Soprano lives ‘Calamity Jane’

EDINBURGH – The opera singer was in no mood to hand out promotional posters. Greek-born Marika Klambatsea had just arrived here from her home in London, on a mid-August night when the Scottish city’s month-long Festival Fringe was in full swing, and she was tired. She knew the 16 performances of her eccentric opera based on the letters of Old West legend Calamity Jane were going to wear her out, and she wanted to pool her strength. But the Fringe – the world’s largest alternative arts festival – is a do-it-yourself kind of gig, with some 15,000 performers, nearly all of them very young, giddily foisting glossy, postcard-sized synopses of their shows to thousands of passers-by on the historic Edinburgh stretch known as the Royal Mile. Even though Klambatsea once happily supported herself as a street performer in France, arousing homemade operas with her razored voice, she couldn’t relax in Edinburgh’s imported sea of youth. A singer and artist for two decades, she wanted to skip right to the spotlight and the shock of her art. «I like to provoke people, especially when they’re conservative,» said a black-clad Klambatsea, after slipping into downtown Edinburgh’s Carlton Hotel to escape a buzzing crowd thickened around a thumping street show of long-haired Gaelic drummers, flame-juggling unicyclists, and fake American hippies singing «Give Peace a Chance.» «I like to get inside people with my music,» she said. «I talk a lot about my pain, and this shows in my voice and in my theater.» Indeed. The Edinburgh-featured opera, «Calamity Jane: Letters to her Daughter (1877-1902),» is based on the purported letters of the hard-drinking, gun-slinging American woman who claimed (probably falsely) to have a love child with Wild Bill Hickock. The work fuses agitated arpeggios and arias with Janis Joplin wails and a story of loneliness and lawlessness. She accompanies her singing with a jittery piano and flashes of her own autobiography. Klambatsea’s offbeat opera was one of a handful of entries from Greece in the Fringe, a month-long burst of emerging and experimental international music, theater, dance, comedy, performance art and film. Another high-profile Greek offering came from the Municipal Theater of Roumeli, which staged «Fairytale Heart,» an atmospheric tale of two kids turning 15 in their magical world of sweet fairies and bittersweet memories. «Calamity Jane» is also atmospheric, though purposely bled dry of any innocent magic. A true experiment, it combines opera, performance art and what Klambatsea calls «an opening of my veins to show my pain.» The life of the Greek singer studs the opera just as much as that of the titular heroine, whose renegade debauchery, calamitous sense of adventure and propensity for tall tales turned her into a legend. Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary in the small midwestern American hamlet of Princeton, Missouri. Orphaned as a child, she became a military scout, traveling the newly settled midwestern United States, learning to shoot a rifle, and fighting Native Americans. She is said to have earned her nickname after rescuing a captain from an ambush in Wyoming. She grew into an iconoclast: A hard-drinking woman who dressed and cussed like a man, had numerous affairs, and hung out with outlaws. She died in Deadwood, South Dakota, buried next to her unrequited love, Hickok, at her request. «Every story about Calamity Jane is a cartoon or a comedy,» said Klambatsea, referring to the gunslinger’s whitewashed resurrection as a cute tomboy in a 1953 Doris Day musical. «I wanted to show what was authentic about her life, which was her pain and loneliness. People expect to see a story on Calamity Jane and just die laughing. But this Calamity makes you cry, too.» Klambatsea tells this story in 14 songs in both Greek and English. In a soprano that sounds both jagged and soulful, she runs through Calamity’s life – the fabulist affair with Hickok, the Indian battles, the pain of losing her imagined daughter, the hell-raising, no-regrets attitude at the end of her life. The opera also offers glimpses into Klambatsea’s own rocky life, which has unfolded in the conservatories of Greece and Germany, the streets of France, and the art theaters of England. The daughter of an effervescent opera singer and a disciplinarian doctor from Mani, she grew up in Exarchia, attended a strict private school, and nursed a love for music that began when she heard a Maria Callas album at age 10. Though she found some beauty in the order of opera, she was no good little girl. She says she despised authoritarianism and rebelled: She wore miniskirts to her private school, flouted her strict father and fled to Germany as a young woman after she met the man who became her first husband. She was restless. After her first marriage ended, she found no comfort in traditional love affairs – «The men I got involved with actually did call me ‘Calamity Jane’» – and in traditional life in general. So she left for France, where she studied jazz and sang on the streets, channeling the raw-hurt blues of Janis Joplin to hone an opera-jazz-blues mix that eventually produced her first work, «It Hurts,» which mixed original songs and classics with arias from Bizet’s «Carmen» and Gershwin. She performed it at the Fringe last year. It was, she says, a lament and love song to the world’s eccentrics and rebels. «I have never liked people who judge without even trying to understand,» she said. «Sometimes it kills people to conform, but they do anyway for the good of others. But what about if you want to follow your own path?» Audiences often respond to the stranger aspects of «Calamity Jane,» Klambatsea says. A popular selection is «Eimai Porni» (I’m a Whore), which recounts a taunt she heard as a teenager and climaxes with a simulated orgasm. Each selection that invokes Calamity Jane also bares Klambatsea’s own unconventionality, which has made it hard to classify her as a singer and artist. «I don’t have an angelic voice,» she said. «I also have a tragic voice, and I don’t want to hide it.» Klambatsea has performed «Calamity Jane: Letters to Her Daughter (1877-1902)» at Athens locales including the Fournos Theater on Mavromichali Street near the city center, as well as in Great Britain and the Czech Republic. In 2002, the opera won a Greek national award for most original composition. Some audiences and critics have lauded the work, noting its passion and originality. But it has also left some people agog, even at the outlandish Fringe. Claire Smith, an arts critic for the daily newspaper The Scotsman, called «Calamity Jane» bizarre, ruefully noting props such as its close-up photographs of old ladies’ eyes and, of course, the fake orgasm. Smith was also startled by Klambatsea’s deep craving for the spotlight: During an early presentation of «Calamity Jane,» Klambatsea refused to leave the stage when her show was supposed to wrap up. When the technical staff pleaded with her to get off the stage because another show was scheduled, interrupting her reading of a muffin recipe, Smith said Klambatsea blew up and declared: «Nobody tells me to stop my show! «I pour everything I have inside myself into my shows,» she said before her Edinburgh run began. «Everything.»

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