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ELENA SULIOTIS - A Biography
by Charles A. Hooey  

When I first heard of her passing, I thought, “Oh no, another great one has gone.” "Great," yes, but quite different from most who frequent my stories. She arrived in spectacular fashion like a shooting star, thrilling ordinary opera lovers and critics alike; they could hardly believe what they were seeing and hearing. But, within ten years, this star had flamed out and she was gone as a super soprano. Elena Suliotis peers out from a 1967 record jacket, looking feline and those intense eyes they haunt me still.
 
She made such a meteoric arrival that music journals, especially the British-based Opera and to some extent Metropolitan Opera News in New York, quickly assigned reporters to cover her progress. By linking key elements of their reports, this career “portrait” has been created. They reveal the intense initial excitement, followed too soon by regret and decline.
 
Early Years
She was born on 28 May 1943 in Athens, the only child of a Russian mother and a Greek father. At age 2 she had the misfortune to contract meningitis that left her with impaired hearing in one ear. Three years later the family moved to Buenos Aires to escape post war turmoil. Here, her father’s engineering background and business acumen led to the creation of a successful chemical engineering enterprise that allowed young Helena to spend a happy childhood in the outdoors, enjoying her favorite sports. When Papa's affluence led to acquisition of a ranch, she could swim whenever she wished and ride her favorite horse bareback to her heart's content. Close your eyes and imagine her galloping over the lush and endless pampas.
 
Initially she intended to imitate her father, but when she sang, people would exclaim: "Helena you should do that for a living!" So at sixteen, she decided to take a momentous step, to try for a place in this most demanding of professions. After being coached locally by Alfredo Bontà, Jascha Galperin and Bianca Lietti, the choir director of Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon suggested she go to Italy for further study. Her parents agreed and so, in 1961, at the urging of Maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni, she went to Milan to study with famous Mercedes Llopart. In view of the trouble to come, this and earlier training did not take hold, either due to the educators’ methods or Helena’s inability to take it all seriously. At age twenty, she was picked to sing important roles in student productions as Italian houses sought her services and a year later in 1964 she made a professional debut at the San Carlo in Naples in the demanding role of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. This prompted both a repeat in January 1965 and recording moguls at London Records to make plans.
 
Records Nabucco
In a brilliant marketing ploy, Suliotis was signed in September 1965 to record Verdi’s Nabucco with equal billing to the celebrated Italian baritone Tito Gobbi. Reviewing the set in Opera the following July, Harold Rosenthal wrote: "The sensation of the performance, however, is the young Greek soprano Elena Suliotis. This is the most promising and exciting voice of its type to have come our way since the young Maria Callas. It is both easy and dangerous to make comparisons and prophecies, but the dramatic fire and passion that she brings to the role, the attack in the recitatives and the wonderful scales, are more than just reminiscent of the Callas of the early 1950s. Suliotis's top register is brilliant and the chest register rich and vibrant but there is a lack of support in the middle at the moment, and she has not yet succeeded in knitting the voice together. On this recording, at least, her personality comes right out and leaves the listener breathless with excitement."
 
Reports like this convinced canny Carol Fox of Lyric Opera of Chicago that this singer belonged on her stage. "My dear,” she wrote, “You can make your American debut in a role that will be ideal for your voice.” Elena was invited to make her first appearance as Helen of Troy in Boito's Méfistofélè on October 8, 1965. Although heavyweights Ghiaurov, Kraus and Tebaldi drew most of the plaudits, “the 22 year old Greek soprano who lists herself, prematurely, as `dramatic' more than held her own. If there is promise in the voice, there is pushing behind it of a negative kind."1 Alas, already a reservation is expressed.
 
Afterwards a parade of Verdi’s operas followed, mostly in Italian cities. In Florence Un Ballo in Maschera in January 1966, ”success attended, when the indisposed Antonietta Stella was replaced on the first and second nights by a very young Greek soprano, Elena Suliotis, who lives in Buenos Aires and was in Italy to sing Spontini's Olimpia at La Scala (a production now postponed). She proved to be exceptionally gifted and entirely captivated her audience. Her success placed Antonietta Stella under considerable strain when she appeared to sing the third and final performance.”2 When Olimpia went ahead later; Elena was not in the cast.
 
