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Telly Savalas in the Limelight

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Part II of Mr. Telly Savalas, Back to the Limelight…., Please!

Kojak hoisted the 49 year-old Savalas to superstardom, bestowing on the Greek the status of a sex-symbol, whose trademark quip in his Graeco-Yiddish-Brooklyn accent: “Who loves ya, baby?” engaged wide attention. The title role also brought the actor with a mole on his left cheek an Emmy and two Golden Globes. (Telly revived Kojak in some TV episodes during 1985-1990.) image

As film after film came his way, his commitment to his career not only remained progressive, but Telly had also acquired a taste for wealth and the lifestyle that went with it – savouring the attention his fans bestowed on him. They fed his ego, reaffirming the appeal of Savalas the Star. Like in all aspects of his life, his self-indulgent lifestyle reflected on his stylish images, airbrushed to perfection, on the cover of glossy magazines to the licence plate of his car which flashed “Telly S”.

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He met friendly receptions wherever he went for shooting movies or not. He had a great time in southwest Africa in 1975 shooting Killer Force (aka. The Diamond Mercenaries, D: Val Guest, 1976). Likewise, the German fans were happy to see him in West Berlin for the location work of Inside Out (aka. Hitler’s Gold/The Golden Heist, D: Peter Duffell, 1975). In Berlin, the children rolled up their sleeves to have their arm autographed by him while the girls greeted him with fresh red roses and handful of lollies which he often gave away.

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Keeping up with the then trend in Hollywood for racehorses, Telly ventured into horse racing when actor Walter Matthau turned down an offer to invest in a racehorse. With producer/director Howard W. Koch taking half interest, Telly acquired the other half at $3000 in an American thoroughbred racehorse whom he named Telly’s Pop (either after the lollipops he devours or his late-father who took him to his first horse race as a boy in New York).

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Although Telly later admitted on his CBS-TV show that he does not know anything about horses, audiences who had seen The Scalphunters, Mackenna’s Gold, etc, know that he could handle a horse.

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Telly dipped his toes into championship gambling and promotion of brand products. Lifting himself into the line-up of singing stars of stage and screen such as Mae West, Ethel Merman, Noel Coward, Robert Mitchum, Jayne Mansfield, Harry Belafonte, Christopher Lee, he forayed into the music industry and had some chart success – tunes that would make Duke Ellington tap his shoes seven-feet under.

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By the age of 54, Telly had won over audiences with his nightclub act in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas where one of the highlights was a bouzouki dance he performed with his brother Constantine. In November 1975, at the wish of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Telly sang at her Royal Command Palladium concert where celebrities like Count Basie, Charles Aznavour, etc performed in spite of the bomb scare that autumn. During that time, the media reported him playing golf with world’s top golfer Tom Weiskopf on the Ailsa golf course at Turnberry in Scotland.

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Often things in life simply don’t go according to set decisions. Telly never forgot the break he got from Burt Lancaster into movies which he reciprocated to the career of others. A 1975 newspaper reported actor Gene Hackman talking on the Douglas show about how Telly, while preparing to move from New York to start out his acting career in Hollywood, suggested to Hackman to “get his skates on” and head for the West Coast where the real action is – which resulted in Hackman’s entry into films on the Coast. Like Telly, the film Mad Dog Coll also marked the debut of Gene Hackman. Telly also played an active part in philanthropy and philhellenism. However, as always, there are different perspectives about Telly bordering on arrogance and rudeness I have also come across during my research.

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For the Greek-American icon who once said that he carried his Hellenism like a badge of merit, the opportunity to play a real Greek on Greek soil came in 1978 in the WW2 POW adventure film, Escape to Athena (D: George Pan Cosmatos, 1979) which had an all-star cast including Roger Moore, David Niven, and Claudia Cardinale.

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In his autobiography, actor Roger Moore wrote about his location days for Escape to Athena on the isle of Rhodes when he brushed up on his gambling at the tables of the local casino which were also frequented by Telly. Stuntman Vic Armstrong’s autobiography also contains interesting pieces about the location shooting of this movie – about how, in the early hours, a bored Telly would phone him to play a game of poker.

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Telly visited Greece again in early 1982 for location shoot in Laconia for My Palikari (American Playhouse, D: Charles Dubin). He turned this into a family affair and had his young son Nicholas from Los Angeles christened at the church in the village of Anogia, the birthplace of Telly’s mother.

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Meanwhile, his career progressed with movies including Capricorn One (D: Peter Hyams, 1977), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (D: Irwin Allen, 1979), Border Cop (aka. Blood Barrier, D: Christopher Leitch, 1979), Hellinger’s Law (D: Leo Penn, 1981), Fake-Out (aka. Nevada Heat, 1982), Alice in Wonderland (D: Harry Harris, 1985), The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (D: Lee H. Katzin, 1987), The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (D: Lee H. Katzin, 1988), Mind Twister (D: Fred Olen Ray, 1994), Backfire! (D: Dean Bell, 1995), etc.

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Augmenting his taste for the international high life, he was regularly featured in forgettable European movies shot across the Atlantic. Some of them were as dull as a wet Good Friday but made pots of money. Having worked with European moviemakers earlier, Telly was at ease with the European way of shooting schedules and locations all over Europe. In the movie business, one gets to work closely with a lot of people. His further outings into Continental productions also gained him good rapport with more moviemakers as well as with industry professionals and eminent personalities.

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A Town Called Hell (D: Robert Parrish, 1971) and A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die (D: Tonino Valerii, 1972) were shot in spaghetti film locations in Almeria and Madrid. His repertoire of European productions also included the Charles Bronson-Jill Ireland vehicle Città violenta (aka: Final Shot/The Family/Violent City, D: Sergio Sollima, 1970), Crime Boss (D: Alberto De Martino, 1972), Senza Ragione (aka Redneck, D: Silvio Narizzano, 1973), Faceless (aka. Les prédateurs de la nuit, D: Jesús Franco, 1987).

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Besides Telly’s appearance in Horror Express (1972), Italian director Mario Bava and producer Alfred Leone cast him in Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo, 1973 – re-edited into The House of Exorcism (1975)) as the devious butler Leandro, the Devil who lured Lisa (Elke Sommer) into the Spanish villa of a blind Contessa and her deranged son. It is in this masterpiece of Mario Bava, mainly shot during the latter half of 1972 in Toledo, outside Madrid and Barcelona that Bava showed the lollipop sucking Telly to great effect, and the sucker became Telly’s trademark in Kojak by late 1973.

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While his continuous interest in Continental filmmaking extended to the 1991-93 TV series  Ein Schloß am Wörthersee shot in Austria and Italy, Telly had also appeared in faraway locations like Australia where he shot Rose Against the Odds (D: John Dixon, 1991).

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Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame awarded him his Star in 1983. The following year, Telly and his third wife Julie Hovland were married. Having promised to be together for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, they remained married until his death.

On Saturday July 23, 1988, the tragedy struck. Christina Savalas, Telly’s mother and a leading American artist whose “Picassolike” work received local and international exhibitions, died of heart failure at age 84 at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, Burbank, California.

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On Saturday, January 22, 1994, one day after his 72 birthday, surrounded by wife Julie Hovland and family, Telly died of Prostate cancer at the suite he kept at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, Universal City. According to the death certificate, the cause is stated as Renal Failure/Metastatic Disease/Transitional Cell Cancer of Bladder.

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After services at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, Telly was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, on January 25, 1994. The large marker on the lawn of his grave contains the header “Telly Aristotle Savalas” (a) followed by the quote from Aristotle:

The hour of departure has arrived,

and we go our ways –

I to die and you to live.

Which is better God only knows.

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Telly has gone. Has he fulfilled his aims and ambitions? The question brings to mind a letter the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, when quite a young man, wrote to his sister about his aims and ambitions: “….. I have two and only two passionate desires – to be famous and to be loved. Will they ever be satisfied?”  As for Telly, maybe none may dispute that he had fulfilled both the desires Balzac was referring to.

Until next time, Jo

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Notes:

  1. The spelling of the middle name on the marker and the Certificate of Death: 39419004248 dt. 22-1-1994 shown in a website differs.
  2. This article owes its source to various newspapers, books, magazines, visual media, etc.
  3. Films forming part of the collection of Manningtree Archive are marked in bold.
  4. Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  5. DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
  6. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movies and performers of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Mr. Telly Savalas, Back to the Limelight…, Please!

