ATHENS – The story of the rise of an opera singer often has an “overnight sensation” feel to it, casual and passionate fans alike forgetting the years of education and toil that necessary precede the moment when the Opera world finally takes notice. Mezzo-soprano, Maria Zoi has been praised by critics for her wide vocal range and her unique, colorful timbre. She recently won 3rd Prize in the Edward M. Murray International Opera Competition 2019 and in the 2019/2020 season she will appear with the Metropolitan Opera Guild, among others. Recently, she shared with The National Herald some of her story.
The National Herald: How did you decide to pursue a singing career?
Maria Zoi: I started taking piano lessons at the age of five and became a member of a children’s choir in my hometown of Trikala in Thessaly. When I was twelve my music teacher at the time encouraged me to take part in a national singing competition for children and was very surprised to win first prize. This award was the catalyst that made me dream of a professional singing career as one of my main goals in life.
TNH: When did you realize that you have a special vocal gift?
MZ: When I was fifteen I was very fortunate to actually meet Mikis Theodorakis and sing for him. He was impressed by the maturity of my interpretation and said that my voice color matched perfectly with his music. Soon afterwards he urged me to record a CD, Δρομοι Παλιοι (Dromoi Palioi) with some of his most popular songs. The CD was a success loved by audiences and critics. During that time I was presented by Maria Farantouri to an Athenian audience in my debut at the Ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theatre. For several years afterwards I performed with the Mikis Theodorakis Orchestra in numerous concerts at home and on tour and in other historical venues such as the ancient theatre of Ephesos in Asia Minor. In recent years I have concentrated on the study of Rossini roles that involve a lot of coloratura or virtuosic vocal ornamentation for which I have been blessed with a natural ability.
TNH: After such an impressive start in Greek Art Music at an early age what made you switch to Classical/Opera? What advice would you give to aspiring operatic artists?
MZ: Although at twenty two I was already an accomplished singer in Greece, I was eager to broaden my music horizons and had a feeling that there was much left to explore about my vocal capabilities which prompted me to study classical singing. After I received my Diploma with Distinction in 2009, for the next two years or so I focused on repertory and operatic diction study and took part in master classes by internationally acclaimed Opera singers. These formative years made it clear that developing as an operatic singer to reach the world stage is like an athlete competing at international sports competitions aspiring to reach the Olympics. It requires years of studying, discipline, total devotion and sacrifice.
TNH: Could you tell us about your first professional steps as an opera singer in Greece?
MZ: I was very lucky to make my operatic debut at the Greek National Opera as Apparition in Macbeth and the next season I was offered the role of Flora Bervoix in La Traviata. From then on I cooperated with nearly all important symphony orchestras in our homeland, including the Greek National Radio Symphony Orchestra, State Orchestra of Thessaloniki, City of Thessaloniki Symphony Orchestra, City of Athens Symphony Orchestra and others. During his period I was also a regular performer at the Athens Concert Hall, Royal Theatre of Thessaloniki, and the Parnassos Literary Society Concert Hall. In 2012 one of my dreams became true as I performed as main soloist at an impressive production of the Modern Cantata Ode to Oppenheimer based on poetry by Nikiforos Vrettakos and composed by Nikos Kallitsis at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
TNH: Why did you decide to leave Greece and how did your career evolve abroad?
MZ: I realized that if I was to compete at an international level I had to leave Greece and relocate to one of the great centers of classical music to continue my studies. In 2013 I passed the admission exam for the doctorate level program Meisterklasse Gesang at the University of Music in Munich as one of five applicants from all over the world and graduated two years later. During my four years of living in Germany I had the opportunity to build my repertory and to sing in renowned venues. Earlier this year I was invited to take part in the Edward M. Murray International Opera Competition in New York where I won the third prize. After perfecting my coloratura technique for many years, it was an honor and a career milestone to be recently invited by The Metropolitan Opera Guild to participate in their New York showcase The Art of Ornamentation led by Jane Marsh.
TNH: What was the most memorable moment of your career so far?
MZ: Without doubt it was working with Maestro Jose Carreras. In early 2019 I was accepted among hundreds of applicants from all over the world to take part in his Master Class at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro, Italy. At the end of the program I was among the 11 singers and the only mezzo-soprano he chose to take part in the final concert on the stage of Auditorium Pedrotti. In an interview with the newspaper Il Resto del Carlino Maestro Carreras expressed his conviction that I would have a promising operatic career. I cherish my interactions with Carreras deep in my heart because they inspire me to go higher. It is widely known that Carreras survived a diagnosis of acute leukemia in the mid-80s by undergoing a bone marrow transplant. At 72 he is still singing around the world to benefit the Jose Carreras Leukemia Research Institute he founded and endowed. Who am I to shirk from achieving my dreams?
TNH: What do you wish to achieve by the time you reach the pinnacle of your career?
MZ: I imagine of singing my favorite roles from the lyric mezzo-soprano repertory with my own unique style on the world stage. I also wish to sing again in my homeland on the new stage of the Greek National Opera at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and be an ambassador for Greek Art and Music through my work. Last but not least I hope to help younger operatic artists with a musical gift to achieve their potential.