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The Music Has To Come First: An interview with Greek baritone Dimitri Tiliakos (BM)


Dimitri Tiliakos recently spoke to Bettina Mara on the occasion of his impressive home-base debut as Simon Boccanegra at Greek National Opera in Athens (reviewed here ) :  a breakthrough resulting in recent engagements as Rodrigo in Paris and Covent Garden this June.

Dimitri Tiliakos

One of his country’s most distinguished opera singers, Dimitri Tiliakos wasn’t initially predestined to seek out a career in music. He hails from the beautiful Dodecanese island of Rhodes, and although he was exposed to quite a bit of music as a youngster - singing in a choir and learning to play the viola – after finishing high school he set off to the Greek capital to study topography at the University of Athens. But he also enrolled at the Athens Conservatory, and soon realized that it was not his calling to become an engineer… The rest is history, as he is now a regular guest at opera houses throughout Europe and overseas, as well as in his native Greece.

The first thing he does as we sit down in the coffee shop at Euripides – an apt name for a Greek bookstore if there ever was one! - is to pull up the window blinds. “I always need to let in the light,” he explains, “it’s a habit I developed in Germany, where there was often precious little of it…” The years spent in Germany were an important milestone in his career. He arrived in Bavaria in 1996 as a winner of the prestigious Maria Callas award, initially continuing his vocal studies with Daphne Evangelatou in Munich, followed by an offer to become a member of the ensemble at Staatstheater Nürnberg, where he stayed for eight years. An ideal setup at the time, he says, since it provided him with the opportunity to take in and perform a great deal of repertoire. Then, after nearly a decade on the Nürnberg payroll, he decided to go free-lance, “as do many colleagues, but it’s tough, and after several years of performing around Europe while based in Germany, I decided to move myself and my family back to Greece. And I haven’t looked back. First of all, I’m by no means restricted to accepting local work - Athens is only a few hours away from most European cities. And as I just said, ours is a demanding business, and it’s essential to have time at home in between engagements in order to recharge your batteries. That was simply not possible for me in Germany, and it was compounded by the fact that whenever I went away to work, I left my family behind ‘alone’ in a country where they were not at home, whereas now our children, a son and two daughters,” he smiles, “can attend school in Greece and they and my wife are always surrounded by relatives and friends, something which is extremely important to me as well when I’m at home– not to mention the light!”, he points out, nodding towards the window.

“It’s essential for an artist to live in an environment – and naturally I’m talking about more than just the climate – which is conducive to their artistic spirit – for example, I go to the theater as often as I attend musical events here in Athens. I learn a great deal from actors, perhaps even more than from watching other singers perform. I’m not saying that you can’t find the environment that is right for you almost anywhere, but in my case, it is most definitely my home country. And I’m certainly not the only one – my colleague Angela Marambio (who was here in Athens to sing Amelia in Simon Boccanegra) says she won’t budge from Santiago de Chile, although she’s often told she should really consider moving to Spain for professional purposes. But surely we artists have the right to decide who we are and where we want to be – I believe that those who think and plan exclusively in terms of the logistics of their career run the risk of ending up with an impoverished spirit. The music has to come first, and in order to devote ourselves to it, we need to allow our soul to flourish.”


Moving on to the topic of future plans, I wonder what is to come after Boccanegra, and how he feels about contemporary opera productions. It turns out that besides some more long-term commitments as Marcello in Monte Carlo in 2010 and at the Met in 20011 (!) his next debut will be this coming season as Verdi’s Macbeth, at the Novosibirsk and Bastille Opera Houses. Following in the footsteps of his teacher, the late Kostas Paskalis, I venture?…(Paskalis rose to international fame with his Glyndebourne Macbeth – read an interview here. “No,” he answers, “I wouldn’t put it that way at all. Paskalis was a great artist and has certainly always been an immense source of inspiration to me, but his posture, his aura, his involvement in his roles – all of this was intensely personal and would be absolutely impossible to emulate.”

“Contemporary productions,” he continues, “are an interesting topic. I always like to point out that putting the characters in jeans doesn’t make a production modern. ‘Modern’ is when what the audience sees on stage draws them in, when it allows them to relate to works written and composed long ago that are now being shown on a present-day stage. In this sense, I am very much in favor of modern stagings, but there are not many directors who succeed in producing that effect – those who do are good at exploring roles and characters and how they interact, and one such exceptional director whom I have had the pleasure to work with is Graham Vick, who directed La Bohème at GNO last December (reviewed here ). But having said that, whenever I am part of a production, it means that I am a member of a team and I always support the project 100%, even if I don’t happen to agree with the director’s perspective.”