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Part I

Life with many beginnings and endings is a progression of cycles. Just like the years before, the New Year arrived in the cyclical order – ushering in the divisions of days, weeks, months, various seasons, in conjunction with personal social relationship events such as the dates of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, etc. Within the past three weeks of January in the present calendar, there were few birthdays (including mine on 18th) and anniversaries of people I have had the privilege of knowing – and also a reminder of more to come as the year progresses – a good number of which must be reinforced by remembrance.

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Those with nostalgic longing for movies of the second half of the 20th century would not have to jog their memory much to remember the late Telly Savalas, the Film/Television actor, TV show host and Singer. Telly shared his birth and death in January – on consecutive days of 21st and 22nd. In many of us, the image of Telly Savalas was moulded not only from the characters he portrayed in a string of movies or from his presentations in Television, or the music albums but also from the wide attention he generated to himself by display of his images in a wide range of American-International magazines.

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Of those movies featuring him in a succession of devious characters, one could easily think of the box-office hit, The Dirty Dozen (D: Robert Aldrich, 1967) which presented Telly as a convict and brutal rapist; he was an earthy renegade killer whose frumpy mistress (Shelley Winters) described him as having “as much feelin’s as a bald-headed hog” in The Scalphunters (D: Sydney Pollack, 1968); a black marketer in Battle of the Bulge (D: Ken Annakin, 1965); a no-good army sergeant in Mackenna’s Gold (D: J. Lee Thompson, 1969), a sadistic bandit leader in A Town Called Hell (D: Robert Parrish, 1971); a crooked narcotics agent in Clay Pigeon (D: Tom Stern, 1971); the cold-blooded assassin in L’assassino… è al telefono (D: Alberto De Martino, 1972)….. and so the list goes on until he came across his alter ago Kojak.

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Like the bald headed Hollywood actor Yul Brynner, it is difficult to fully fathom the real story of Telly Savalas since he told a different story in every other interview – a phenomenon I had noticed while researching for this article.

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Aristoteles Savalas (a) was born in Garden City, New York, on January 21, 1922 (b). He was the second son of artist Christina Kapsalis (a former Miss Greece beauty queen from the Greek village of Anogia) and to Nicholas Constantine Savalas (originally spelled Tsavalas – hailing from the village of Gerakas), who made a fortune in tobacco, lost the lot and made another fortune in the bakery business. As teenagers, both his parents had emigrated to America in the early 1900s.

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The second of five children (three brothers: Constantine Socrates, George Demosthenes, Theodore Praxiteles and sister: Katherine), in his earlier days, Aristoteles who spoke fluent Greek, had to sell newspapers, shine shoes and work as a lifeguard to help support the family. Somewhere along the way, he became regularly known as Telly. Having enrolled in the army in 1941 and following four years of service during the World War II he was discharged duly decorated with a Purple Heart for injuries sustained. How he was wounded in the war is unclear – quite similar to the ambiguity about how his left index finger got slightly mangled.

7With the intention to pursue a career in the diplomatic service, Telly graduated in psychology from Columbia University where he had met Katherine Nicolaides. After his father’s death, Telly married Katherine in 1948 and together they had Christina. Following few years work with the Near East Information Services branch of the U. S State Department as host of the Your Voice of America series, ABC (American Broadcasting Company) News hired him as a producer. Having left ABC in January 1959, he had his first TV acting role in And Bring Home a Baby, of Sunday Armstrong Circle Theatre (1950–1963). Burt Lancaster saw his work and drew him to California to appear in episodes of the CBS TV series The Witness (1960-61).

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About the age of 39, Telly had forayed into acting in feature films, debuting with Mad Dog Coll (D: Burt Balaban, 1961) which chronicled the career of the Irish American gangster, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Telly portrayed the role of another Lieutenant in the crime drama film The Young Savages (D: John Frankenheimer, 1961), the first of Burt Lancaster’s four picture deal with United Artists (the other three being Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Train (1964) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965)).

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Luck played into his hands when, impressed by his performance in the roles of Al Capone and “Lucky” Luciano in The Witness in which the life and crimes of America’s notorious rogues are investigated at a committee of inquiry; and also in The Young Savages shot in New York, Lancaster provided him the important role of the solitary row prisoner Feto Gomez of Leavenworth Prison in the prison biography, Birdman of Alcatraz. This breakthrough role earned Telly an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Following his divorce from Katherine, in early 1960s when his film roles were mainly villainous, he got married for the second time to Marilyn (Lynn) Gardner.

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When director George Stevens’ cameo-packed dramatization of the life of Jesus Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) was announced, many eyebrows were raised at the parade of famous actors in unexpected roles. The casting of Telly as Pontius Pilate drew smiles from those who thought that a Brooklyn accent has no place in a Biblical epic.

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Stevens thought that the 6’1” Telly would look more virile and powerful in the role of the Roman prefect (governor) of Judaea if he shaved his head. Telly found the proposition extremely attractive and decided to go on with life as it was before retaining his signature bald look he took for his role in this Bible epic. Whyever not?

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He simply chose to shave his head for the look. By the way, men generally don’t grow beards because they dislike shaving – but because they think their whiskers make them look better and give them a distinctive image.

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He is on record in an interview as saying about the time Telly told his mother Christina vis-à-vis his casting in The Greatest Story Ever Told. She had rounded things off with the remark: “You are joking!” and she continued, “You’ll make a Marvellous Jesus!” She must hold the world record for being the world’s most optimistic mother.

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Telly had a memorable role as James Bond’s notorious arch-rival Ernest Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (D: Peter Hunt, 1969) in which stuntman Joe Powell nearly got killed doubling him in the bobsleigh in Switzerland. Two of his co-stars of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Donald Pleasance and Max von Sydow also played Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (D: Lewis Gilbert, 1967) and in Never Say Never Again (D: Irvin Kershner, 1983).

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Of his bald head, he once said that “everyone’s born bald.” In spite that Telly was typecast as a villain for being entirely bald, audiences took him to their hearts – believing that in the baddie they saw onscreen rested a sweet nature. His strong features and ethnic look came handy for the role of Shan in Genghis Khan (D: Henry Levin, 1965).

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The success of that film gave his career further fillip earning him roles in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (D: Melvin Frank, 1968), The Assassination Bureau (D: Basil Dearden, 1969), Kelly’s Heroes (D: Brian G. Hutton, 1970); Pretty Maids All in a Row (D: Roger Vadim, 1971), etc.  For the title role of Pancho Villa (1972), the bald look was vindicated by the shaving of his head in prison during the opening sequence.

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Since 1974, after a long separation Telly and Marilyn were divorced. According to the mini documentary “Telly Savalas: The Golden Greek”, he had met the beautiful Sally Adams while working on the movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service  (c). In 1973, Cojack with ‘c” hit the TV screens and his luck seems to improve.

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Although the bald-headed, deep, gravel-voiced Telly had been acting since the late 1950s, real popularity came looking for him in the title role of the famous CBS TV series Kojak (October, 1973-April, 1978) which was a spun-off from the made-for-TV pilot, The Marcus-Nelson Murders (D: Joseph Sargent, First American Broadcast: March 8, 1973).

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Few initial instalments showed him wade through a stereo-typed routine of law-and-order claptrap. But soon Kojak became a prime program as the series turned tough and reasonably true – taking on the look, sound, feel, taste, and smell of the New York crime investigations.

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Working out of a Precinct of Manhattan, Telly’s Lieutenant Theo Kojak, in fabulous three-piece suit, displayed a more credible human being. Much of the vicious power and toughness Telly had displayed in his earlier villainous roles were there. But the exception was that, in his new persona as the stubborn and tenacious good guy Kojak with a deep concern for people and justice, his wrath was targeted against the crooks, spooks and killers. Audiences related to Kojak’s passionate belief in equality and fairness and his vehement opposition to police bureaucracy. Well, you know the rest.

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While Telly reigned supreme in the role of the chrome-domed streetwise cop’s cop with a sweet tooth for sucking lollipops and a penchant to wisecrack snazzy lines, Telly soon became indelibly identified with the character of Kojak. “Telly and Kojak are one and the same,” Telly said in a TV interview, drawing a parallel between him and Kojak.

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His love for the suckers, I mean, his serious attitude towards the lollipops, reportedly to replace Telly’s addiction for long thin cigars, was initially featured in Episode eight “Dark Sunday” of Kojak in December 1973. This addiction for suckers could have its origins in Toledo, Spain and to Italian director Mario Bava, the father of Italian horror films.

