The Greek National Opera pays tribute to Maria Callas
2023 is the centennial anniversary of Maria Callas’ birth and, to mark the occasion, the Greek National Opera is programming a series of events in honour of the greatest soprano of the 20th century, curated by Giorgos Koumendakis. Presented as part of this Callas tribute, which runs from April through until December 2023, will be a production of Cherubini’s Medea, an art installation in the GNO Foyer, an Opera Gala at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an exhibition at the National Library of Greece, a documentary on the unsung early years of the Greek diva, a video recital dedicated to her “first, formative repertoire,” and an educational workshop run in partnership with the Digital Media Lab (DmLab) at the Technical University of Crete.
The contributions made by Maria Callas to the operatic arts in the 20th and 21st centuries are historic and beyond doubt, given that she both revitalised the opera repertoire –bringing long-forgotten bel canto masterpieces back into the limelight– and spotlighted the importance borne by theatrical aspects of opera works thanks to her superlative dramatic performances. By means of a career spanning a little more than two decades, but also with her tumultuous and short life, Callas left a remarkable artistic legacy for generations to come; in fact, it would not be an overstatement to say that she gave opera the kiss of life, laying the foundations for its meaningful renewal – not just of the music, but moreover of how the art form is staged.
The Greek National Opera is not simply paying tribute to the great Greek soprano who brought her country renown right across the world – it is also shining a spotlight on one of its greatest founding members, since Maria Callas signed her first contract with the Greek National Opera in 1940, just a few short months after it was founded in 1939 by the visionary Kostis Bastias as a branch of the National (then known as the Royal) Theatre of Greece. From 1940 through until 1945, Callas built a name for herself in Athens as Maria Kalogeropoulou. Following the first classes she took at the Greek National Conservatoire with Maria Trivella, and alongside her subsequent studies at the Athens Conservatoire under the Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, Kalogeropoulou performed major roles at the Greek National Opera, thus garnering invaluable on-stage experience that helped her to quickly achieve her goal of carving out a major international career.
Fifteen years later, the then internationally renowned diva –La Callas– would return to the Greek National Opera to realise a world-first idea dreamed up by Kostis Bastias, who had once more been appointed Director of Greece’s only opera house: to stage the first opera performances ever given at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus in its long and illustrious history – namely, Bellini’s Norma in 1960, and Cherubini’s Medea in 1961. As a token of her gratitude to the Greek National Opera for helping her take the first steps in her career as an artist, Callas donated her fees from both these Epidaurus productions for the creation of a scholarship supporting young opera artists – a programme that took her name.
The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports has inducted celebrations marking 100 years since the birth of Maria Callas into the official list of anniversaries to be commemorated by UNESCO in 2023. This annual list includes eminent personalities honoured by UNESCO for their contributions to the development of the sciences, education, culture, and communications, with a view to recognising and promoting their universality and importance.
The events that feature in this Greek National Opera tribute to Maria Callas will present precious, never-before-seen materials drawn from the GNO Historical Archive, which in recent years has acquired some major archival collections. The collector Dimitris Pyromallis recently gifted the GNO Archive his expansive collection devoted to Maria Callas, comprising thousands of items that include recordings, rare publications, documents, photographs, personal effects, and more. The GNO has also recently acquired the photographic archive of Kleisthenes, that includes rare shots of Callas’ appearances in Greece, as well as the archive of the maestro Leonidas Zoras, who conducted Callas’ first GNO performances, and that of the journalist Achilleas Mamakis – the Director of the Athens Festival during the 1950s who invited Callas to give a recital at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in 1957. Furthermore, for the purposes of this tribute, the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive (ELIA) of the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation (MIET) has granted the GNO use of archival materials drawn from the Katina Paxinou – Alexis Minotis Archive.
The Artistic Director of the Greek National Opera, Giorgos Koumendakis, notes: “Maria Callas is an artist that shaped the very history of the Greek National Opera. Just a few years before the phenomenon that was Callas would storm into every corner of the globe, raiding the hearts of opera devotees everywhere, Maria Kalogeropoulou set out on a difficult path in an Athenian wartime setting. It was 1940 when the founding Director of our opera house, the great Kostis Bastias, offered the young artist her first contract while still a student at the Athens Conservatoire. The training Callas received and stage experience she gained during the years she lived in Greece laid solid foundations for the next phase of her career, which began in 1947, in Verona. She would return to Greece in 1957 –by then an international star– to give a recital at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Three years later, Kostis Bastias would invite her to perform the lead role in the first opera production ever staged at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Productions of Bellini’s Norma in 1960 and Cherubini’s Medea in 1961 would pen a new chapter in the history of the most perfect and celebrated ancient Greek theatre, where performances of ancient drama have been staged since the 2nd century BCE.
With this programme, presented to mark the centennial of Maria Callas, we hope to showcase her connections to our opera house, but also to connect younger generations with the legendary Callas as a shining example of talent and hard work, of dedication and impeccability and brilliance.
I would like to give special thanks to Dimitris Pyromallis, who endowed the GNO with his magnificent collection dedicated to Maria Callas, a collection he created with immense devotion and love – one he has worked on from an early age right through until today. Warmest thanks go to the late, great Odysseas Kyriakopoulos, Florika Kyriakopoulou, the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation, Alexandra Martinou, Dimitra Filippou, and Evgenia Karakala, whose contributions made our acquisition of the Kleisthenes Archive possible; to Stefan Mittmann for donating the archives of Leonidas Zoras and Achilleas Mamakis to the GNO; and to the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive (ELIA) of the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation (MIET) for lending us invaluable archival materials.
For making our major co-production of Medea with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago a reality, thanks must go to the Lead Donor of the GNO –the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF)– and to the production sponsor, Piraeus Bank.
For the programme’s art exhibition, gala, and documentary, I would like to thank the Public Power Corporation (PPC) for their generous sponsorship, which marks the launch of a major new partnership.”
Please find the full program around the Callas anniversary here.