‘It’s all worth it once you’re on the stage’

A voice of quivering beauty, wrote Andrew Clark of the Financial Times, adding that Elena Kelessidi’s recent performance of I Capuletti e i Montecchi at the Royal Opera in London was the most beautiful piece of singing I’ve heard at Covent Garden for many a moon. Just before she embarks on a long series of global performances, Kelessidi will appear at the Herod Atticus Theater on Sunday, interpreting Italian and Russian arias. The concert is being organized by the Athenaeum Music Center. Born to Greek parents in Kazakhstan, Kelessidi studied music at the conservatory of Almaty. She was about to embark on her singing career when political turmoil in the region resulted in the opening of the borders. Quick decisions were taken and Kelessidi, together with her family, found herself heading for the country of her origins and dreams. Crossing the border on a bus, her first glimpse of Greece was an idyllic, bright blue sky, yet reality set in fairly quickly and the difficulties were soon apparent. I think the decision to emigrate was the right one, says Kelessidi in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. It’s what gives you strength to fight. And fight she did. It took her two years to go to her first audition at the Greek National Opera, where she was immediately given a role. While in the middle of rehearsals, however, a strike put an end to her anticipated interpretation of Madame Hertz in Mozart’s Impresarios. Another role proposal followed the end of the strike, but again the performances were canceled. She finally made her debut in Athens in 1994, in the role of Constanze in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. At the same time a singing competition at the Athens Concert Hall was being held to attract talented singers, and Kelessidi’s decision to enter the competition proved pivotal to her career. Her appearance caught the attention of Peter Katona, artistic administrator at London’s Covent Garden, who was taken by the singer’s freshness and sense of drama. He encouraged her to believe in herself and work hard. What Katona had heard was a young woman sing an aria from Don Giovanni in barely existent Italian and an unpolished Mozartean style. Yet the singing came out so naturally and the character came out so effortlessly. Katona then asked to see her perform on stage, and after one of her performances at the National Opera, he asked her to audition for him in private. Kelessidi obliged, staying up all night to prepare four arias. The effort paid off; straight after their meeting, Katona offered Kelessidi a contract to appear at Covent Garden, in Don Carlos (in a secondary role), leading to the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Though insufficiently prepared, when Kelessidi transformed herself into Violetta in London, in 1996, the reviews were sensational. You need the gift from God, the voice, she says today matter-of-factly. Yet it’s not about a big or a small voice. That is not important. You must have the ‘colors;’ to be able to use the voice and express the whole gamut of emotions, going from laughter to tears. From the beautiful voice to the remarkable stage presence, Kelessidi is undoubtedly gifted. And like all opera singers, she works hard and is highly disciplined. But coming from the ex-Soviet Union, where in her time all operas, whether German, French or Italian in origin, were performed in Russian, she has had to work even more diligently, for today she faces a challenging audience. People are very knowledgeable today, she says. Nothing like the Maria Callas days where there was no television, videos or CDs. Now you can rent a tape, with perfect sound and a perfect image. And if you’re going to spend a considerable amount of money to go to the opera, you want and expect to see a beautiful Violetta in ‘Traviata,’ who looks good and acts well. Yet even though opera seems more accessible, it is still out of reach for the masses, unless you count the Three Tenors. I don’t believe that performances such as those of the Three Tenors have harmed opera, says Kelessidi. Opera goes with pop today, but I find that only a good thing, even if people know ‘O Sole Mio’ or ‘Nessun Dorma.’ If you get a regular person, with no operatic experience, and you make him listen to Wagner, that is difficult. That is why opera still belongs to a specific world, people who go to the theater. You don’t just learn opera from one day to the next. My father, for instance, used to sing arias. The first time I listened to Maria Callas was on the radio. It was extraordinary. The passion for opera is a determining factor for Kelessidi. In the last five years, she has learnt three operas every year, building a repertoire which today numbers 20. And she is not about to slow down. Soon she will begin to work on various French operas, such as Manon and Thais, followed by Rossini’s Othello and L’Elisir d’Amore, in roles that will enrich her soprano lirico repertoire. Her ultimate goal, however, remains the great prima donna roles of Madame Butterfly and Tosca, among others, which will come later on, as her voice develops. Following Sunday’s concert, Kelessidi is scheduled to appear in Rigoletto at the Eclectic Orange Festival in November and make her debut at the Bastille Paris Opera in La Boheme in December, followed by another debut at the Dallas Opera with The Marriage of Figaro in January 2002. The soprano will then return to Covent Garden with Sonnambula in March, travel to Munich for La Boheme in May, and then appear at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in a production of Turandot in June 2002. It’s all worth it once you’re on stage. All the magic, the adoration. You can suffer all the rest; the fact that you don’t get to see your daughter and the rest of the family all that much; that you can’t talk to friends because you shouldn’t use your voice, says Kelessidi. You have the smell of the theater, the curtains, the stage fright. To succeed in a performance brings great joy and is a thing of great fortune. Elena Kelessidi at the Herod Atticus Theater, Dionysiou Areopagitou, tel 323.2771, 323.5582. Tickets are available from the Hellenic Festival box office, 4 Stadiou, in the Spyrou Miliou Arcade, tel 322.1459. Friends to remember Callas 24 years on Every year since Maria Callas died on September 16, 1977, the Athenaeum Music Center has organized a concert on that day. This year’s concert, which marks the 24th anniversary of the great diva’s death, is part of the Athens Festival and is organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, the Athenaeum Music Center is joining forces with the newly founded Friends of the Athenaeum-Grand Prix Maria Callas Association this year, and together they are hosting a gala dinner following the performance. This will take place at the Dionysos restaurant, with proceeds going toward raising funds for the creation of a concert hall carrying the legend’s name. For more information and tickets for the gala dinner, tel 729.9149, 45-47 Dinocratous, Kolonaki.

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