This concludes Part I.  Part II will follow. Jo

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Notes:

  1. The spelling of first name is based on Certificate of Death: 39419004248 dt.22-1-1994 shown in a website although the name on his tombstone differs;
  2. The date is based on his death Certificate;
  3. Some sources maintain that Telly met Sally while working on the movie, The Dirty Dozen.
  4. This article owes its source to various newspapers, books, magazines, visual media, etc.
  5. Films forming part of the collection of Manningtree Archive are highlighted in bold.
  6. Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  7. DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
  8. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movies and performers of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

NOTRE DAME WILL STAND – Part II

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Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”

Here at last, we are at the queue at Portail de Sainte-Anne and these lines from: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lobster Quadrille (The Mock Turtle’s Song) by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) had crossed my mind. To whoever was right behind me at the queue – there certainly was urgency to get into the cathedral.

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Once inside, we would soon realise that the timing of the visit to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris was perfect for us. Before we could explore the double aisles, various chapels, rose windows, the ambulatory, etc, our attention was drawn to the streams of music wafting from the central transept where, we soon found the Chorus, soloists and an orchestra in jubilant mood – practising a classical music concert. So that explained the urgency at the queue.

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In comparison with its length, the cathedral is extremely broad. Standing over the black and white coloured floor tiles at the west end, the interior appeared well lit though I could see a marked variation between the principal nave, the transept and the chancel.

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However, despite the changes made to provide more light to the tribunes, in gloomy weather, the cathedral can still appear sombre and even cavernous. This subject about the light reminded me of an entry I once read in the Duchess of Windsor’s (Wallis Simpson) memoirs: “….As the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) walked past, I (Wallis) overheard him mutter to his uncle, the Duke of Connaught: “Uncle Arthur, something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly.” (1)

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Good music often transports me into another dimension. Slipping into a wooden bench nearer the transept, we spent some time in glorious musical bliss while the 14th century Statue of Virgin Mary Holding the Christ Child joyfully watched over us as she leaned against the south-east pillar where an altar dedicated to the Virgin had stood earlier. This work is dedicated to “Notre-Dame de Paris” and the most distinguished of nearly 40 representations of the Virgin inside the cathedral.

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At every moment in the world, things change and the shape of things to come seldom announced its presence among us, but later on. It was as if fate had planned our visit to arrive here right on our schedule. Had we lingered longer by the banks of the Seine and watched the barges and bateaux mouches float silently along the river; or indulged longer to thumb through dusty volumes at the quayside bouquinistes’ stalls selling bouquins (old used books) and other special treasures, while enjoying the kiss of the sun from above; or idled more time away sitting under the candy-stripped awning of the open-air café on the chestnut-lined boulevard, with a lingering glass of red and a croquet-monsieur, relishing the general joy of watching the moving stream of pedestrians; – then, we might never have reached this cathedral to enjoy the musical treat on that day. Punctuality works! Carina always said Punctuality is indeed my first, last and middle name.

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I was too entranced in the music to turn around to look up the nave at the West end where, directly below the artistic upper West Rose window is situated the great organ (one of the three) – a marked feature of the Cathédrale. Rebuilt by Thierry Lesclope in 1730, enlarged in 1785 by Cliquot, and improved by Cavaillè-Coll, it is reputedly the largest organ in France, There is no need for me to look back at it now. I had endeavoured to study it during earlier visits and my mental picture of that area is clear down to the upper ends of the organ’s pipes obstructing the lower half of that Rosette.

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Presently the musical performance came to a close, and a wave of applause swept through the cathedral. Most of the crowd, as if signalled by an internal green alert, had started to head for the exit – possibly, in search of the sun.  We resumed our exploration along the far-stretching southern aisle, passing the great cylindrical columns rising to support the vaulted ceilings, their weights being shared by the external flying buttresses on both sides of the huge structure. On our right was the line of chapels forming part of the numerous chapels around the walls.

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I can well understand why Notre Dame de Paris has had a splendid acceptance. In its long course of construction, this edifice had to transit through the art movements of Romanesque and the Gothic, a progression that branded it as a transitional structure. The gauzy structure of Gothic architecture resulted in the rise of stained glass, the virtual elimination of solid wall space and transformed the walls as connecting space for windows. At that time, the thought crossed my mind that all this would be of professional interest to my second daughter Andrea, engaged with her studies in architecture back home.

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An important feature on the southern side of the slightly projecting transept is the Rose window. Now this is an artful creation of bold, simple trellis designs with an amazing arrangement of stained glass work. The most frequent background was a red trellis on a blue field. During an earlier visit, I overheard a local guide mentioning about the window’s primary colours to a group of American tourists, suggesting that “it is very drawable.”

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But if we observe it with a painterly eye, there is a revelation. We could see the predominant blue dissolves for different colours; and the window glows in pink and crimson tones. The colours had been there to be found all the time. When taken as a boy to Notre Dame, it was this rose window of the south which seized upon the imagination of the great architect Viollet le Duc (January 1814 – September 1879) and stirred his passion for Gothic. In “Paris; the Magic City by The Seine”, author Gertrude Hauck Vonne explains that situation: “While gazing at it the organ began to play, and he (Viollet) thought that the music came from the window – the shrill, high notes from the light colors, and the solemn, bass notes from the dark and more subdued hues.”

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2-013As we proceeded further ahead, we would notice that not only the nave, but the choir, possessed double aisles. To our right was the entrance to The Sacristy (formerly part of the Palais Episcopal) and The Treasury which housed many precious things. Before going around the magnificent semi-circular apse at the east end to the northern aisle, one could see the High Altar; the three large statues: the Descent from the Cross; Louis XIII, (both by Guillaume Coustou, 1677 – 1746) and of Louis XIV (by Antoine Coysevox, 1640 – 1720). The Ambulatory (pourtour) of the Choir was raised above the body of the church by three steps, both sides enclosed by a low grille in wrought iron with gilding. I could well imagine the magnificent set-piece of pageantry of various ceremonial occasions held here; and how the echoes of many “Te Deums” had resonated inside these old walls for victories long forgotten, and for those many long remembered.

The removable stones of the pavement close to the small organ on the north side of the choir lead to a subterranean burial chamber for eminent officials of the cathedral. Remains of a small Gallo-Roman votive pillar to Jupiter (which I had mentioned in the First Part) were discovered some six feet beneath the apse during excavations for this crypt during 1711.

Prior to the northern Rose Window, one could see the famous Porte Rouge (Red Door), a masterpiece that dates back to the 14th century. It derived its name from its painted doors.

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Corresponding with the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris on the south is a statue of St. Denis by Nicolas Coustou in the north. Although many of the treasures were destroyed by the Revolution, granted there is time and inclination to explore the interior, one could spot the intrinsic beauty of many things that were well made – the sexpartite system of alternating ground supports, the clearstory, the stone step, the various windows, moulding round the doors, an artistic door handle, the numerous sculptures, fine chandeliers, paintings of much value ,… and the flowers at the foot of the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris which seem, to some, suddenly glow as if they were lit from within.

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Having purchased a Médaille for Andrea from a counter at the west end, we walked out through the northern Portail ae la Saint Vierge. In the bright sunlight one could clearly see the splendid character of the ironwork of the outer doors.

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Curious tradition relates this to the skill and energy of the devil. Up above, the grotesque representations of Chimères and gargouilles or “Devils of Notre Dame” lurked on strategic locations of the cathedral, scowling down from their point of vantage upon the French metropolis – probably their mark of attention even reached our present hotel somewhat closer to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – one of the many hotels of Paris noted also for its number of French oils – impressionist, expressionist, and abstract.

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As we took leave of Notre Dame de Paris, I reflected on the staying power of this ornate feat of architecture – this edifice of a community’s tangible bygone days. Have I missed something here? Although individual escape from the present into the past has rarely been more widespread than it is now, there is another side of the coin of course. Recently the world has witnessed the cruel destruction of historical monuments to suit the ideologies of certain groups.

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In September 2016, The Telegraph (UK) reported the discovery of upto seven cylinders of gas tanks and documents in a specific language in an unmarked Peugeot 607 next to Notre Dame cathedral, sparking fresh terror fears. Condemnations and appeals against such ideologies were heard. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, was the product of a similar protest and aimed to draw attention of his contemporaries to deter the destruction of existing architecture.