For her fourth Verdi role, she went to Naples to appear in La Forza Del Destino with the San Carlo Opera Company. “Leonora was sung by the young Elena Suliotis. There was much curiosity about this Greek soprano. Her exceptionally powerful voice, with a very wide range, needs more control; if she goes on studying, in a couple of years she could become a leading soprano.”3
 
Meanwhile her Nabucco recording was causing a great stir so anticipation was at fever pitch in Lisbon when the exponent herself arrived. "As Abigaille in Nabucco at the San Carlos on March 20, 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."4
 
In Florence, the reaction was more promising: "The 29th Maggio Musicale Fiorentino opened on May 7 1966 with a new production of Luisa Miller, starring Helena Suliotis in the title role. As Luisa is `a star's opera' Miss Suliotis proved exciting and dominating in the part. She was especially thrilling in the last act (which also contains the opera's best music.) During the earlier part of the evening, I found the voice occasionally edgy, but this effect may have been partially due to my seat, near the back of the stalls. The Comunale's acoustics are notoriously treacherous."5
 
She continued to excel in Verdi’s music. In Genoa for Il Trovatore late in May, she “obviously aroused great expectations after her success in Genoa last year in Un Ballo in Maschera. Let me say at once, having also heard her in Florence in Luisa Miller, that in my opinion she is not the phenomenon that some fanatics claim, and it is even less appropriate to compare her with Callas who she continually tries to imitate. At the moment the 23 year-old Greek singer is basically a lyric soprano with a voice lovely in timbre, from time to time impressive, but unhomogeneous in color and so far from being technically impeccable that her intonation often suffers. Yet Suliotis appears to possess remarkable vocal resources and clearly interesting possibilities, and it is not difficult to predict a brilliant future for her, providing she can resist the relentless wooing of General Administrators and Artistic Directors and curb her ambition for glory. But the news that she is to sing Abigaille in the opening of the next La Scala season is hardly reassuring."6
 
Animal Lover
Before that event could happen, she had another recording date, this involving Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana together with several arias and scenes. A young writer named Paolo Tosi, an instant fan when he heard Elena sing in Mantua in 1965 as Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, was now assigned to write liner notes for her upcoming album. Naturally Tosi was eager at last to meet Elena and he did so when London Records producer Erik Smith brought them together over lunch at a Milan restaurant. Soon they became friends. “Blonde, attractive intelligent face, beautiful eyes, casual dress, marvelous black mink,” he observed, “Elena Suliotis seemed the very prototype of the ‘anti-diva.’” She was not interested in discussing colleagues but her eyes lit up when Tosi mentioned his dog, Rosa, a tiny black ‘griffon du Brabante’ that was a companion in his modest flat. Right away Elena had to see this animal, so off they went. Captivated, Elena made Tosi promise to give her one of Rosa’s puppies. It was revealed that Elena adored animals and at one time had eleven cats, seven dogs, one snake (not poisonous) and one tarantula (very poisonous)!
 
Reaction To Her London Album
After the release of her solo album it was reviewed. After commenting on the Callas connection, HDR wrote, “That Miss Suliotis possesses a most thrilling, beautiful and well schooled (!) voice is not to be denied; she also possesses dramatic temperament and musical intelligence; what she does not possess at the moment - though it may well come - is the ability to colour phrases, to maintain dramatic tension throughout a long scene, and make one believe that they are hearing the pieces for the first time.”7 If there is an opera lover who hasn’t heard the Suliotis voice, then this album, now available on CD, is your opportunity to hear her early glory.
 
Returning to Buenos Aires in La Gioconda in June 1966, she was a revelation, “though trained in Buenos Aires, (she) had never sung in the Colon before. In its richness, range, and colours, her voice has no rival among singers of the younger generation. Besides she is a fine actress with a volcanic temperament. If experience gives her the necessary control to get the best from what she has, she will be altogether exceptional.”8
 
In September, when the Dallas Civic Opera visited Mexico City to present Don Giovanni, Elena was Donna Elvira with Eberhard Waechter as the Don and Montserrat Caballé as Donna Anna. She remained to sing Aida on October 4th with Pedro Lavirgen, Elena Cernei and Giangiacomo Gulefi. 
 
Next, imagine a young and inexperienced singer opening a La Scala season! This was the Nabucco on December 7, 1966 of which Gualerzi had such qualms: "For her debut at La Scala, Elena Suliotis tackled the part of Abigail with courage equal only to her bravura. Her career has only just begun and she has a lot to learn, especially in the characterization of difficult roles, as well as in the art of knowing when to spare herself; but 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. Still, comparison with Callas at the beginning of her career is not to Suliotis's advantage as the latter does not appear to show the temperament to correspond to her positive vocal talents."9
 
Traveling from Vienna Christian Springer found it all most unsettling: “I myself heard Suliotis only once in Nabucco in the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. I remember her screaming her head off as well as decibel duels with Guelfi and Ghiaurov. It was one of the loudest sung performances of Nabucco I've ever heard. I always had the impression she was trying to imitate Callas - mostly her faults. I was very surprised when Callas declared Suliotis her successor, but this was perhaps not for her singing but for her being a Greek soprano."
 
