ATHENS – Not all commemorations of the memory of even charismatic and brilliant men and women become celebrations, but when the birthday of Maria Callas – called La Divina before her tragic death at 53 years of age in 1977 – is marked with musical presentations by gifted musicians, it is as festival, and as much a spiritual as a musical event because it is clear that La Divina continues to inspire artists of every generation.
On November 22 the people of Athens and admirers of Callas who happened to be present in the city where the great soprano’s education and career began were invited by The Maria Callas Greek Society – Ελληνικός Σύλλογος Μαρία Κάλλας – to a concert in honor of the 96th anniversary of her birth at the Olympia City Music Theater Maria Callas.
The irrepressible Liana Skourli, past president of the Society, welcomed the packed hall and offered a brief but informative introduction of the Bel Canto musical technique whose history is intertwined with the rise of Opera.
Bel Canto, which inspired and was raised to new heights of musicianship and drama by Callas, was indeed honored by the remarkable performances of the evening’s featured musicians.
Katerina Ktona delighted as a soloist and shined as an accompanist on harpsichord, creating the perfect musical foundation for the ethereal voices of the members of the Canto Soave ensemble, sopranos Maria Milolidakis and Natassa Angelopoulou, and mezzo Efi Minakoulis, who also thrilled as she mastered her huge but wonderful instrument, the Renaissance lute known as the theorbo.
The music commenced its flow – like fine wine – soon after Ktona entered the darkened stage. Following the opening notes of the harpsichord the vocalists entered attired in elegant gowns of olive, mauve, and creamy white. Like angels of Bel Canto the ladies graced the Olympia’s audience with exceptional performances that were truly world class: scintillating solos, velvety duets, and dazzling trios.
The concert was titled Secret Music, Wonderful Women, and according to the invitation it delved into “the history of Italian opera, with selections from the repertoire of famous Italian singers of the 17th century, as well as compositions by charismatic female creators in whose music one discerns the roots of bel canto (meaning ‘beautiful singing’).”
The program, which included arias by composers Paisiello, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, illuminated “the musical and aesthetic links between the Renaissance and Romanticism.”
Skourli spoke about each of the nine featured composers, who ranged temporally from Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) at the height of the Baroque era and the birth of Opera, to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and the beginnings of the Romantic movement. She also spotlighted the pioneering women composers such as Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi. A sumptuous reception with excellent wine followed in the theater’s foyer, where guests could also view the permanent exhibition of photos and personal belongings of Maria Callas.
HOPES AND DREAMS FOR THE OLYMPIA
The proceeds of the event will be used to support the Society, including its efforts to create a museum dedicated to Maria Callas in the center of Athens. Liana Skourli also told The National Herald that the Society and its friends also promotes the modernization and renovation of the Olympia, which she hopes will become “a Temple of Art and Opera” in Athens.
The theater, which opened in 1958, was the home of the National Opera of Greece before moving to the magnificent new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. The Olympia, whose benefactors and current management Skourli praised, offers musical and theatrical performances of high quality throughout the year. This year’s presentations included “The Great American Songbook, a concert with Athens Big Band joined by New York’s favorite vibraphonist and Thana Alexa in April, and symphonic concerts and musical plays.