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By visiting and polishing up our love for noble monuments of the past, relating the stories behind their construction, understanding the masters who build them in their times, we not only comprehend the traditions, aesthetic and cultural history of an area but also of the high-values reached by civilization. Time is the most precious commodity I possess. I am glad that the hour glass of my life is also filled by precious moments like the favourite footpaths I have treaded in the course of my visit here – helpful journeys into the past which I am excited to make from time to time. And, hopefully, when I come back here again, I know Notre Dame de Paris will be here – waiting. Jo

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Notes:

  • Besides other improvements, the Cathedral’s lighting system was upgraded by late 2012 owing to a year-long 850th anniversary celebration.
  • For those in need of flowers for Notre Dame de Paris, there is a huge selection at Marché aux fleurs, Place Louis Lépine – Quai de la Corse near Cité Metro Station.
  • I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
  • This article is dedicated to my daughter Andrea Lalis Sebastine, the architect in our family.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Flutter by, Melodic Butterflies

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There’s a song in the air !

        There’s a star in the sky !

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I have always found music delightful for relaxation. Lately I had been listening to music either streamed or downloaded from the web where we could find any kind of music we wish for. Unlike the effort to flip through our musical collections of vinyl albums, CDs, cassettes and videos for enjoying music in the conventional way, one needs only to flick some icons on the web, and the music comes pouring into the room. But how can I resist from admitting that I like music on physical formats, especially the tangible experience of holding a vinyl album and admiring the big cover art while it plays with the pops and cracks and imperfections of an old gramophone record.

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A week ago we were sorting out the Christmas albums in the storage shelf where they were waiting for the right time to arrive when we would let them play their joyful melodies – to experience the pleasure they would bring us.

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Waiting for Christmas! The instance reminded me of an old adage which relates that “a test for true love is a rose which has been picked on Midsummers’ Day and put away until Christmas. If it is found still fresh at Christmas, the love of the girl who plucked it and her beau will run true and flourish.” – the kind of love where the boy will kneel down and tell her that she is the sweetest, most charming and ravishing girl in the world and that he would be unable to live one more second without her! I personally know of instances like this.

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But vis-à-vis our present subject, the fact remains that listening to greater part of carols and Christmas songs surely create an effect we aspire to in our house.

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Christmas time is a warm and nostalgic time of a year – and Christmas, winter’s merriest tale, is all about the birth of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly told without music. As it happens, throughout the festive season and often beyond – while we set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, or hang up the stockings and decorations, or prepare the feast, or merry-make in the festive gathering, we play them as background music just for the warmth and joy of those seasonal melodies.

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Those are classical instrumentations by Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc, or sung by choirs, or carol singers or by Earl Grant, Ray Conniff, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, Nina Simone, Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Fernand Gignac, Nana Mouskouri, Celine Dion, Muriel J, Jose Feliciano, Ajejandro Sanz, Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rod Stewart, Boney M and many others.

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Behind those songs were the lyrical and musical talents of folk singers, monks, the clergy, literary and musical luminaries.

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In the movies “The Alamo” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), the viewer might have noticed a versatile actor named Jester Hairston who was also a songwriter/composer/conductor and singer. In 1956, Hairston wrote fresh lyrics for an earlier song he had written titled “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and attuned in calypso rhythm but was never recorded in that form.

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The song with the new lyrics, later characterised as a Christmas carol, was titled “Mary’s Boy Child” and the world first heard of it when Harry Belafonte released it through his album “An Evening with Belafonte” (1956).

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The song was subsequently recorded by music artists such as Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, including a version in 1978 by Boney M which is still popular like most of the Boney M songs released when they were in the prime of their time.

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Christmas carols lend an air to this festive season and over the years have spawned a variety of classics to make good cheer. In England of the olden days, groups went on “Wassailing” for “luck-visits” from house to house at Christmas time – singing carols and sharing the contents of their wassail bowls for which they expected to be rewarded with gifts, food and drinks.

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15They were considered to be the forerunners of modern day carol singers. This practise later evolved into modified versions. Then again, what is true in England is also true in Italy and in our Cochin, or everywhere.

And so, wassailing was enacted in our Cochin also when numerous groups dressed in character of Santa Claus and shepherds and shepherdesses in knee-length, floating skirts as dancers, together with their entourage of singers and musicians. They visited houses, predominantly in Fort Cochin and the coastal belt, to entertain during Christmas time.

Although this practise is slowly dying down, few groups are still active during the Christmas season. The songs which maintain great popularity in their street collection lists are “Jingle Bells”, and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” which tells of the approach of Santa Claus and his pack of reindeers.

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These songs are nice accompaniments to dancing and rather similar to renditions such as “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc.

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20Interspersed in their collection are popular songs from movies or simultaneously, versions in local language which some enlightened ones find not ‘hip’ and very un-English without some English terms peppered in it. But if there is one carol that is generally heard here throughout the Christmas time is the English version of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), a reverential rendition written in German in 1816 by Friar Joseph Mohr of Austria with music added to it by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.

This is said to be one of the main songs (and also ‘Adeste Fideles’) the German and the English soldiers jointly sung on the first Christmas of the First World War, in 1914 when, in a spontaneous and unofficial Christmas truce, their guns fell silent for a brief period and they emerged out of their trenches into no-man’s land in a number of places along the Western Front: to exchange gifts, cigarettes and joyously sing carols and songs to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. They knew that the war was going to last a long time and many would not live through for another Christmas Day or even see their wives back home knitting socks for the soldiers at the Front.

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This chivalry between enemies in the military air to uphold the Christmas spirit is depicted in the films: “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas – 2005/French); Oh, What a Lovely War (1969/UK) (1)

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Many a Christmas carols and songs have played at the chords of the human heart with its angelic fingers: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” covers the 12 days starting with Christmas Day till 6th January (Epiphany); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “In The Bleak Mid-winter”; “Joy to the World”; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”; “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”; “Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful”; “In Excelsis Gloria”, and many many more. Some of these titles are highlighted here.

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The most ancient carols known to us date from the Middle Ages. Historians contend that the word “Carol” passed from French into the English language in about 1300 and was associated with words, music and dance. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century.

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These carols shadow forth the true spirit of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends. In most cases, they were by and large in Latin which was the medium for prayers and chants in the churches in those days. Latin being unversed to most common men of Italy, San Francesco di Assisi presented the carols in his native language – supported by theatrics.

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From there it gathered popularity, and despite occasional hindrances (such as the temporary abolition of Christmas in England in the 17th century), it survived through transitory periods spanning the medieval, the renaissance (rise of music printing and of vocal music performed with instruments), the baroque (invention of opera), the rococo (rise of comic opera and the symphony), the classicism (flowering of instrumental music), the romanticism (rise of the conductor and the golden age of the piano), the post-romanticism (dominance of mammoth orchestra), up to our time. In 1918, carols received the biggest boost when the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, a Christmas Eve service which includes carols and readings from the Bible, were adopted by King’s College Cambridge.

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People vary greatly in their way of responding to music. Tastes have altered. Then again, there is great proliferation of Christmas carols and songs, owing to the creative flair of many contemporary musicians who retain its originality.

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As for us, we treasure each Christmas of our years gone past – its virtues of humility, generosity and love. We admire the splendour of its true traditions: the birth of baby Jesus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas crib, the star, the old decorations of rosemary and bays, the holly and the ivy, the poinsettias (Flores de Noche Buena/Flowers of the Holy Night), the Mistletoe, the greeting cards, exchange of gifts, the banquet which includes plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, Christmas ale, and of course, Santa Claus, dancing and singing….

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Although the Christmas festive season will come only once a year, our steadfast delight in the Christmas carols and songs ensure that those cherished melodies flutter around in our house, like butterflies, whatever the season may be. Enjoy your Christmas holidays! Ho! Ho! Ho!! Jo

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Notes:

  • Christmas Truce: In books: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub; Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy, etc. It is also the theme of Sainsbury’s official Christmas 2014 Advertisement
  • DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred above is available with main dealers of movies.
  • This is dedicated to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI who received Doctorates honoris causa on 04 July 2015 for five contributions to knowledge and culture – which includes his great respect for the musical tradition of the Church and his remarkable sensitivity to the music of faith. May he enjoy blessings of good health.