That was the evening Rosa chose to deliver her puppies so Paolo Tosi missed Elena’s starring effort. He immediately set aside the prettiest pup naming him “Nabucco.” “I went to the second, third and fourth performances of Nabucco and my admiration for the youngest prima donna of today’s lyric world knew no bounds. She was magnificent.” Somewhat later they took the dogs to a park for a run, “Elena, in black corduroy slacks, black and white short, purple velvet blazer, played with Rosa and Nabucco and seemed to be enjoying herself like a child. I could not help thinking once again how different she is from the traditional idea of what a prima donna should be like. But there is no doubt she is a real prima donna.” In those days she yearned to take up sport again, bareback horse riding, tennis, basketball and swimming. But alas, these sports had to be practiced regularly and not just once every few weeks. This was the aspect of being an opera singer that distressed her the most. After the Nabuccos, Elena developed a severe case of tonsillitis and withdrew from opera for a while, returning to South America to recover in recreational pursuits.
 
When her recording of Cavalleria Rusticana and a few solo items was issued, the late Alan Blyth wrote: "Suliotis models herself more and more on Callas, and, consequently, the intensity and bite of her singing, for me, put her more equal-voiced rivals in the spinto field today in the shade... The solo recital is certainly the best thing Suliotis has yet done. She impresses by the sheer daring immediacy and grandeur of her approach as well as the delicacy of her phrasing. I liked especially `Madre, Madre.' Here all traces of the sliding on her previous recital have been eliminated. The octave jump at `Invan la pace' is perfectly judged and the phrases after it are beautifully moulded - a lovely performance of this difficult piece. `Suicidio' is launched with bravura attack and the chest notes at `fra le tenebre' are the real thing. Amelia's gallows aria is a little less individual but here too the sense of situation, of allying words to music is a sign of a young artist who knows instinctively what singing is all about. Listen to `Deh! mi reggi in aito, Signor.' It is a long time since we've heard such a poised, eloquent line, a really breath-taking side, then."10
 
Because if illness, Elena was unable to fill engagements in Trieste and Lisbon but she recovered in time to visit Madrid on June 10th to sing Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Then it was on to Mexico City where she sang “the first Norma of her career on September 14 to inaugurate the 1967 International Opera Season in Mexico City. Genoa and Trieste were to have had Miss Suliotis's first two Normas last spring, but laryngitis prevented her from keeping the dates. “I had been prepared for some exciting singing, knowing this young artist's recordings, but I was completely caught off guard by the depth of her artistry and her marvelous commitment to musical drama. Frankly I do not think her recordings begin to capture the range of color and nuance in her voice or the remarkable ease with which she sings. Her voice is quite large (close to the size of Birgit Nilsson in fact) yet she can scale it down to suit her needs. I am willing to go far out on a limb and say that excepting Callas, Suliotis's Norma has no equal known to us today.
 
Miss Suliotis seems to have come into the world equipped not only with all the right instincts for the most demanding of parts, but the ability to endure and sustain every aspect of the lengthy role. Vocally it came off without a hitch. She produced flawless liquid scales, exquisitely moulded embellishments and phrases, and flashing, full-bodied top Cs. Even `Casta diva' with which a Norma must begin the evening, was well-nigh perfect in shape and mood. And it was gratifying to see how nicely she could lighten her voice when it came to the cabaletta of the aria, making it an intimate expression. But the right instincts are there and they come to the fore to raise the hair on one's head. The actual quality of her voice is one taut and high gilded. It has sinew and point to it, and it can on occasion roar with a decided edge. Yet speaking purely personally, everything I cherish in song and singing are embodied in her voice and in her musical instincts."11
 
Sings At Expo 67, BBC, Carnegie Hall
The young diva next visited Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal. It was truly memorable for me as I was Commissioner of the Western Canada Pavilion. Though on the small size, our popularity led to line-ups that stretched for blocks and kept me too busy to notice La Scala Opera was participating as well. "Nabucco proved that Elena Suliotis is one of the few sopranos who can today do justice to the difficult role of Abigail. From her rich lower register to her steely top, she was fully in command and sang the entire performance with all stops out. But one wonders just how long she will endure in this way. There is little subtlety and, surprisingly for one attempting to grasp the mantle of Callas, she has little idea how as yet to act."12
 
With all the publicity engendered by her recordings and appearances, the BBC in London decided to showcase her via television on October 20, 1967. The special labeled, “Suliotis Sings” saw her display a voice of much variety (even singing extracts from Norma - the great Callas role) but again some detected a reckless abandon with regard to nurturing her voice. Indeed some of the unscripted histrionics went a touch too far. Conductor Sir Edward Downes, a shrewd judge of a voice, commented on camera that she ought to be careful what she sang.
 
