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Almost Callas – Elena Suliotis

Bellini Norma Suliotis Decca Eloquence Souliotis Del Monaco Cossotto 8Elena Suliotis

She was Greek, she had a big, dramatic voice, and lots of fire and temperament, so it was probably natural that many people considered her the next Maria Callas. But she wasn’t.

She had a powerful voice with a wide range, actually somewhat richer voice in tone than Callas, and she was exceptionally good looking. But she lacked Callas’ talent for attracting the finest musicians of her time to train, tutor, and conduct her as well as Callas’ iron sense of discipline and her superior musicianship.
In the end, she all but destroyed what had been an extraordinary voice. But for a few short years in the 1960’s she was splendid.

Suliotis (she changed it to “Souliotis” later in her career) had an electrifying onstage personality combined with an intensity of expression that was almost reckless in it’s abandon but which was unfortunately never really controlled artistically. Almost from the beginning, there were hints of vocal problems but it was generally assumed that with training these would be corrected. The consensus is that because she chose the most demanding of roles so early in her career, her voice simply wasn’t ready. It deteriorated and became unstable.

Still, as with Callas, when things worked right, she was simply thrilling to hear.

The comparisons with Callas were based on the timbre of her voice and the roles she chose to sing, not on any similarities of technique or phrasing. One critic wrote later: “We were desperate for a replacement for Callas, and we were turned on by that ‘daredevil’ thing that only Callas and Souliotis could do. You really were swept away with the excitement of it to the point where you could overlook some shortcomings.”

Helena Souliotis was born in Athens in 1943. Her mother was Greek and her father Russian. At the age of 2, she contracted meningitis which left her hearing impaired in one ear. When she was five years old the family moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her father started a successful chemical engineering business enterprise and was soon wealthy enough to buy a large ranch where she spent her free time swimming and bareback riding.

But her voice was noticed and at the age of 16, after having had some local singing lessons, the choir director of Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon suggested she go to Italy for further study. Her parents sent her to Milan and she made her operatic debut there when she was 20 as Santuzza in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” In 1966, at the age of 23, she made her La Scala debut as Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco.” She was a sensation.

“There is no doubt that she possesses outstanding gifts that should ensure her a glorious future. Suliotis’s voice is a fine one and her technique remarkable. One cannot really ask more of an artist who only recently has begun to follow in the footsteps of Callas and who is already regarded by some as her legitimate successor.”

During the next 3 years she appeared throughout Italy, Spain, Argentina, and Mexico singing the most demanding of roles – “Aida,” “La Forza del Destino,” “Il Trovatore,” “Luisa Miller,” “Un Ballo in Maschera,” “La Gioconda,” and Cavelleria Rusticana.”

But signs of future problems were being noticed. A “Nabucco” in Lisbon brought this comment: “Elena Suliotis seemed to have decided, rather prematurely, to become a lung-charged exhibitionist Amazon – which may well be to the satisfaction of the gallery, but which hurts those who realize the great potentialities of the voice. Heights, depths, power, runs are all there, but it is a pity she is apparently reluctant to command subtlety or artistry.”

In America she sang “La Gioconda” in Chicago and made her Carnegie Hall début in a concert performance of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” And in 1967 at Carnegie Hall, she tried the most demanding role of all, Bellini’s “Norma.” This time the comparisons with Callas were much less flattering. Her stage presence was remarkable, but she seemed to have very little understanding of Bel Canto style and, after a spectacularly bad duet with her Adalgis, the audience began booing. Of course, it didn’t help that in the audience were Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, Zinka Milanov, and “The Lion of the Met” tenor Giovanni Martinelli. Callas actually went backstage to comfort Suliotis, who was able to return and finish the last act in spectacular fashion.

She sang a “Norma” in Chicago and it produced what turned out to be a remarkably prescient newspaper review: “Elena Suliotis … is a lyric soprano, with a chest register of freakish resonance carried up into the middle voice. Her technique is imperfect: she cannot trill; she cannot sing an even scale; swell nor diminish volume a phrase has begun; or act; or dress suitably for the occasion. All this promises shortly to be the ruin of a potentially viable instrument.”

At Covent Garden in London, she sang Lady Macbeth for the first time and, in what would become a recurring theme, she alternated between scenes in which she was magnificent and those in which she was simply awful. Her recording of the opera had fewer flaws.

She was scheduled to make her Metropolitan Opera debut during the 1969-70 season, but a strike caused the season to be canceled and the Met never made another offer. That summer she married the pianist-conductor Marcello Guerrini. They had one child, a daughter, Barbara, but they were soon divorced.

Her singing had become known for carelessness and poor intonation. She was forcing her chest-register and sometimes almost screaming her high notes. In 1972 she was booed at the end of the performance of “Nabucco.” She still had a brilliant top and a rich and vibrant chest register, but very little support in the middle. Abigaille in Nabucco had become her her calling-card, but only five years after her professional debut, she had worn her voice out with constant misuse and it was in ruins. She re-invented herself as a mezzo, singing mostly in character parts (the Grandmother in Prokofiev’s “The Gambler”, Mamma Lucia in “Cavalleria Rusticana”, Susanna in Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina”) and she got some of the best reviews of her career. “Vivid in color and varied in texture,” was how one critic described her voice.

The Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at the Stuttgart Opera in 1999 was her final appearance on stage and she retired the next year. Elena Souliotis died in 2004 of heart failure in Florence. She was 61 years old.

One Response to Almost Callas – Elena Suliotis

  1. DanShea says:

    Thanks for this latest Don, I haven’t listened to Suliotis in a long time and it was a pleasure to hear the early version of her. The detailed quotes of later on are very interesting to read: we all know roughly what happened later, but the actual story as it unfolded is powerful. (Not unlike Anita Cerquetti, but without the avoirdupois problem.)

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