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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That Cyd! The Beautiful Dynamite *

cyd1MARCH 8: Remembering American actress and dancer Cyd Charisse (1922 – 2008) of films: Ziegfeld Follies (1945); Singin’ in the Rain (1952); The Band Wagon (1953); It’s Always Fair Weather (1956); Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956); Silk Stockings (1957); Party Girl (1958); Something’s Got to Give (1962); The Silencers (1966), etc. cyd2cyd3Born on March 8, 1922, she was originally known as Tula Ellice Finklea, and later by the name “Lily Norwood” before she became popular as Cyd Charisse – the leggy fabulous dancer who brightened up the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, notably opposite Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. In her autobiography, “Debbie: My Life”, actress Debbie Reynolds quoted: “Cyd did everything perfectly. Her legs went over her head and into the sky.” cyd4Cyd Charisse will be missed by many. She now reposes at the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, Los Angeles County, California where actress Shelley Winters is also buried. One of the most beautiful talented dancers on film, Cyd will always be in our hearts.

cyd5Cyd, You danced into our hearts. You will never be forgotten.  Jo

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Notes:

a)       The DVDs and music albums of most of the movies referred in this post are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

b)       This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of the actors and movies referred therein. Please refer to “About” for more details.

c)       * Referred as “beautiful dynamite” in “Steps in Time: An Autobiography” by Fred Astaire

(© Manningtree Archive)

VIENNA – A TRYST WITH VERDI

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On July 21st, Philippe Léopold Louis Marie became the seventh king of Belgium when his father King Albert II of Belgium abdicated citing age and failing health. Minutes later, the father and son appeared on the balcony of Palais Royal in Brussels in the presence of Queen Paola, Philippe’s wife Queen Mathilde (d’Udekem d’Acoz), their four children and former Queen Fabiola, while a huge crowd cheered and shouted “Long live the king” from below. The new sovereign vowed to strive for the unity of the nation. Promise is a big word. Promises bind us to each other, and to a common commitment for the future.

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The sight of Palais Royal resurfaced memories of our visit to Belgium few years ago in fulfilment of a promise I made to Carina.  Of the many attractions we saw there – the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and the baroque and gothic guildhalls and Town Hall surrounding it; the Sablon Square (De Zavel or Le Sablon); the Cathedral of St Michael and Saint Gudula; the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Basilica of Koekelberg); the 1619 bronze fountain statue of a little boy by Jerome Duquesnoy called Mannekin Pis; to name a few, we had also taken time to see the Palais Royal from outside even though it was a wet day.

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6Then again, few years prior to that visit to Belgium, we went to Vienna (Austria) to fulfil yet another promise I made for her birthday – to take her to the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) to enjoy Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata(1).

Now, “La Traviata” initially came to my attention when I purchased the album “Favourite Arias” of Spanish soprano Victoria de Los Ángeles (Victoria Gómez Cima, 1923-2005) back in the late eighties. This re-issue of excerpts from complete operas included Bizet’s “Carmen”, Gounod’s “Faust”, Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and “Madama Butterfly”, among others.

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Classical music was always close to my heart. In a way, all music tends to become classical as time goes on. Although living in Cochin didn’t offer the chance to go to a ballet or opera or jazz concert, European classical music was not inaccessible to me during my teens owing to radio broadcasts of Voice of America, or audio cassettes or gramophone records.

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9Then there were opportunities to listen to it during visits to the friendly houses of a Fernandez or a Rozario or a Ferrero located in the vicinity of the Infant Jesus Church in Cochin or at Fort Cochin where, almost certainly, on my way to the Santa Cruz Cathedral or back on a Sunday morning I could also be elated over the ebullient and melodious classical repertoire wafting from the houses of the Anglo-Indians – pieces of music which I could not identify then, but gave me the impulse and motivation to learn by ear.  All I had to do was open my mind to it.

Although I have not seen as many operas as Carina, we have over the years enjoyed few performances at Teatro La Fenice de Venezia and Teatro alla Scala in Milano where I would have also loved to enjoy some performances by the great Maria Callas (1923 – 1977) during those remarkable years when she sang there.

As for La Traviata, in spite of our many visits to Europe and England, it’s dates had always eluded us until we decided to fly over to Vienna to see director Otto Schenk’s version at the Wiener Staatsoper, reputed to be the house with the largest repertoire performed under the direction of talents of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm, Lorin Maazel and many others.

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Having booked our tickets online through the Vienna Ticket Office, we had opted to collect them from their office at Brucknerstraße, instead of having them send to India or to Room no: 414 of Hilton Vienna Danube where we would be staying or to pick them up at the Box Office at the venue.

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It was my first visit to Austria though I had long association with that country from 1993 onwards owing to my involvement in purchase of ship loads of Austrian Sawn Softwood for delivery at Hodeidah in Yemen where I was working for many years.

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For us, the opportunity to watch an opera at the Wiener Staatsoper (VSO) was a wonderful experience. It is an imposing building in the corner of Kärntnerstraße and Vienna Ringstraße (Opernring 2) in the very heart of cultural Vienna. It was constructed in Renaissance style during the years 1861-1869 to the plans of Viennese architect August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813-68) with interiors designed by Edward van der Nüll (1812-1868) using the Viennese “city expansion fund”.

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How wonderful it must have been to witness the arrival of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) in their phaeton (Mylord) to inaugurate the Imperial Opera House on May 25, 1869 which was followed by the staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. This event had happened 250 years since Aleotti’s Teatro Farnese, claimed as the first proscenium-arch theatre of the Continent, was set up at Parma in 1618 although the first public opera-house was opened only in 1637 at Venice by composer Cavalli.

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Originally called the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Hofoper), it was renamed Vienna State Opera when the Habsburg Monarchy collapsed and Austria emerged as a republic. The VSO guided tour offers the opportunity of an extensive tour of the building including the entrance foyer, central staircase, Marble Hall, Schwind Foyer, Gustav Mahler Hall (formerly “Tapestry Hall”), the auditorium and Tea Salon (formerly the Emperor’s Salon) on the first floor. We can also see the medallions of the original designers, many paintings symbolizing the ballet, the opera and the ceiling painting (“Fortuna, ihre Gaben streuend“) adorning the staircase in addition to the allegorical statues featuring the seven liberal arts: architecture, sculpture, poetry, dance, musical art, drama; etc.

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Apart from the impressive structural aspects of the building and its popularity for being a venue of the Wiener Opernball for many decades and certainly, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; the opera house owes its progress to the artistic influence of its original directors: Franz von Dingelstedt (1867–1870), Johann von Herbeck (1870–1875), Franz von Jauner (1875–1880), Wilhelm Jahn (1881–1897) and Gustav Mahler (1897–1907).

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During World War II, the city suffered fifty-two air raids in which about twelve thousand buildings including St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), the Burg Theatre, etc, were destroyed and nearly eleven thousand inhabitants of Vienna were killed. The ugly reality was the auditorium, stage and almost the entire décor and props for more than 120 operas with around 150,000 costumes were destroyed in the bombings of March, 1945. Given that the theatre occupied a privileged position in Vienna and united public interest on it, the building was rebuilt based on a plan of Erich Boltenstern, the winner of the Opera House’s architectural competition who kept his design similar to the original. Hence, the façade, the entrance hall and the foyer that we see remain in their original style.

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20On November 5, 1955, the Opera House once again opened its doors to the public with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Karl Böhm (1943–1945 and 1954–1956). Over the days in Vienna, we could enjoy glimpses of the grandeur of the building; the two statues of riders on horseback (representing Erato’s two winged horses that are led by “Harmony and the Muse of Poetry”) on the main façade of the loggia; the artistic marble staircase; the numerous statues and figurative embellishments inside and outside including “Die Zauberflöte” series of frescoes on the veranda and in the foyer credited to Schwind; the completely re-built horseshoe-shaped auditorium and the well-protected stage that stretched its entire width; the orchestra pit that could hold about 110 musicians; the ring of built-in ceiling lights made of crystal glass; the seating in traditional colours of red, gold, and ivory; the reinforced concrete side boxes covered with wood for acoustic reasons; and the largest pipe organ with 2,500 pipes – the core centre where Wiener Staatsoper had created a world-wide reputation for its first-class opera performances by nearly all great singers of international rank in the course of the past hundred years.

The Turkish taxi-driver, with a head full of dark wavy hair, who took us to the opera house, appeared to be an eternal sunny optimist – always smiling and cheerful. Right this moment when we went past the Wiener Prater (2 Bezirk), the theme from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” filled the taxi. The one that followed was from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”. Obviously, opera means so much to the people of Vienna and also to those who came and made it their home.

