On October 28, Teatro Grattacielo will revive an opera that has not been performed in New York City in almost one hundred years, Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale. The performance, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater, is dedicated to Maria Callas in celebration of her centennial birth year. Stefanos Koroneos, Artistic and General Director of Teatro Grattacielo, tells us about this momentous commemorative event and historical revival.
Please tell us about Teatro Grattacielo’s upcoming production of “La Vestale”.
This project started two years ago with the idea of doing something for the one hundredth birth anniversary of Maria Callas. I thought it was a great idea to look into an opera that fits the mission of Teatro Grattacielo, which is, among other things, to present an operatic rarity once a year, and combine this with celebrating Maria Callas. Callas was very passionate about operas that had a certain bel canto style. I went through everything that she sang, and my eyes laid upon La Vestale. There had been only one performance of La Vestale in New York City in Italian, almost one hundred years ago, in 1926, with Rosa Ponselle. So, I decided that this is what I’m going to do. But it came with some difficulties because we wanted to do the Italian version, not the original French, and we needed to find the score used in 1954 when Maria Callas sang it at La Scala. This has been a process of two years between me and my assistant conductor, Francisco Miranda: taking the scores, constructing, reconstructing, tailoring.
La Vestale at Teatro Grattacielo (Image courtesy of Stefanos Koroneos)
What are you trying to convey to the public with this production? What can the audience expect?
A characteristic of this opera is staticity. The music is grand and the action that fits within the music is static. I thought that it was very important that we do a semi-staged production, and we concentrate on the music and the singing, instead of creating something that is overelaborate scenically. We have a very simple concept together with projections specifically created for this production by an incredible artist, Lydia Venieri. She specializes in Greek and Roman antiquity and mythology. The technology will also tell a story alongside a very big chorus of forty singers who sound great, the orchestra in the pit, and the soloists.
It’s a true showcase for voices.
Absolutely! It’s a showcase for everyone but especially for the soprano, tenor, and mezzo-soprano. These roles require master technicians and also a big mastery of the language, of the color of the text, which is something that Callas was known for. She would take a text and transform it, and that’s the work that we are doing right now with our cast. We are focusing on delivering text and music. And it will have supertitles.
What do you hope the public will take away from this opera?
My wish is that they take away the grandeur of this music. And why Maria Callas chose to open the La Scala season with this opera in 1954. Also, why this opera, that is now starting to come back in Europe, needs to be heard more often. I hope that this is a catapult for our singers who are young and starting right now, to get to bigger stages and bigger careers, which is also part of the mission of Teatro Grattacielo. And of course, we’re honoring one of the most important opera singers of all time, Maria Callas.
Indra Thomas who will sing the role of Giulia (Photo courtesy of Stefanos Koroneos)
As Callas’s compatriot, what are your feelings for her and your vision of her?
My feelings for her are very warm because I grew up listening to her. But most importantly for me, also as an ex-performer, it was very interesting how she would color the text, how she would make the text of whatever opera she sang, come alive. This has always been my guide because I did a lot of character roles that required me to be able to color the text so that the character would come out. We can sit here and talk about Callas’s vocal capacities for a long time. I know there are divisions in the world between people who think she had technical flaws and people who think she was the best singer in the world, but nobody can contest the fact that Maria could deliver text and drama like nobody else.
It’s important for the younger generations to listen to her.
Absolutely, because, yes, opera is about beautiful vowels, but what about the consonants? What about the words, the phrases, the meaning? When composers wrote their operas, they meant for singers to be able to express the text as well, and somehow, sometimes this gets lost. Maria has been able to create colors and drama with her voice by delivering text.
Maria Callas as Giulia in La Vestale in 1954 (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
And isn’t that at the origin of opera in the late 16th century thanks to the Florentine Camerata? They wanted the text to be understood, which led to the development of the recitativo. With this renewed focus on text, you’re bringing us back to that origin, through Callas.
That’s the whole idea. And because we are an opera company that doesn’t have unlimited resources, I thought that this year it would be better that our resources would go toward text and music.
What other messages do you have for your potential audience?
I would say: come to experience something very different, something that, when it was written, was a very avant-garde, revolutionary opera. Also, come to support our opera company that has been operating for quite some time in New York City and keeps growing. We all talk about the state of the arts and the state of opera generally in the world, and I think there’s no other way of helping than coming and supporting a company. The cast is amazing: we have Indra Thomas who’s going to sing Giulia, the role that Callas did. She’s a very seasoned singer. We have a young Irish tenor, Thomas Kinch, who is now in the Merola program at the San Francisco Opera, a mezzo-soprano from Sri Lanka, Tahanee Aluwihare, New York City-based American bass, Eric Lindsey, African-American baritone Kyle Oliver. We are focusing on inclusion and diversity, which is something that’s very close to my heart. I want everybody to be represented.
Top: Stefanos Koroneos (Photo courtesy of Stefanos Koroneos)