expressive musicality and also because they complement each other and give some idea of the scope and variety of contemporary Greek talent.
Artistic Admibistrator, Apollonian Enterprises and author of:
- MAESTRO: ENCOUNTERS WITH CONDUCTORS OF TODAY
(Hutchinsons, 1982 and Garzanti, 1983);
- BRAVO: TODAY'S TENORS, BARITONES AND BASSES DISCUSS THEIR ROLES (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986 and Garzanti, 1987);
- DIVA: GREAT SOPRANOS AND MEZZOS DISCUSS THEIR ART
- DIVA: THE NEW GENERATION;
(Little, Brown, 1998);
- THE GREAT TENORS
(The Vendome Press, 1999);
- PLACIDO DOMINGO: MY ROLES IN OPERA
(Little, Brown, 2000).