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Happy Birthday Kostas Paskalis! The legendary Greek baritone is 77 today: he talked recently with Bettina Mara about his life and career. (BM)     





“This new Macbeth production (in Glyndebourne)…is unique thanks to one artist’s genuinely brilliant performance: Kostas Paskalis in the title role. His baritone is of seemingly endless power, remarkable continuity and precision. Here is a voice that contains metal, and its owner knows how to use it artistically and tastefully, with sensitivity and intensity alike. It exudes a nobility bordering on the divine…”

Such was the praise showered on Kostas Paskalis by the Sunday Times in June 1964, following his Glyndebourne debut. The legendary Greek baritone, one of the most in demand world-wide in the 1960’s and 70’s, will be 77 years old on September 1st. Now retired as a singer but an active voice teacher, he lives in a comfortable northern suburb of Athens, where he spoke to Bettina Mara about his career, his teaching activities and the art of opera in his country.


Mr. Paskalis, Wikipedia has listed you as a Greek-Austrian opera singer....?!

Yes, that is quite amusing, and no doubt a result of the many years I spent at the Vienna Staatsoper, but although the Austrian government awarded me the title of Kammersänger, I do not have Austrian citizenship and none other than Greek blood flows in my veins. I was born in Levadia – near Delphi, as I always add for those not so familiar with Greek geography – but I spent my childhood and formative years in Athens. I was first introduced to music in church, as a member of the boy’s choir of the Athens Metropolis Cathedral, which is more or less the Greek equivalent of the Vienna Sängerknaben. My father saw to it that I was exposed to classical music as much as possible, which was not something that went without saying in Greece at that time (or even today, I might add). He proceeded to send me to the Athens Conservatory, where I initially studied piano. At first, I wanted to become a conductor! Later on, before I finished my voice diploma, I sang in the chorus of the Greek National Opera (GNO). One day, a soloist suddenly fell ill, and that was the year, 1951, in which I made my GNO-debut at the age of 21 as Rigoletto.


Was this the beginning of a life-long leaning towards Verdi roles?

In a way perhaps it was, although naturally I sang much more than just Verdi: the whole Italian repertoire, and many other roles as well. In 1958 for example, when the Viennese agent Vladarski was in Athens to see Fidelio at the ancient Herod Atticus Theater at the foot of the Acropolis, I happened to be appearing as Orest in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride at the GNO and was “discovered” by him. My debut at the Staatsoper in Vienna in Un Ballo in Maschera followed soon after that – a great challenge for me, not least in linguistic terms, since until then I had learned all of my roles in Greek – together with Nilsson, Di Stefano and under the baton of my compatriot Dimitris Mitropoulos, which was a stroke of good fortune. He is the conductor whom I learned to appreciate most during the course of my career, even though, or perhaps precisely because he was quite blunt in his dealings with singers – I can still remember how he once told a famous colleague who hadn’t bothered to prepare properly for a rehearsal properly that “with the fees they pay you, surely you can afford to hire an accompanist to teach you your part!”. In any case, Karajan then offered me a contract in Vienna, initially for three years, and the rest is history. I stayed on for 25 years, and gave approximately 650 performances in Vienna alone, not to mention many others in Germany, in Italy at the Scala in Milan and elsewhere, as well as in the whole of Europe and in the United States.


On the occasion of your Glyndebourne debut as Macbeth, one critic wrote that thanks to an expressive voice and a profound understanding of your role, you succeeded in showing how much Verdi’s music enhances Shakespeare’s drama – or words to that effect. Did that make this your favorite or most successful role? Are there any others you would have liked to sing? And how much did you devote yourself to the work of contemporary and Greek composers?

It’s hard to say which was really my favorite role, but I am certainly very fond of the one that people like to identify me with, and in which I gave my debut in 1964 in Glyndebourne – a festival which does much more than just cater to stars, which is a very commendable aspect. What took a little getting used to there was the smell of alcohol from the audience that would waft towards the stage after intermission… Rudolf Bing heard me sing there, which led to my first performance in New York at the Met the following year, in La Forza del Destino, alongside Franco Corelli and Cesare Siepi, followed by stints at almost all the other major US opera houses. I certainly can’t say there were any roles I didn’t sing for lack of opportunity, on the contrary, I was able to build a very broad repertoire – some would call that being an old-fashioned all-round singer these days, but in my opinion there are many who might well benefit from it, not least in terms of motivation. And when I was asked to sing in Hans-Werner Henze’s Bassarides – the premiere of this work in 1966 is probably my most well-known encounter with contemporary music – in English in Santa Fe, after having performed it in German and Italian, I declined, enough is enough! The operas by the 19th –century Greek composers Pavlos Carrer and Spyros Samaras, which were “excavated” more or less recently and have since been performed occasionally here in Greece, were still unknown then, but Manolis Kalomiris’ (1883-1962) The Mother’s Ring is a remarkable Greek opera which I was fortunate to be able to perform in. I also recorded Mourning for Ignacio, a poem by Garcia Lorca set to music by contemporary Greek composer Stavros Xarhakos, in 1965; the narrator on that recording is actor Manos Katrakis, who also read the poetry of noble-prize winner Odysseas Elytis on the original recording of Mikis Theodorakis’ Axion Esti.




Anthony Michaels-Moore and Kostas Paskalis


What did you think of the recent revival of the Visconti production of Don Carlo at the Athens Concert Hall? You were a member of the cast of the original production in Rome in 1965, which was also your debut at the Opera di Roma, with many celebrities in the audience, one of them Alain Delon, who would soon star in Visconti’s film “L’Etranger”.  The performances were all sold out, even though ticket prices were around 40.000 Lire – a fortune at that time – and the Italian press criticized the production, calling it wasteful and pompous, but you received much praise for your brilliant debut as Rodrigo!

