Greek National Opera marks Centennial Anniversary of Maria Callas

Maria Callas as Norma at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus in 1960 – Photo GNO Archive

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Maria Callas, regarded as the greatest soprano of the 20th century. For the rest of this year, and into January 2024, Greek National Opera are celebrating with a series of events paying homage to Callas, as part of the 2023 UNESCO Maria Callas Anniversary, presented by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports.

These celebratory events, curated by the GNO Artistic Director Giorgos Koumendakis, start with the early years of Maria Callas’ career in Greece, where she made her debut with the Company in 1940, within months of its founding as a branch of the National Theatre of Greece. Using her birth name Maria Kalogeropoulou, and still a student at the Athens Conservatoire, the young soprano gained valuable experience performing major roles at Greek National Opera until 1945.

“Maria Callas, says Koumendakis, “is an artist that shaped the very history of the Greek National Opera.” In 1947 she made her first appearance in Verona, and rapidly gained international recognition. Returning to Greece in 1957, she gave a recital at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and also appeared in the first-ever opera performances at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus – where dramas have been staged since the 2nd century BC. Callas appeared in Bellini’s Norma in 1960 and Cherubini’s Medea in 1961, notably donating her fees from both productions to create a scholarship supporting young opera artists in her name.

The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, a remnant from Ancient Greece, is regarded as the most well-preserved specimen of an Ancient Greek Theater –
Photo Julien Seguinot, Lille, France, via Wikimedia Commons

The events planned by GNO to celebrate Maria Callas’ centennial include the European premiere of David McVicar’s staging of Medea, currently running at the Stavros Niarchos Hall, in a major international co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Canadian Opera Company.

Unboxing Callas: From Callas to Medea – An Installation in Three Acts – takes place in the foyer of the Greek National Opera until 9th June. This features major exhibitions of rare photographs, documents, costumes and other personal items showcasing her life and work, including a striking, high-relief profile of Maria Callas, through which the story of Medea unfolds in a sculptural form.

An Opera Gala will be held at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in September, where Callas’ legacy in Greece is deeply rooted, featuring leading sopranos performing a Maria Callas repertoire, with the GNO Orchestra. In 1944, before she left Athens for New York, she played Smaragda in The Masterbuilder by Manolis Kalomiris, and Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Thirteen years later, in 1957, Maria Meneghini-Callas returned to the same venue to give a legendary recital as part of the Athens Festival, showcasing her vocal range and virtuosity in arias from iconic operas such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Verdi’s La forza del destino, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Thomas’ Hamlet.

The second part of the Unboxing Callas arts program – from November this year until January 2024 – is An Archival Exploration of the Dimitris Pyromallis Collection, and showcases the private stories, memories, and archival effects of the legendary opera singer, chronicling her career. All content will be presented on large worktops, as if in a lab, where researchers and artists will be classifying, conserving, recording, cataloging and reinterpreting artifacts.

A documentary titled Mary, Mariana, Maria – The Unsung Greek Years of Callas – by Vasilis Louras will be screened on 2nd December, 2023 at the Stavros Niarchos Hall, exactly 100 years after the birth of Maria Callas. This new documentary explores the life of Maria Callas focusing on her early years of arts training and performances at the Greek National Opera, and her three later appearances in Greece. It explores the difficulties which Callas faced, but despite these challenges, and just a few months later, The Metropolitan Opera offered her a contract, which marked the beginning of her international career.

From December 2023 GNO TV will be screening a free video recital celebrating the formative years of Maria Kalogeropoulou’s career. With the title Maria Callas in Greece, 1937-1945 The Repertoire Never Heard… this video will feature the repertoire which Callas performed in Athens during these years. The works will be performed in the Greek language, in the exact translations that Callas herself sang, featuring established and emerging Greek opera singers, who will perform the repertoire in chronological order. This video is a unique tribute that captures the ‘Greek’ repertoire of Maria Callas, offering Greek and international audiences a complete overview of Callas’s repertoire during the eight years she spent in Athens. 

Maria Callas 100 – Illustration by Yannis Kouroudis

Also, from September to December 2023, an educational workshop is being organised between the GNO and the Technical University of Crete. Under the title Visualizing the Voice of Maria Callas this workshop builds upon the successful ‘Interactive 3D Model of the Main Stage and Backstage Areas of the Greek National Opera’ research project, aiming to further explore the relationship between architecture and music, space and sound, by experimenting with the visualisation of Maria Callas’ voice.

Information sourced from:
Greek National Theatre programme notes
Maria Callas
Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus

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