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Indeed, music gives Vienna its core, and that is the beauty of this City of Music. It’s a city truly in love with artists. In its heyday, it had a string of greats such as Hayden, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss – enriching it with their contributions. Beethoven owed his first success to his piano-playing in Vienna. Vivaldi died in Vienna (2). A staff of FNAC, Milano once told me that the Viennese operetta is the chief root from which American musical grew. And then, Vienna is the birthplace of waltz. Wherever you go, you hear ‘the sound of music’.

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Although music is the main factor in opera, its effect and success depended on a combination of other arts and factors, namely, literature, poetry, design, costume, stage, painting, sound, lighting; and essentially the singer or the impresario, conductor, orchestra, chorus, etc. Human drama underlined the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), Verdi’s successor.

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33With a repertoire of about 26 to 28 operas, Giuseppe 25(Fortunino Francesco) Verdi (1813-1901) is undoubtedly the most successful and popular composer admired by audiences, critics and music scholars alike. Following the successful adaptation of French novelist/playwright Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas fils, 1824-1895) novel “The Lady of the Camelias” (1848 – “La Dame aux Camélias”) as a stage play in 1852, Verdi immediately put music to the libretto (text) by Murano born Francesco Maria Piave (1810 –1876), transforming it into an opera titled “La Traviata” (The Fallen Woman). The female protagonist, Marguerite Gautier (3) (based on Marie Duplessis, (aka Alphonsine Plessis, 1824-1847), the real-life lover of Dumas) was also renamed as Violetta Valéry.

Verdi’s “La Traviata” in three acts features a wonderful poignant story laced with scintillating, tragic music. Since its first appearance on March 6, 1853 at Teatro La Fenice, “La Traviata” has held the stage continuously, just as “Rigoletto” (1851) and “Il Trovatore” (1853). “La Traviata” was not unfamiliar to us owing to a DVD in our collection – the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version (1988) directed by Peter Hall featuring Marie McLaughlin and Walter MacNeil (4). (Images from this version are reproduced under the “Synopsis” mentioned below).

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At the Wiener Staatsoper, the Maestro has by now stepped into the orchestra pit and the theatre reverberated with joyous shrieks and applause of the marvellous Vienna audience. Suddenly he turned to face the orchestra. Hush fell in the theatre as he raised his arms, readying for his electrifying volatile and expressive gesturing. A beat – and the performance began.

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Synopsis: Paris and environs, around 1850. During a glittering party at the reformed courtesan Violetta’s house to celebrate her recovery from an illness, Gastone, the Vicomte de Letorieres, introduced Violetta to a clean-living young bourgeois Alfredo Germont whom she has long admired. Following a fiery drinking song (Brindisi “Libiamo ne’lieti calici”) by Alfredo, having felt dizzy and occasionally caught coughing, Violetta nudged the others, including her ‘protector’, the wealthy Baron Douphol, to proceed to the ballroom next door for dancing.

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Soon Alfredo joined her and confessed his love for her (duet. ‘Un di felice, eterea’’). He had been living with this secret love for some time. Although Violetta wanted them just to remain friends saying that she cannot bear the burden of such heroic love, she nevertheless gave him a camellia which he should bring back to her when it has died. Alfredo realised that it would mean tomorrow. Evidently, his love has taken quick steps towards her heart.

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Once Alfredo had left and the dawn started to appear in the sky, all the others bid her thanks and took their leave. Alone, in the quite of the room, she felt that she can’t outrun the darkness of her life and the tumult of lust and festivities surrounding it, even though she longed to fill it with light from the happiness of pure love which had eluded her till then (E strano! E strano! Ah, fors’è lui che l’anims ……. Sempre libera). Act I ends here.

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Act II opens at Violetta’s country house outside Paris where Alfredo and Violetta were living together for some time. When Alfredo learns from Annina, their servant (De’ miei bollenti spiriti) that Violetta is to sell the property in order to support herself, thereupon, he proceeded to Paris to resolve this issue. Before long, she was visited by Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont who asked her to give up his son since his humiliating relationship with Violetta will adversely affect the reputation of his family and marriage of his daughter (Pura siccone un angelo) who is as pure as an angel.

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Once Germont has left, having persuaded her to renounce her lover (duet ‘Un di, quando le veneri’) due to social disapproval, the heartbroken Violetta wrote two letters – one addressed to Alfredo. She hides the letter for Alfredo when he took her by surprise on his sudden return from Paris. Veiling her feelings behind a passionate embrace for a moment, she broke away from him and she ran out of the room. Her letter was subsequently delivered to Alfredo through a messenger. Heartbroken from learning that she’s leaving him, the depressed Alfredo was consoled by his father who has just arrived. (‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’) ……..

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What a day that has been! Right up until the end, excitement had thrummed through us even though the performance was not long. The success of Verdi’s operas is resultant to his unique talent to establish character and feeling through melody, which the listener was able to quickly understand and feel. Immensely popular, “La Traviata” is today a staple of the standard operatic repertoire.

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35The Italian version of “La Traviata” we saw was the 248th 36performance in this production and conducted by Hungarian classical conductor Michael Halász who had taken over the post of resident conductor at VSO in 1991. The Chorus was led by Ernst Dunshirn.

Our seats nos: 3 and 4 in the seventh row, right in the front, provided us with a clear view of the performance, the costumes, interior decorations, hand props, modes and manners though this vantage point didn’t allow us to catch some interplay between the conductor and musicians.

The opera music demands more vocal range and techniques. A considerable degree of musicianship is also required of the singers. Albanian soprano Inva Mula, with her beautiful, robust voice that cut through the orchestrations, led the cast as Violetta Valéry, the “Dame aux Camélias” with her self-sacrificing devotion in the face of tragedy.

Although Verdi has given some spectacular music to Alfredo (portrayed here by tenor Roberto Aronica), it is Violetta who dominates the show. The sort of spiritual quality Verdi injects into most of his heroines is also evident in Violetta.

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38I can understand why the character of Violetta, who lived in her tender and morbid world, is a difficult one for any soprano, as some critics have pointed out. As British soprano Josephine Barstow expressed, “You have to sing Verdi with heart.” The brilliant opening act “Sempre Libera” requires great agility just as the other acts which also demand considerable dramatic vigour. Besides, there is the problem of attempting to portray a dying person, without compromising the musical aspect of the role. These are aspects of this opera that allows you to delve into its deeper 39depths. However entertaining an opera was, it would be meaningless if it serves only to entertain but failed to educate and stimulate the brain.

While the costumes were based on designs by Hill Reihs-Gromes, the credit for stage design went to Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The other members of the cast were: Zsuzsanna Szabó (Flora Bervoix), Waltraud Winsauer (Annina), Franco Vassallo (Giorgio Germont), John Wiedecke (Baron Douphol), etc. The main cast jointly appeared during all the three performances of this opera during that season, while Winsauer was almost a constant figure in the role of Annina from 1984 till 2008.

40Like Joseph Losey’s “Don Giovanni” (1979) and Francesco Rosi’s “Carmen” (1984), “La Traviata” has also spawned its film versions. Besides “The Lost One” (1947, original title: “La signora dalle camelie“) in English by director Carmine Gallone starring Nelly Corradi; and the 1968 film musical of Mario Lanfranchi, starring Anna Moffo and Franco Bonisolli; Franco Zefferilli’s production of “La Traviata” came out in 1982 starring Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Like millions of feature films, there are good, bad and undistinguished operas. The excellent amongst these provide us with the true satisfaction of what opera is all about. There are millions of connoisseurs of opera, ever-increasing, who care for the arias, duets, ensembles, choruses, marches, ballets, and finales of the operatic spectacles. Its grand and exuberant style, its traditions and culture, its conventions and law have survived and still thrive on with encouragement from millions. Maria Callas reportedly did so much to build interest in this lyric drama.

In spite of the public interest in all things operatic, opera remains unawakened in many countries. It is also viewed with prejudice by some young and adults who would not go to symphony concerts or ballet performances or operas as they get easily stimulated by glossy mass entertainments, for instance, pounding music and the kind of dances that is rather physical exercise, in colourful clothes, for which most kids of today can easily display their forte.

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Expansion of opera into developing countries where opera remains ignored offers great potential. Hindrances due to language have already been bridged in France, Germany, Russia, England, America, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, etc. It also exists in varied forms in Japan, Korea, Thailand, China, ….

