In January 2020, lauded bass-baritone Stefanos Koroneos began his tenure as Artistic and General Director of Teatro Grattacielo, the unique opera company whose name means “Skyscraper Theatre” in Italian. Since 1994, Teatro Grattacielo has been delighting and educating New York audiences with performances of rare operas in concert. In just 16 months since assuming administrative responsibilities, Koroneos has brought an infusion of fresh energy and innovative creativity that have planted the company firmly into the 21st century and are paving its way to a vibrant future. Stefanos Koroneos is also the Artistic Director of Teatro Grattacielo’s Young and Resident Artist Program, Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy, whose mission is to nourish a “modern Renaissance” in singing rooted in bel canto principles while granting the rightful importance to the Italian language.
Before becoming Artistic and General Director of Teatro Grattacielo, you had an international career as a bass-baritone. Did you always sing?
I did not. I realized that I wanted to be a singer when I first moved to Milano, for totally different reasons. I wanted to become an architect, so I got into a school. But I was sharing an apartment with an American opera singer, and one day she just gave me this recording of Rigoletto with Sherrill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, and Joan Sutherland, and I was hooked. I also had the luck to find some people who helped me in the right way from the beginning. I auditioned for the Teatro Toscanini in Parma where they were looking for singers for The Merry Widow. They gave me the part on the spot, and then I never stopped working. So, I had to drop out of school, and became an opera singer.
Do you still maintain an active schedule as a singer?
I do not pursue singing very much anymore, in the sense that I do not actively look for new opportunities, I just let them happen to me. Whenever some company asks me, “would you be available?” and if I can fit it into my business schedule as administrator of Teatro Grattacielo, then I say yes. It happened now for the 200th anniversary of Greek independence. But my first priority right now is Teatro Grattacielo.
Teatro Grattacielo offers many rarities, mostly Verismo operas. What have you changed since you took over?
This year, we are switching to doing two productions, and instead of doing them completely in concert form, we are presenting them in a way that is semi-staged and includes multimedia arts, interdisciplinary arts, interactive arts, and live feed. Practically, the audience is immersed into an experience that also has the live feed, so the cameras show people on structures and artwork made for us especially for certain moments. My idea was to open up the opera world to people who might think that opera is just for the very few, and maybe get the people in New York who follow interdisciplinary arts and trends to discover how beautiful those operas can be. This is the first element that I have changed. I’m working really hard with a team of artists from CultureHub and from La MaMa. The second element is: until now the company would present only operas in Italian, now we opened it also to Spanish operas. So, this year, in collaboration with Opera Hispánica, we are doing El amor brujo by de Falla with Nancy Fabiola Herrera, together with a big set of Astor Piazzolla songs because this year is the Piazzolla 100th anniversary year. And then on November 14 at Ellen Stewart’s Theatre, La MaMa, we are doing as the main production Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, which is not the most rare opera but it has not been presented in New York for almost 40 years.
And its music is so beautiful that it should be right up there with Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” in popularity.
Absolutely! Even though Mascagni didn’t have a very big plot because he wanted to make a point that music can live alone without any kind of grand drama and people dying, the music is incredible and there is a lot of subtext. It is also a choice that had to do with Covid limitations. We had to find an opera that doesn’t have a big cast and doesn’t have a chorus on stage, because guess what? We can only have thirty people on the stage.
How do you go about selecting your repertoire?
Duane Printz, the founder of Teatro Grattacielo, had a more intellectual way of choosing repertoire. In other words, she would choose a theme, and an opera that was really rare, almost never represented. In my case, I’m trying to combine the two things together, not to go totally intellectual but also to have some kind of commercial plan in mind, only because it has been very hard for the past ten years to get the New York public to get excited about opera in general. We have a whole list of operas from the Verismo era that we would love to do, like Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo (Juliet and Romeo), for example, which is at the top of my list. Or Assassinio nella catedrale (Murder in the Cathedral) by Pizzetti but we need to wait until Covid is over because they require double choruses, orchestration, an organ on the stage. Until we are totally out of this, we have to keep choosing operas that have smaller casts.