We go on to talk about how he prepares for new roles: “Every new part is a challenge. Usually I will start by collecting dramaturgical information about the work – don’t forget that studying music, especially opera, also means studying literature - by getting to know my character, listening to recordings. Thinking about how to pace oneself is also very important, by mapping out when there is going to be an aria to deal with, a cantilena, or sotto voce passage, in order not to waste energy at the wrong moment. But naturally stage rehearsals are the most important phase of preparation – this is when an artist must have the courage to make mistakes, to exaggerate if necessary, to recognize his limits.”

And speaking of new roles, his debut as Simon Boccanegra in Athens, a location somewhat off the beaten track of the major opera house circuit, has turned out to be a breakthrough: “Just three days after I had finished the Boccanegra performances, the phone rang – could I replace Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo in Paris? Of course I accepted without thinking twice about it. I had only performed the role in concert form before, and a long time ago, so I practically had to learn it from scratch, and on the double – but I greatly enjoyed doing it! It is an absolutely splendid role, you get to sing with the fire of a revolutionary and the flame of youth, and fortunately things went well in Paris – at least well enough for Covent Garden to ask me to step in for Simon Keenlyside soon afterwards.”

When I begin to speculate about the up and down sides of being an opera singer, he immediately fires back a question at me: “Do you mean what do I like most or least about my profession or about my art?” Both, I suppose, so we agree to call it an occupation, or a pursuit… “Well, there are always things that bother people about their occupation when they have been at it for a number of years, so I won’t bore you with ‘technical details’ of that sort; I think what bothers me most at this point is not being able to shake the trepidation I often feel when going on stage. Although,” he chuckles, “fortunately, my son is always there to advise me on how to relax. He’s still in elementary school, but he always likes to point out to me that ‘he knows a thing or two about the stage’. Seriously, though, at that moment, an artist is a perilous packet of many fuses…...But it is worth it, perhaps because of what I like most about what I do: creating unique moments – whether during rehearsals or performances. That is what we deal in, creating moments when time stands still, if even for a split second, moments which can never be repeated in precisely the same way.”

How does he feel about teaching? “Not very strongly, but it is definitely a perspective for later. There are some young singers who I have been happy to listen to when they’ve asked for suggestions, but I haven’t considered teaching regularly just yet.”

And what about his musical interests besides opera? There are several: “I have always been enthusiastic about performing Lieder, and am planning a staged version of Schubert’s Winterreise with some colleagues in Greece for some time soon – though I might add that my favorite of all Lied composers is Schumann.”

And Greek composers? I remember seeing him in the premiere of Mikis Theodorakis’ opera Lysistrate some years ago....“Actually, I would love to perform more works by Greek composers – besides the contemporary ones there are also some 19th to early 20th century composers, such as Spyros Samaras, who wrote interesting music for the stage – but unfortunately there are not many opportunities. And I greatly enjoyed performing songs by Periklis Koukos (and some of the composers who have inspired him) this July in Epidaurus at the Hellenic Festival. And another exciting event for me this summer will be Beethoven’s 9th in Sao Paolo in August, with the Israel Symphony Orchestra under Dan Ettinger (the new GMD at Mannheim Opera).”

And is there anything he does to get away from music once in a while – play basketball perhaps? (Tiliakos is extremely tall…) “Not since junior high school,” he chuckles. “I do all sorts of things besides making music, but they don’t include a specific ‘hobby’ – my wife and I like to travel, go on walks, enjoy good food and company or a film together, the kind of thing everybody likes to do. When you dedicate your heart and soul to your profession like I do, it is very important to have opportunities like this to relax.”

Does he have any advice for young singers taking their first steps as professional artists? “None at all!”, he replies instantly and emphatically. “I would even go as far as to say that they should take advice from no one (because everybody will tell them something different), be daring, have the courage to make a lot of mistakes, and above all, listen to their heart. Indeed, the one thing I believe is extremely important  - and this goes for all of us, not just young colleagues - is to allow for enough time genuinely to  communicate with the people around us, especially those who are important to us, be they colleagues, friends or loved ones. It seems to me that although we have access to the height of technology for the purpose of keeping in touch – cell phones, the internet, what have you – and these ostensibly save us time (though the internet tends to waste a huge amount of it), we still don’t use that time to sit down and talk to each other often enough. All this rushing, hurrying, the frenzy it creates - it shows in our work, so beware…


Bettina Mara

Read more about Dimitri Tiliakos at

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