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43Like many States of India, Kerala, not unfamiliar to the magic of theatre, has a wealth of traditional ethnic performing art forms featuring ancient, religious and contemporary themes. In addition to Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kalaripayattu, Oottan Thullal, Oppana, etc, there are also other versions of dramas including, the vanishing art, the colourful “Chavuttu Nadakam” (The Stomping Drama) which mainly features European history or Biblical stories, mostly centring on Emperor Charlemagne.

This coastal traditional art of Kerala with elaborate costumes, abrupt body movements to music, which owes its origins to the Christian missionaries who came to Kerala in the 16th century, virtually resembles the opera.

But progress in the field of performing arts like opera face hindrances since, nowadays, concern for culture takes a back seat while certain commercially viable disciplines are favoured in some countries.

As for India, the growth of traditional performing arts like Chavuttu Nadakam, and also opera, ballet, etc, should have had better chance of progress with the entry of corporate bodies into the global show biz. Besides, encouraged by thriving business, entertainment sectors like film industry, music promoters, etc, presently envisage tremendous improvement from global expansion. Yet another contributing factor is the spending power of the growing middle-class of India.

Keeping in tune with this, more avenues of opportunities are emerging as an increased number of TV channels, radio stations and print media are sprouting all over the place, triggering aggressive clamour for news, sensational and exclusive – especially from entertainment shows, celebrity gossip and catchy advertisements to fill the thousands of slots in television/radio and in pages of print media.

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Some of the people I have spoken to here have not seen an opera and are ambiguous of its characteristics. Opportunities to enjoy such arts are not part of the itinerary of travel packages on offer for the vast amount of Indian tourists visiting Europe. Nevertheless, the encouraging part is that they are interested in knowing of it. Maybe those with vibrant operatic culture should more vigorously shoulder the task of making firm footing for global promotion of such traditional performing arts also and create opportunities for people to get acquainted with it – to generate interest in them to understand and enjoy those arts. But forget the disappointments – it is heartening to see that institutions like JT Pac, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, etc, are trying to bridge this setback.

45Late into that night, in the comfort of Hotel Hilton Vienna Danube, I sat by the window of our room writing down every detail and idea that came my way about our joyful tryst with Verdi, before the performance recedes into memory. As the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said, “Opera is not exclusively for the elite”. Like Luciano Pavarotti, and Mirella Freni, I cannot read music nor do I know how sentences work in Italian. Nevertheless, having seen the DVD and closely studied written materials of this opera and other classics in our possession innumerable times, the hindrances were easily surmounted, though I still find Wagner a bit heavy to stomach. Then again, for an occasional clarification, there was the expert sitting next to me, though her handkerchief was frequently making its short journeys up to her face to wipe away the emotions generated from the show on stage.

Now with our extensive collection of books, DVDs and other audio/video recordings of operas and its excerpts, our operatic adventure is still continuing.

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Hilton Vienna Danube is the only waterfront hotel in Vienna. It has large rooms with all amenities, superb service, and offers stunning views from the right bank of River Danube (Donau), the trade highway stretching from the German Black Forest and snakes through Central and Eastern Europe to touch the Black Sea on the coast of Romania.

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From the window I could see the silhouette of the six-lane Reichsbrücke (Empire Bridge) cutting across the charming Danube to my left. The sight of Danube conjured up excerpts from Johann Strauss II’s “Le beau Danube bleu” in my mind.

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Even in the night, I could see light and heavy boats plying through the river time to time, even though swimmers, rowers and surfers and boats of Hundertwasser Tour or Grand Danube River Cruise were missing now. Beyond the river, I could see a string of lights of an incessant number of aircrafts in the dark sky, possibly somewhere above Pillichsdorf or Aderklaa, following an invisible path to make their U-turn, to position for landing at the Vienna International Airport (Flughafen Wien) to my right, which often induced queries from Carina about how “I am directing the air-traffic from my seat by this window”.

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Tomorrow, despite the threat of rain, our daytrips would cover some ladies shopping at Mariahilfer Straße, and explore the book shops on Wollzeile near Stephansdom, followed by Sacher-Torte and Glühwein at Café Sacher Wien, a delightful place to be in and enjoy the original torte or an apple strudel or their good variety of cakes, coffees, food items, et al, in great ambiance and with friendly service.

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It’s time to call it a day. Perhaps I would stay awake for a while before sleep hits me – as I sometimes do after reading a book or enjoying a movie past the zero hours. But then, I wouldn’t find it a reason to complain. As legend says, when you can’t sleep at night, it’s because you are awake in someone else’s dream. There goes my heart…. Until next time, Servus, Jo

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31)     Wiener Staatsoper is closed from July 1st until August 31st and reopens with a performance of “La Traviata” on September 3rd, 2013.

2)    Other major Composers who died in Vienna and their year of death: Antonio Vivaldi (1741); Christoph Willibald Gluck (1787); Franz Joseph Hayden (1809); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791); Ludwig van Beethoven (1827); Franz Schubert (1828); Johann Strauss II (1899); Johannes Brahms (1897); Anton Bruckner (1896); Gustav Mahler (1911), etc.

3)    Actresses who had performed on stage in the most coveted role of Marguerite Gautier include Lillian Gish, Tallulah Bankhead, Isabelle Adjani, dancer/Impresario Ida Rubinstein and of course, the great Sarah Bernhardt, who also schooled Ida in this role.

4)    DVDs and other audio/visual media of “La Traviata” including the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version (1988) directed by Peter Hall (from which images are shown under the “Synopsis” above) are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

5)    Reproduction of photos credited to “WienTourismus” appearing in this post was made possible through the permission of Vienna Tourist Board, Vienna, Austria.

6)    Photo of “Café Sacher Wien” was reproduced here with the kind permission of Hotel Sacher Wien.

7)    The three uncredited photos of Hilton Vienna Danube: courtesy of Hotel Hilton Vienna Danube.

8)    This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of the opera. Please refer to “About” of this website for more details.

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A glance backward: This article is dedicated to the memory of Maria Callas,

one of the towering figures of opera.

(© Manningtree Archive)

LivingMusic: Nana Mouskouri – A Place in My Heart

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It seems like only yesterday since I returned from Madrid in July, and today I am packing for yet another journey – this time back to Bangkok. The good side of packing is that it not only makes you take stock of the essentials you will need for the itinerary you have in mind, but also makes you realize that the next few weeks are not meant for a mundane or mediocre life. It will be days of life in hotel rooms, of room service, taxis, laptop, different timmings ……

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Bangkok is not a Mr. Stranger to me – once a Bang (village) of thatched houses amidst the kok (wild plum) trees that eventually took the form of “Bangkok”. It is home to many of my friends and to my business connections whom we make it a point to visit almost every year since the last eleven years.

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The people of Bangkok have a certain energy and personality, a certain charm and graciousness. Thai tranquility is the result of their supreme tolerance of others.

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True to its dictum as the Land of Smiles, we have had quite a good measure of momentous and happy moments there.

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This would be our first Christmas in Bangkok even though we had a lovely time there for New Year back in 2006 having spent the Christmas of 2005 in Singapore. Being in Bangkok would mean that 2012 would be the second time since we moved into our present apartments that the Christmas decorations and the crib will not be set up.

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7I will miss the beauty that would have surrounded me in the festive decorations throughout our house, illuminated with the glow of candles and fairy lights. We will also miss making mince pies in our house, and tucking presents in secret places. However, the Christmas tree, stars and angels have all appeared in their relevant places.

Talking of angels, the other day I was playing Greek singer Panos (Panagiotis) Psaltis’ Aggele Mou (My Angel) while sorting out my suitcases. Now, that is a song with so much sadness within it that it tugs at your heart strings. In this poignant song that wafted out of my music system, Panos calls for an angel to come down to earth to give advice on how to heal his troubled heart.

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Then again, many a Greek songs have a peculiar melancholic aura that hangs around your head for a while when you first hear them – at least for me. Of the few singers from Greece of the 1960s I like, how can I forget Nana Mouskouri or Demis Roussos (Forever and Ever) whose songs capture the flavour and spirit of Greece perfectly?

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Carina has seen Nana Mouskouri (born Ionna Mouschouri) at a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London sometime back and, like the rest of the audience felt transported to Greece with Nana’s beautiful melancholic songs. The one song she liked in particular was the 1961 version of “White Roses from Athens” (Weiße Rosen aus Athen), which I too agree is a beautiful song.

