Bel Canto in a Time of War

by Tician Papachristou

Love of opera preceded me by at least two generations. My grandfather, George, who lived with us in Athens during my childhood, spent much of his abundant free time in his room. He loved to whistle, and various operatic tunes would emanate from there, among them, and frequently enough for me to have memorized it, Siébel's youthful aria from Gounod’s Faust.

Tician Papachristou

Tician Papachristou

My father, Niko, who was an excellent whistler himself, could claim a significantly broader repertoire. He could place music in the right opera and knew the well-known performers of the past (“Ah, Galli-Curci! Ah, Gigli!”) - indeed, he had seen many of them in Athens and Berlin, where he studied architecture and met my mother Lotte. But I bested him and my grandfather once, when I was about twelve. We had just seen La Bohème and were whistling some of the arias, but we couldn’t recall Marcello and Rodolfo’s Act IV duet…until little me reproduced it perfectly, provoking my father’s usual refrain, “The boy is a genius.”

There were neither records nor a record player in the house. We did have a radio, however. Its scratchy, squeaky sound brought us occasional news broadcasts and some bouncy music. But opera? Out of the question.

My parents, of course, met at the opera - where else? It makes a good story and I’ve included it in my memoir. Here is some of it:

It’s the early twenties. Lotte and her friend Anne go to a gala event at the Berliner Staatsoper one evening. It’s the premiere of Aïda with a stellar cast and an audience of Berlin’s who is who. Unused to such pomp, the girls take in the chandeliers, the bejeweled bosoms and starched white shirts. Still entranced, Lotte feels a movement next to her. A quick glance sideways reveals the presence of a dark young man, wrapped in his overcoat, sallow, bony features, absorbed in the program - interesting. As the first sounds rise from the orchestra she sneaks another look to the right and starts. He is looking right at her! What a lovely smile! As Radames is declaring his love for Aïda she notices that he is totally absorbed. As the first act comes to an end in a burst of applause he leans over and whispers “did you like it?” Startled she blurts “Yes” and lest the opportunity is lost adds daringly “and you?” “It was dream for me, I love the opera.” He rolls his r’s and misses the umlaut, she thinks. Adorable.

And so it began. He took the poor girl back to his country, where Lotte enjoyed the  sunshine, made new friends, struggled with the language, and became pregnant.  
Happy childhood years followed, busy with play, grammar school, a couple of trips to Germany with Lotte; but no opera - yet. I must have been ten or eleven when my father took me to the plush Royal Theater to see Lehár's Merry Widow, in an amusing Greek language version of the Viennese operetta. I loved it. Unlike opera, the plot was romantic and cheerful, the music easy to whistle, just the right tone for my age. I would call it an introduction - better yet, an initiation.

The happy prewar years came sadly to an end when Mussolini’s armies attacked Greece, joined by the Germans, bringing several years of brutal occupation. Opera emerged for my father and me as one of the few bright lights during those hard times.

Known rather pretentiously as the “Lyric Stage,” the Athens Opera was housed quite unpretentiously behind a shabby façade, squeezed among similar commercial buildings on Academy Street in the center of Athens. The interior wasn’t much better. I still remember the minimalist folding plywood seats, which were the cause of much discomfort.  Still, this was our opera house, a refuge from the miserable world outside. Once hooked, we couldn’t get enough of it.

As I said, most of the performers, chorus and soloists, sang in Greek. This did not disturb us. On the contrary, it brought the story closer, and besides, it was the music that mattered. In fact, one day a group of Italian soloists came to sing Lucia di Lammermoor with the local Greek chorus. Since neither side could speak the language of the other, it was decided that each would sing in their own. It turned out to be a wonderful performance, received with enthusiasm by the local audience. I realized in later years how little the meaning of individual words matters to me. The sound of the language, however - the color, the cadence, even if I don’t understand a single word, is an essential part of the music. I have two recordings of Eugene Onegin, one in English, one in Russian, and I much prefer Tchaikovsky’s music when sung in Russian.

A young ingenue was making a stir on the stage in those days, but she didn’t seem quite fit for a major role - until she sang, that is. “This Maria Kalogeropoulou seems to have talent,” said my father, “although she still has a way to go. So young, just turned seventeen.” Some time later, the Athens Opera announced the staging of Tosca featuring the debut of Miss Kalogeropoulou in the leading role. “This we’ve got to see,” said my father. It was a triumph. Not only was her voice remarkable, but young Maria had a stage presence rarely seen at the Lyric. She had already attracted the attention of several Italian and German officers who could claim prewar experience in theater, one or two with established reputations. None seemed to think that she was too young and inexperienced to move on to a serious career, so it came as no surprise when she left Athens as soon as the occupation came to an end.

Many years later, while visiting my mother at her apartment in Athens, I made a surprising discovery while walking past the apartment building next to hers. A brass plaque mounted next to the front door roughly read: HERE LIVED MARIA KALAS  l938-1945.

At that time in my life, opera was a rather brief intimate pleasure while the world outside was ravaged by fear, destruction, famine, and death. One after another, Carmen, Lucia, Tosca, Rodolfo, Radamès, and all the others drew us away to their own world of art, passion, and beauty.
In the many years since then opera has come a long way. Housed in magnificent halls, accessible electronically the world over, sung and played beautifully, it is better than ever.  And the seats are very comfortable.