Is it your goal that by exposing neglected works to the audience, these works might have a chance to enter mainstream repertoire?
Yes! We choose operas about which we don’t understand why they never had any kind of luck, maybe at the beginning, but then companies decided not to present them anymore. The whole idea is showcasing a certain post-Romantic period in the opera world that is full of nuances, musical expressions, language expression which is also a very important component to modern operas. Modern operas don’t only live through music but also live through language.
The mission statement of Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy, of which you are Artistic Director, made me think of the original Camerata de’ Bardi: the group of humanists, musicians, poets, scholars established in 1573 to revive Greek dramatic style in music. They were mainly influenced by the belief that, in ancient Greek drama, the actors recited in a blended style of speech and song, and the chorus sang. The Camerata’s experiments led to the recitativo, through a focus on clarity of text and moving from polyphony (multiple voices) to monody (one voice). Then, we had the philosophy of the historic Italian school of singing “si canta come si parla,” (one sings as one speaks) which echoes that same interest in textual clarity and natural resonance. Is the Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy’s mission inspired by its 16th-century namesake and by the “si canta come si parla” approach?
Absolutely! The idea behind the creation of Camerata Bardi is not entirely mine, I have to give credit to the president of Teatro Grattacielo, Enzo Pizzimenti, who is involved with the Italian Language Foundation and Columbus Citizens Foundation in New York. The basic idea was to promote the Italian language through music. Then, the project became more complex, and was, exactly like you said, to promote the “si canta come si parla” movement. We got inspired by the Camerata de’ Bardi because, first of all, they are credited for creating the first operatic drama, and also because their agenda was to combine words and music. Sometimes, we as opera singers—and I put myself too into that category—forget that opera is not only done by beautiful sounds, but there is a language, there is poetry, there is a story. This storytelling can be enhanced by language skills.
And each language has its own music. Take Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” for example, when you sing it in French as opposed to Italian, even though the music is pretty much the same, the musicality of the language colors how the singers transmit emotion and how people receive it. The language aspect is such a great flame to keep carrying when you teach voice and nurture singers because people can forget about the importance of language in opera.
I’m right there with you! Maybe because of my background as a character baritone, I find it very fascinating when people color words not only through vowels but also through consonants. And they know how the phrase starts and finishes, and which are the strong words within a phrase. That’s what I push our young artists to think about: what the consonants do to an aria or to a recitativo.
It’s with your young artists that, soon after Covid hit in 2020, you made your operatic season virtual, starting with a week of online training and asking the singers to film themselves at home. What did this concert mean for you and for them?
We were about to do everything live. We had booked rooms and concert halls for our young artists. Then, on March 16, the news hit, and my board of directors asked me: “What are we going to do, are we canceling everything?” I said ‘no, we’re not canceling, we’re going to switch everything online. I know nobody knows anything about doing this online, we will do our best, we will do whatever we can, just to try stuff and see how it’s going to work.’ So, we did the best we could as a first experience and we grew into what we are now where we combine live and broadcast.
In 2020 you also presented a virtual performance of “Fedora.” How was that experience?
It was great. This was supposed to be happening live. We had a theater, the orchestra, singers, everything ready. I said, let’s film it, without an orchestra, only with piano. We found this incredibly big space of 6,000 square feet in Brooklyn, and they told us we couldn’t have more than fifteen people within this space. Out of these fifteen people, six were the filming crew. We had a sound engineer and we had Israel Gursky, our Music Director, who is an amazing pianist, and we had to rotate the cast because Fedora has a huge cast. Thank God it was September and fantastic weather. So, some of the cast members were waiting outside on the street; we would bring them in to sing, then they’d go back out again. It was crazy! But we did it.
The concert that will be streamed on May 7, “Canciones y Poemas,” features Italian and Spanish verismo folk songs. Why did you select this theme?
