From Tosca to La Boheme to Madama Butterfly, Soprano Eleni Calenos Scales the Heights of the Opera Repertoire
While opera enthusiasts and aficionados are always searching for the next Maria Callas, they also know she was the one and only La Divina. We can’t necessarily recreate her, but we can rediscover her breath through a new wave of unique and soulful progeny. If we listen with a fresh ear to a new voice, without drawing a trite comparison, we discover a rising star in Eleni Calenos. What started out as a cello bow, swaying back and forth into a waltz or tango across a quartet of strings, became a journey into new notes on a musical scale that would take her to a higher plateau. It’s her where she continues to stretch her mellifluous chords into a running brook of fresh water moving upstream. Eleni Calenos has been on the opera scene for a while now, performing at various venues and festivals throughout the world, but with her recent performance of Tosca, she created a big stir, being touted in Opera News for giving a “performance for the ages, both vocally and dramatically.” Born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece, Eleni came to the US in 2006 and became a member of Boston University’s Opera Institute. In 2009, she went on to receive her Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance Queens College in New York. Below, Eleni shares her thoughts, experiences, and goals with NEO Magazine.
-What made you pursue a career as an opera singer? Is that something you always wanted to do?
Opera was not what I always wanted to do. My exposure to all kinds of music, however, started very early on. I was seven years old when I started studying classical music and violoncello in my hometown Thessaloniki, Greece. While in the conservatory, I also sang in various choral ensembles. After I obtained my cello diploma, I experimented with singing various styles of Greek music (traditional, folk, singer – songwriter style etc.) professionally. At that moment, I decided to take voice lessons in order to learn technique and protect my voice. Those few lessons revealed to me my potential for classical singing and opera which turned out to be my path until today.
-I read that you also studied the violoncello at the Municipal Conservatory in Thessaloniki. Do you still perform as a cellist?
I performed as a cellist in Thessaloniki’s Municipal Orchestra for a period of time, and always played cello during my freelance Greek singing days. For a while, I was also a studio recording musician. Once my operatic career became my focal point and the demands changed, the time I dedicated to cello was gradually less. Now, I do not perform professionally anymore, but I mostly play for pleasure.
-You have performed in various productions throughout the United States and also internationally, receiving rave reviews from various press publications, among them being the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Opera News for your role as a compelling Tosca. Does Eleni, the woman, identify with her character at all?
I find it hard to interpret a character if I cannot identify with it at least a little. Most of characters -as all human beings – are often simple, but at the same time complex and almost never one-dimensional. During my role study and character preparation period, I try to discover the human elements that connect me with all these interesting people.
Tosca is a strong woman, a person who lives for art and love, and a singer at a time when women are not empowered. She lives and loves passionately. She is religious and giving, but at the same time mercurial, and jealous. She’s not flawless at all. Yes, there are many sides of her that I identify with as Eleni the woman. She is definitely a spicy character to portray.
-Do you find it challenging to sing and deliver a theatrical performance at the same time? How is acting in an opera different from acting, besides the obvious?
Yes, singing AND delivering a theatrical performance at the same time is challenging, and marrying these elements is an integral part of our training as opera singers.
I cannot imagine singing and acting separate from each other. Acting in opera is bigger than life since we perform mostly in big theaters, where the stage is further away from the audience and where you also have an orchestra in between. Our sound, and our physical presence, has to reach the last rows of the theater. Gestures become bigger. Yet, it’s all in the music. Unlike straight theater actors, our main vehicle to convey messages and emotions is music. There are moments that we, as actors, make the music happen, and instances where music makes the moment happen. I find that when I am connected to the music and committed to it each and every moment, the text is conveyed in a more organic way and acting becomes more natural and not exaggerated. If you cross that thin line as an interpreter, the result may not feel well-balanced and realistic. It is indeed a game of proportion and balance!
-Who are some of the greats you admire in your craft?
I admire mostly old school opera singers. My favorite soprano is Claudia Muzio and I love Ettore Bastianini’s (famous Italian baritone) singing. Needless to say that our own Maria Callas was one of the greatest interpreters that I deeply admire.
-Do you who have a favorite opera?
My favorite opera is the one I am working on, at each given moment. However, I have to say I love Italian opera, the verismo style, Verdi and especially Puccini. I have a weak spot in my heart for Madama Butterfly.
-What would be your dream role – the one you haven’t performed yet?
The repertoire is so vast, that there are so many roles that I have not performed and would love to perform. I would like to explore more, some roles in Verdi operas such as Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Elisabetta in “Don Carlo”.
-There are several prestigious opera houses around the world – La Scala, The Vienna State Opera, the Sydney Opera House, and our own Metropolitan Opera here in NY to name a few – where would you perform your dream role?
To me, where I sing does not make any difference. If I had the choice, I would love to perform in all the theaters you mentioned. If I had to choose one to perform my dream role, I would say Italy’s La Scala, just because of its rich history and tradition. It’s been the home for so many great singers and singing of the past.
-Is there anyone in the world of opera today with whom you would love to have the opportunity to perform?
Yes. I would love to have the opportunity to perform with conductor Riccardo Muti and learn from him.
-How do you feel about the future of opera in Greece, and the arts in general, under the current economic crisis?
When the economy is not stable and in crisis, music and the arts are usually the first to take the hit. It’s not only in Greece today, but in the whole world that the state of the arts in general is not what it used to be. Opera was never a part of Greece’s musical tradition, as it is for some other European countries. Yet, there is an audience that supports it. There is only one major opera house in Greece (Greek National Opera) that is active and producing high quality productions. I don’t think I am in position to say if this is enough to secure the future of opera in Greece, but I want to be optimistic.
-Can you tell us more about your upcoming performances?
After my Madama Butterfly production with Opera Santa Barbara this fall, I will return to Shreveport Opera in the spring, to perform the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro). Right after, I will be performing the role of Liu in Puccini’s “Turandot” with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, and will return to Athens, Greece in order to be a soloist in Mahler’s 8th symphony with the Athens State Orchestra at the Megaron Concert Hall. I am particularly excited to return to Glyndebourne, one of the most well-known operatic festivals in the world, to perform the title role in Madama Butterfly during their 2020 fall tour.