NEW YORK – Byzantium was resurrected at Carnegie Hall this spring in the form of a rock opera by a group centered on the band Porphyra, proving the value of energy and imagination in the community’s quest to promote Hellenism among Non-Greeks and Greeks alike, especially young people.
With original music and lyrics by Billy Chrissochos, directed by Donna McLaughlin Wyant, and with participation by the Greek American Folklore society, “Anna and Vladimir: The Love that ROCKED the World” brought a seminal moment in Greek and world history to life, the conversion of Russia to Orthodox Christianity, presented through the love story of Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus, and Anna Porphyrogenita, princess of Byzantium.
The driving rhythms of the overture introduced the songs and opened the musical doors to Constantinople in 988 AD.
It was a period of military and cultural revival, but the Empire was endangered by enemies on many fronts, including Vladimir.
The music, directed by Dimitris Lambrinos, and dancing choreographed by Dena Stevens brought out the glamor, hope and anxiety of the age, and the narration by Christos Alexandrou, with his tall, stately presence, spoke both to the romance and the historical background.
The musical and historical table was set by the rousing “Glorious Macedonia” that connected the military exploits and cultural achievements of Alexander the Great with Anna’s family which was known as the Macedonian Dynasty, and especially to her brother Basil II, who as commander of its armies saved the empire.
After risking his life fighting at the head of his troops, Basil II was faced with a personal sacrifice of a different order to turn Kiev from deadly enemy to ally: Vladimir was dazzled by his ambassadors’ reports about the beautiful and cultured Anna Porphyrogenita, Basil’s sister and wanted to marry Anna.
That was an unprecedented and disturbing demand for a “barbarian,” but he did not rely on the power of his soldiers: he too made a personal sacrifice. By converting to Orthodoxy, he walked away from his life of pagan pleasures, which included a harem.
“It was a love story that changed two nations forever, Alexandrou told TNH.
Anna, played by Elaine Tuttle and wearing a magnificent headdress entered stage with her ladies in waiting. It was the moment of her wedding. Vladimir sang his state of mind: “For years my soul was cold and empty, I sought pleasure in the arms of women and in the conquering of lands, but nothing filled the void inside/I was a hollow shell of a man – until, I looked into your eyes.”
“Shine,” the song that followed, is a love duet between Anna and Vladimir.
As a princess, Anna had to agree to make the penultimate of leaving her beloved City and family, but homesickness in the cold, undistinguished capital of the Rus, was inevitable. Nevertheless, love blossomed in her too: “My memories are black and white, now every frame has come into view becoming colorful and bright.”
The heart of the opera is not a tale of palace intrigue or love’s betrayal but the universals theme of the sacrifices required to make a difference in the world, and what happens after the initial rush of falling in love, the inevitable emotional shifts or even crash, which not all couples survive.
The challenges of Anna’s new life were both external – her new husband is away fighting wars and she fears for Vladimir’s life – and internal. Alexandrou intones “Anna misses the City of Gold/in her new home in Russia she is lonely and cold.”
The song “Dreamkiller” depicts Anna’s inner world though a description of her nightmares, supplemented by “The Last Cosmonaut.” The latter song was written for the Porphyra CD that inspired the opera. It projected ancient feelings into a future world, but it perfectly reflected Anna’s state of mind in the frozen north: “It’s cold, so cold I can’t feel anything. …never been so alone.”
No member of the audience would have chosen to be deprived of Tuttle’s shattering performance of the song for historical correctness.
But Anna pulled herself together and “adopts her new responsibilities with courage and determination, helping to build the cultural foundations of Russian civilization.”
When Vladimir returns, the songs “No Fear,” and “Out of Reach, further reveal the challenges they faced and that their marriage emerged from the emotional fires tempered and renewed.
“Out of reach” sends a personal message to the audience. Chrissochos said it warns about the relentless passing of time, which eventually runs out. “Don’t let life pass you by,” he said.
Chryssochos did not let life pass him by. Born in Astoria, at ten months he and his family moved to Athens, but they came back when he was nine years old. He studied political science and history at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies but music was his calling.
Proof of the project’s success was the standing ovation by New Yorkers who aren’t easily made to rise from their seats.
Chrissochos has big hopes or the opera. “Next stop, hopefully Broadway.”
Alexandrou, who has been performing since he was seven and studied music in conservatory in Athens and musical theater in London, told TNH they are back on the drawing board working on making this work as a two hour show on tour.
Alexandrou was instrumental in the process that turned the Porphyria CD into an opera to begin with. He referred Chryssochos to Wyant, who is working with him on his own show, and his role shifted from narrator/singer to creative director.
“The two of them made the whole idea happen,” Chryssochos said, but he wrote the draft script and outlined the songs. “I gave them a story with some basic ideas and they put in their own.”
Dimitri Lambrinos was the other key component. “He is a brilliant musician,” Chryssochos and Alexandrou told TNH.