We are giving the audience a preview of post-Romantic Spanish and Latino composers, but most importantly we also introduce the Spanish language as a way of operatic expression. This is very close to my heart: we try to reach out to underserved communities that don’t have the possibility to actually go to the opera. I would like Teatro Grattacielo to become a very inclusive company where everybody feels like there is something for them there. Also, one of the winners of our last year’s competition is Ricky Garcia and I promised him that I’m going to put him on stage for something. This was the excellent opportunity, and we are happy to have him.
What do you think makes a great and effective artistic director of an opera company, and what has surprised you about yourself in being in this role so far?
When you are at the top of any company, but especially in the arts, the most important part is the human part. In other words, how do you connect with the people that work for you? I do not work by dictating, I work by empowering my people to be themselves and to create in the best way, of course, controlled by me because somebody has to have a vision for the company. Two things surprised me about myself. Surprise number one is how much I love this work. I just love it! I wake up every morning at 5:00. At 5:30 I’m already on my computer working and I don’t regret it. I’m never tired, I’m just happy to do it. The second thing that really surprised me—and I am doing my best to make things happen—is how many incredible artists are out there who need work and moral and economical support. As a singer, I always thought that I was the only one who should get the part I wanted. But when you are on the other side of the table and hold auditions and competitions, and you hear so much incredible talent, you realize this is actually an amazing mission. These people who sit behind the table work three times more than anybody else. We work day and night, there are no Saturdays, no Sundays, no rest days. It’s just everyday dedication.
You’re also doing a service to the art form by introducing rare works, discovering new talent, and making opera accessible and appealing.
That’s the whole idea because, you know, I believe that the era of concert opera with a certain glam is not there anymore. People have moved on from that glamour of those incredible singers from the 60s, 70s, 80s; they just had to show up and they would fill up the hall. I believe that opera can be combined with other art forms and reach people who might not think that opera is that great, or who might think that only Bohème and Carmen are great and there is nothing else to listen to.
Now I have to ask, because I am a big fan of Maria Callas, how do you, as a fellow Greek and singer, see her revolutionizing impact on opera?
She’s my idol! What she did was: she created drama. And this is exactly what I believe too, that opera is not just sounds but there is drama within the drama. In everything that she did, she delivered storytelling through language and through emotions and through stagecraft, perfectly. Her recordings are a masterclass of how somebody should be pronouncing in opera.
Do you go back to Greece at all?
I do go once in a while for work. I must tell you that the doors in Greece for me have never been really open. I have done one production at the Greek National Opera and a couple of other things but somehow, I never had luck in Greece. But it’s totally understandable because Greece is a small country packed with amazing talent. This year I’m going to Crete with a co-production between Teatro Grattacielo and Camerata Bardi to collaborate with a theatre on Mozart’s Idomeneo. The cast comes from us, our young artists. We are going to bring them all to Greece and I will be directing this production. It’s a brand-new theatre, the Cultural and Conference Center of Heraklion in Crete. The production will be conducted by Myron Michailidis, who is a top conductor in Europe. So, we’re combining forces for an opera that has to do with Crete. We are training online now and then we have some rehearsals because we will have a lot of cameras on them. But we will also have the traditional real rehearsals there in July.
What is your dream for both Teatro Grattacielo and Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy for the next two years?
My dream for both is that they grow into a full-time company, not just part-time. And this is what I’m doing right now: I’m building up a company that is sustainable, that brings a cultural and musical diversity in New York, and that is another answer to the Metropolitan Opera. Hopefully, also our friends from New York City Opera will come back at some point. But at least New York doesn’t only have the Metropolitan Opera, which is amazing and is the biggest and the most important company in the world, but also has another company where people can go and see things that they don’t see at the Met.
What would you like to tell your audiences in New York City?
I just want to say to everybody: check us out! We are committed not only to cultural and musical diversity but also to creating a different experience, with our souls, from what they have experienced in the past. I also want to tell everybody just to hold tight until all of this goes away and we are back to some kind of normality. Even though I know that many people feel sometimes like there is no hope, there is always hope. Wherever there is creativity of any kind and good energy of any kind, there will always be hope and love for everybody.
All photos courtesy of Stefanos Koroneos