Tina Arena’s unforgettable gig: Maria Callas looked over me as I stepped on to the ancient Greek amphitheatre

The Melbourne-born singer walks in the footsteps of the ‘misunderstood’ soprano on a historic stage in Athens

In September 2016 I was invited by my Greek friend George Perris to perform with him and Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is overlooked by the Parthenon in Athens.

It was the most exquisite venue I have ever had the privilege to play. I’ve been fortunate enough to play some extraordinary venues – the Sydney Opera House (the view and location is just otherworldly and it’s in our back yard); the Royal Albert Hall in London is something I really loved – but there was something about the Herodes Atticus that was magical and mystical. Performing in an outdoor stone auditorium – a Greek theatre in the true sense of the word – that is almost 2,000 years old, and to experience how the natural acoustics resonate, was a profound experience for me.

I remember walking out there and having shivers. As you walk up the stone stairs with their wrought-iron balustrade handrail, behind, there’s a massive poster of Maria Callas adorning that very stage. It was taken towards the end of her life (she died, around my age now, in Paris) and she has several bouquets of flowers in her hands. She was a guttural and instinctive performer who stood up for what she believed in. She was misunderstood – as a lot of strong women are unfortunately – but she gave the world a gift that continues to bowl us over. So when I was walking out on stage with Maria Callas looking over my shoulder, I just thought: “Oh my god, this is really happening.” It was a pinch-me moment.

I was wearing an outfit by Martin Grant – an Australian couturier and designer based in Paris. It was a very elegant, almost Audrey Hepburn-like outfit – a beautiful silk tulle skirt and shirt with handmade earrings.

The concert was actually a George Perris special that was being recorded by PBS – the American Public Broadcasting Service – and I was the special guest.

Beforehand, I was quietly very, very nervous. Backstage, I did some vocal exercises to open my throat up – lots of shrilling and vowel sounds – and tried to stay hydrated and calm.

On stage, I started by performing three or four of my own songs and then George joined me towards the end of my set to sing I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You from The Mask of Zorro soundtrack.

We all did a closing number in Greek, which was an experience because it was my first time singing Greek. Beforehand, the boys put me through my paces and were like: “Oh yeah yeah yeah, you can sing in Greek, come on,” and I’m like, “God almighty!” We only ran through it three or four times in the afternoon and I had to try and get my head around the lyrics. I kept thinking to myself: “This is extraordinary, don’t drop the ball.” Anyway, I got through it and finished the show with a standing ovation.

It was a full house of more than 5,000 people and the audience were incredibly appreciative and demonstrative. I felt like I belonged there.

I feel very at home in Europe. I love Europe for that dramatic sensibility – it’s part of my culture. My earliest influences were the Italian and French singers, particularly women, who wore spectacular costumes and had amazing sets.

I have a love for most things Greek – the literature, the architecture, the history, the humility and the warmth of the people. I grew up in Melbourne with a lot of Greeks and my mother and father are both born and bred Sicilians. The Greeks at one stage ruled Sicily, so there’s a phenomenal amount of cultural similarities.

When I stepped off that stage I was euphoric. Afterwards, we all went to dinner at a roof terrace restaurant that overlooked the Acropolis. That’s what you do in Greece – you do a gig and then you go out for dinner late at night. We just sat out there and took in that extraordinary view and felt grateful to be alive.

Contributor

Tina Arena as told to Janine Israel

The GuardianTramp

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