Festival at Greece’s ancient theaters dedicated to Maria Callas and century since her birth

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Spectators watch a performance of "Madame Butterfly" at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, as on the background is seen the ancient temples of goddess Nike, left, and the Parthenon on Thursday, June 1, 2023. The annual arts festival in Athens and at the ancient theater of Epidaurus in southern Greece is dedicated this year to the late opera great Maria Callas who was born 100 years ago. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – The music from “Madame Butterfly” and other major operas is known to Greek audiences largely through the recorded performances of Maria Callas, the U.S.-born Greek artist who died in 1977 and is still revered here.

For theatergoers in Athens, watching the tragic story of the young geisha Cio-Cio-San unfold in Puccini's emotionally charged classic has become a familiar favorite at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the stone theater the Romans built at the foot of the Acropolis more than 1,800 years ago.

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Late Thursday, it hosted an open-air performance of “Madame Butterfly” to launch Greece’s main summer theater and arts festival, dedicated this year to Callas and the century since her birth in Manhattan on Dec. 2, 1923. She died of a heart attack at her home in Paris at age 53.

Officially known as the Athens-Epidaurus Festival, the summer concerts and plays are also held at the ancient theater of Epidaurus, the UNESCO world heritage site in southern Greece. Much of the program was chosen to complement the centenary celebrations.

Ticket sales from June performances by an opera world power couple, French tenor Roberto Alagna and Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, will help fund the planned summer opening of a Callas Museum in central Athens, according to festival artistic director Katerina Evangelatos.

“It’s all part of the year’s celebrations marking the 100 years ... since the birth of the great diva of opera,” Evangelatos said.

Finally free of constraints imposed by the pandemic, the festival has been expanded this year to include new venues and additional collaboration with overseas artists, festivals and theater companies. Organizers also created a new online platform to help Greek performers seek opportunities abroad.

“One of the main objectives of the festival has always been to be outward-looking,” Evangelatos told reporters during a recent presentation of this year’s festival. "We don’t want to just bring artists from abroad, we want to build collaboration and relationships.”

The lineup this year includes the superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang, the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, classical pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk, as well as a performance by Icelandic band Sigur Ros with the London Contemporary Orchestra.

The Greek National Opera produced “Madame Butterfly,” choosing French director Olivier Py and the Italian choreographer Daniel Izzo. The title role was given to soprano Anna Sohn, who on Thursday gave the first of four scheduled performances.

Sohn partnered with Italian tenor Andrea Carè for a sparse interpretation of the Italian classic, featuring giant helium-filled balloons, dancers in head-to-toe white makeup and time-bending backdrops that included scenes of Japan’s World War II nuclear devastation and modern banner ads for major U.S. commercial brands.

Publicist Constance Shuman, who promotes the work of the Greek National Opera in the United States, said a performance by the company was a fitting start for the festival in the year marking what would have been Callas' 100th birthday.

Born Maria Kalogeropoulos, the singer made her professional debut with the GNO in Athens as an 18-year-old student.

“When she became internationally known, she always came back here, and she really is emblematic of what this opera company is about,” Shuman said.

“This is the opening of the Maria Callas year, but her early years are not known about by a lot of people," she said. "So this is a chance to tell people about how Greece and the Greek National Opera contributed to her becoming Maria Callas.”