In my opinion the Athens production was simply too long, and I was not the only one who thought so, as would be the fate of almost any performance that lasts until 1:30 in the morning. In Rome, nowhere near that much time was required to shift the sets, even though they were much the same in both cases, but in Athens there were simply too many intermissions, short and long, to the point that the music somehow no longer made sense, although there were some noteworthy artists involved, for example Anthony Michaels-Moore as Rodrigo. The Athens Concert Hall’s new stage is vaunted as being one of the most modern in the whole of Europe, but apparently they have yet to learn to use it appropriately. The Greek press paid much more attention to the opening of the Concert Hall’s new underground parking facilities than to the opera itself, which shows you where priorities tend to lie in this country.

You also served as artistic director of the GNO from 1988 to 1990, what was that like?

Those were three difficult years, which I don’t really care to look back on. And I still visit the GNO on occasion as a member of the audience, but it is usually fairly disappointing. Our government grants almost no support to opera in this country, and there is little interest in or understanding of our art. This leads to much disillusionment among young, promising singers – and I’m not alluding to unsatisfactory fees here, but rather to the lack of artistic challenge – and as a rule, these colleagues still decide to seek their luck abroad, just as they did in my day. If anything has changed since then, it is for the worse. Naturally I am not exactly impartial, being an opera singer myself, in believing that my art has more to offer than traditional Greek bouzouki music, but surely popular and classical music should be allowed to exist alongside each other and receive the same kind of backing – the wide-spread opinion here that classical music is only for intellectuals and university graduates is simply wrong, especially at a time when opera has become more accessible world-wide thanks to modern productions and contemporary works. Perhaps it would help if we referred to opera as “music theater” more often – Greeks seem to be much less reluctant to try out classical drama than classical music. And while we are on the subject, I do not agree with some colleagues of my generation who are dismissive of the surtitles used in theaters today, saying that they are like crutches for a generation of singers who can’t be bothered to work on their diction. On the contrary!, we all know that audiences didn’t understand every word in the old days either, and if opera is not supposed to be an art form accessible only to a select audience, we can’t expect people to be familiar with the text, not to mention the language that is being sung.

After having taken on so many different roles on stage, how do you see your current offstage role as a teacher?

At first I thought that teaching was not for me. But then I became more and more interested in it, and this was precisely because of the problems I could see many students needed help with. Of course on the whole, young people begin their voice training based on a better musical background than in the past, when it was customary for many to rely on their hearing alone and have no formal musical training whatsoever. And even those of us who have perfect pitch know that their ear can let them down at times, and it is never quite as precise as what their eye can recognize on paper. Nonetheless, singers still tend to be the least educated of musicians. Time and again, students who really have no idea what they are doing will show up in my master classes. I always tell them that a large measure of modesty is in order when you are starting out: even a well-prepared singer is like a first-grader when he steps on stage in front of an audience for the first time, meaning that he still needs to be prepared to work on the basics, the ABC of his trade. This includes the realization that the voice is a musical instrument of a very special kind, designed not only to make music but also to produce speech, laughter, yawns, etc., an instrument that is not for sale and cannot be loaned to others like a violin or a piano. One of the most important things students need to acquire is the capacity to listen to themselves and each other. This is something that I have often noticed as a jury member, for example at the Callas or Tchaikovsky competitions, which I am always pleased to be involved in, because I am interested in getting to know the new generation of singers. To me, music means communication, it is an international language, and whoever masters it will be understood everywhere on our planet – but naturally you have to learn to speak it first. In addition to voice, I also teach opera studio classes, and though naturally technique is one of the core elements of what I try to convey to young singers, this is an aspect that has not changed much over the years, whereas the contrary is true of the way roles are interpreted on stage. If we could still hear Caruso sing live today, we would probably have a thing or two to criticize with respect to the expressive aspect of his performance, with all due respect for his superb technique.

At a master class that you taught this May in Athens, you were very frank, but never unkind, with some of the less promising students, and also demonstrated that you are still in much better voice than most of the participants could ever hope to be, especially when you showed them how to make a long note sound more interesting…

Yes, and it is vital to point out these things, because nothing is worse than a boring singer! I also try to make sure that my students understand how important articulation is. They need to understand what they are singing first and be able to speak the words correctly, with the accents on the right syllables, in order to achieve the right effect when singing them. I have always believed that good articulation when speaking is a prerequisite for good singing. And of course I am never unkind to students, because I respect all young people who come to me for guidance – and I have always said that a skillful artist is often capable of making his drawbacks into advantages – but I am also very honest and will not tolerate anything that is not right or not sincere and genuine. Falsetto doesn’t sell, it’s the kind of thing that is left to lie on a store shelf.

Looking back, would you have liked to do anything differently?

No! I always did what I believed in and what gave me satisfaction in the course of my career, and besides, I have been much more successful than I could ever have hoped for when I started out. I have no patience with people who look back and say “what if…” or “if only I had…” - I couldn’t be happier with what I have achieved!

Bettina Mara


Photo Credits: Picture of Anthony Michaels-Moore / Kostas Paskalis
Akriviadis 2006. K.Paskalis as Macbeth © Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1964.


This interview appears by courtesy of the online opera magazine Orpheus Oper International, Berlin where it first appeared as a German Language version.

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