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Born to theatre usherette Aliki (Alice) and film projectionist Constantine Mouskouri in Chania, Crete in Greece on October 13, 1934, Nana Mouskouri’s education in music started at a very early age. Aiming for a career in the classical field, her lessons were rooted in piano, harmony and vocal. Conforming to her parents wish for her to become a classical artist, in 1950, she continued to pursue the same lessons at the classical Athens Conservatoire. In spite of this, when she heard the compositions of American Jazz music and blues, her interests took a turn to pop music and Jazz which would cast a strong influence in her musical career. She wanted to sing like Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

15aMaking her radio debut in 1956, she became the leading female vocalist on Radio Athens. In 1958, she met the renowned classical musician Mános Hadjidákis who had provided music for the movie “Never On Sunday” (Pote tin Kyriaki). In Greece, Mános Hadjidákis and Mitzi Theodorakis are the great poets of song. Although her shift from serious music prevented her from sitting for her final exams as she was not keeping with her classical studies, she formed a small jazz group consisting of friends and started performing as a songstress at the Tzaki, a “tavern” in Athens and later in various nightclubs in the Greek capital.

16aMoved by Nana’s artistry, Hadjidákis went ahead to compose pop songs for her. Having done her initial recording in Greece, Nana went on to win honours at the 1960 Festival of Mediterranean Song in Barcelona (Spain). Her impressive performance against highly professional competitors brought her a recording contract with Paris-based Phillips-Fontana and many offers. It was the beginning of a shooting star called Nana Mouskouri.

Nana was soon to become popular all over the world as one of the greatest Greek singers. But before all this, when she was thirty-three, she embarked on a tour with Harry Belafonte throughout America which turned out to be highly successful. Belafonte had been looking for a partner having decided to part from Myriam Makeba (yes, the one who sang “Pata Pata” in 1957). In her “Memoirs”, Nana writes about how she embarked on this tour.

17aIn order to audition Nana, whom Belafonte had seen on Eurovision, had sought the help of Quincy Jones and Irving Green to have her brought over to New York. Although Nana met up with Belafonte and his wife Julie for dinner at Trader Vic’s at the Plaza Hotel, the next day he was absent “due to a last-minute problem” when she appeared for audition at his headquarters on Sixty-Seventh Street. Taking stock of the situation, Nana had put all her heart into that audition, her voice resplendent with melancholy, nostalgia and dreams. The audience gave her a standing ovation after she sang half-dozen Greek songs followed by a couple of her favourite French songs. Even Belafonte, who in fact had posted himself in the adjoining room listening to her in order to avoid having to get rid of her if she disappointed him, turned up in the audition hall to cheer her at the beginning of her last song. The next day, she won the part – stepping into the shoes of Myriam Makeba.

18aIn 1962, Quincy Jones produced her first U.S album titled “Nana Mouskouri in New York” which also became a great success. That album featured a dozen songs including “That’s My Desire”, “No Moon at All”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach for the operetta “Roberta” (1933)), “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “But Not For Me” (Written by George and Ira Gershwin for musical “Girl Crazy” (1930)), “Almost Like Being in Love”, etc.

The voice is the most natural instrument that exists. It is with vocal music that the history of music had begun. Nana has a voice that is flawless and perfect, surprisingly mellow, far reaching and dynamic. Without a trace of an accent, she had sung in Greek, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Hebrew, Maori, Welsh and English, perfectly at ease as a native of the country whose language she sings. This is one quality that would act as an important factor in her success and propel her into a life surrounded by musicians, assistants, sound engineers, technicians, press officers and a private secretary.

19Winner of numerous gold and platinum records, Nana’s beautiful voice and songs sours beyond the national boundaries, winning her endless admiring listeners from all over the world. She had earned this acclaim by simply being herself, her style devoid of any allegiance to that of any other renowned singer. Europe’s answer to the American songbird Barbra Streisand, Nana’s records met up with good sales in Continental Europe and the UK while in Germany, they were once constantly appearing in the top of the hit-charts.

20aDuring a career that spans half a century, Nana has recorded over 1,500 songs, selling more than 300m records. When she sings, she appears to dig deep into the depths of the lyrics, her voice blending them into magical melodies. Sometimes described as “the voice of dreams” and “the voice of nostalgia”, her songs sparkle with that inimitable Mouskouri touch like the unmistakable tones of a bouzouki. In “A Little Paper Moon” (Hartino to Feggaraki), Nana whispers in confidence of the emptiness of life when her beloved is not with her; “Never On Sunday” (Ta Pedia Ton Pirea) provides a glimpse of the life of people in the suburbs of Athens. Then there is: “Where Has My Little Boy Run Away” (Pou Petaxe T’Agori Mou), “My Love is Somewhere” (Kapou Iparhi Agapi Mou); “You Were Sweet and Kind” (Issoun Kalos); “My Dear Little Mother” (Manoula Mou); “Behind the Rose Bushes” (Pisso  Apo Tis Triandafilies); “Hello Love”; “Dance Till Your Shoes Fall Off”; “Only Love”; “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”; “Even Now”, “The Last Rose of Summer”; “Feelin’ Groovy”; “Land of Dreams”; “Christos Genate”; etc…. the list of songs are endless. With an essentially pure yet complicated voice, her songs are delivered with a proud modesty, always striving for that perfection regardless whether the lyrics she sings are tragic poetry or pedestrian commercial phrases.

21As a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, she had helped raise funds to help children. In March 2010, having served as a member of the European parliament for five years from 1994 until 1999, she offered her annual pension of 25,000 euros to tackle the crippling economic crisis of Greece, pledging it until debt-laden Greece climb out of its economic black hole.

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There is always music in our house. I have always found it wonderful for relaxation – even just a little background music when I work would provide me with the emotional charge. I have a couple of Nana’s albums (LPs) and for the rest of her songs, for the time being I will have to depend on the Internet.

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At Christmas, play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year,” wrote Thomas Tusser four hundred and fifty years ago. Now that Christmas is around the corner, its message of peace and goodwill is loud and clear. The joys of giving and sharing; of cards and Christmas trees; of family reunions and good friends meeting once again – that’s all part of the essence of Christmas. At this time of hope – of joy – of love, I will be remembering many of the happy days; of days of laughing conversations; and other treasured times of good and bad now past. And I would welcome that peace which comes down to earth during this time of the year to find a resting place in my heart.

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But what is Christmas time without Christmas songs? For every Christmas we add new decorations to our existing collection. Likewise, we fondly carry over a tradition of choosing one main Christmas music album for each Christmas season. Last year, it was the Sinatra family.

25aThe year before, we were entertained by the album of cherished carols by The Hamburg Students’ Choir who had made those recordings on the Christmas Eve of 1955 during a service attended by British Armed Forces in Hamburg.

This year it will be Nana Mouskouri who will provide an overall mood which is encompassingly mellow. I do not have “The Christmas Album” of Nana but that would be available at MBK or elsewhere in Bangkok. I am sure, Nana’s “The Christmas Album” would provide the perfect musical accompaniment for this Christmas season, especially since it contains the German versions of “Silent night” (Stille Nacht heilige  Nacht), and “O Christmas tree” (O Tannenbaum) and “O come all ye faithful” and “Hark the herald angels sing” in English.

26Lobby of The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok

27Now that we are leaving the well-padded perimeter of predictability of our home to be amidst the many activities in the fascinating Krung Thep, the “City of Angels” (Bangkok), I wonder when I will be able to make my next post. But I would think of this break as the rose bush that is cut back in the winter so that it may grow strong in the spring. However, the one thing I know for sure is that I will find time to visit the blogs of my great circle of friends and enjoy the company of each one of you during this wonderful season of the year.

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Moon in the sky softly creeping
Over the town from above
And I lie awake hardly sleeping
So lonely for only your love

Even now, each night, I remember
Days of summer when blossoms filled each bough
In the cold, gray days of December,
My darling, I miss you even now

When will I see you again?

Come to my arms where you belong
My world will be empty till then
For you are the words to my song

Even now, each night, I remember
Days of summer when blossoms filled each bough
In the cold, gray days of December,
My darling, I miss you even now
In the cold, gray days of December,
My darling, I miss you even now

Ciao, Jo

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 (Lyrics of song: “Even Now” by Nana Mouskouri can be heard in YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA2MYrElKco )

(Music albums of Nana Mouskouri are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, HMV, etc)

(Text and all photos (except of Nana Mouskouri and album sleeves): © JS/Manningtree Archive)