For her second turn with the American Opera Society in Carnegie Hall on November 9, 1967, she appeared as Norma, now "miscast (or cast prematurely) in the title role; she displayed her exciting stage presence and no understanding of
 
Bellinian style or bel canto. She and Nancy Tatum, the Adalgisa, came to grief as Act 2 began, when their voices became entangled in the complex cabaletta “Si, fin all’ore extreme.” When she reached for a High C, she missed it, and covered her face in shame. The audience began booing as she stormed off. When a spotlight was shone on two earlier Normas (Maria Callas and Zinka Milanov) and a former Pollione (Giovanni Martinelli), this made matters worse. Callas went backstage and after forty-five minutes of cajoling, Elena returned and with eyes flashing, delivered a rafter-lifting finale.
 
Complaints Mount
In Florence she tried the role of Norma again in December still with little success, "singing the first and third performances (when her vocal estate was precarious) relinquishing the role for the second and fourth to the Yugoslav artist Radmilla Bakocevic who barely coped with the tremendous difficulties of the part."13
 
Then for something different she sang the title role in Catalani’s opera Loreley when it was presented at La Scala, Milan on February 13, 1968. Unheard in this theatre for many years, a passionate rendition by Elena, Gianfranco Cecchele and Piero Cappuccilli did little to spur a general revival.
 
For her next venture, she essayed Anna Bolena on March 16th, 1968 in Naples. "The work calls for outstanding vocalism, and Elena Suliotis made an impressive if not unqualified claim to the title role. From a technical viewpoint, her voice is better controlled nowadays, and she has learned to spin out finer lines, but she remains insecure in coloratura and has not mastered the trill. In interpretation, she has achieved interesting moments rather than a fully drawn characterization, and regal presence was lacking,"14
 
Chicago experienced her Norma on 2 October 1968 and on four subsequent evenings but again there were problems. “Elena Suliotis was evidently, at intervals painfully, a tyro in Druidic Gaul of Caesar’s time. She 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.”15
 
Elena gave English audiences their first taste of her unique talent in live opera when she sang in Nabucco in London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 3 November 1968. "She alone of the soloists, dispensed with a score. But this concert performance, giving little opportunity for the display of her stage personality, exposed her vocal limitations all too clearly. Certain notes were thrilling; among the very opening, almost baritone-sounding low B; the notes accurately pitched and forceful (without being forced) throughout the range; and a natural temperament lent the proper passion to the great confrontation between Abigail and Nabucco in Act 3. But, time after time there were jolts between registers, poor phrasing, and a want both of beauty and subtlety. The voice is a remarkable instrument but poorly `finished' and poorly used."...16 
 
Even harsher memories are held by Canadian basso Don Garrard, the High Priest of Bel on this occasion. “I’m afraid that it was an excruciating evening for her. Whether or not she was having a bad period, those runs are very testing even when one is in good form. She, alas - was not. I remember thinking that she sort of threw her voice at the notes and missed most of them! She had recently performed it, (I think with Gusella) and was singing from memory, - not really a good idea in a concert if you’re feeling rough. At one point she gestured to Christoff that she would like to borrow his score, whereupon, he pushed her hand away, plunked his score down and sat on it. After the interval, he didn’t show because he had not been paid! We continued eventually but it was an abysmal evening, all round.”17
 
In Naples she repeated the pattern of her Abigaille on December 7th. "Elena Suliotis showed once more that a singer with a beautiful and powerful voice is not necessarily a great artist; on this occasion her performance was patchy and cool, except for some good and impressive moments in the third act."18
 
Again in Naples she tackled Desdemona in Otello on February 1st, 1969. "I have always said that she really has an interesting and beautiful voice with great possibilities. Lack of musicality is her only deficiency - and this she could overcome by intensive study and by avoiding the tendency to attack some notes from above (which makes her intonation a bit uncertain.) Her resources, however, are exceptional, and often just when you don't expect it, she provides astonishing and superb singing. On this occasion it came in the fourth act where she created a memorable atmosphere, full of emotion and pathos."19
 
For Anna Bolena in Dallas, "Taking the title-role in her local debut was soprano Elena Suliotis. She is a different singer than the one I cheered in Mexico City over a year ago. Frankly, not only has she not progressed as an artist, I find her singing less assured, indeed quite precarious at times. She is now unquestionably, supremely gifted but unless she comes to grips with her gifts through hard, objective self-appraisal, I doubt seriously if she will fulfill the destiny that seems to be within her grasp. She is just not equipped, at present, to cope with her sensational rise to fame. Her singing is too uneven, too unformed both vocally and interpretively. Self-criticism is the demon behind all great artists, the thing that keeps them from trading conscience for complacency. Evidently, this is not the demon pursuing Miss Suliotis at the moment."20
 
Despite the adverse opinions, Decca decided a recording of Norma was feasible with a number of cuts to contain it on two LPs: "Elena Suliotis has some very impressive moments and some less so. The voice is an exciting one, occasionally beautiful, firm at the top, a chest register which is reminiscent of Callas's, and a certain monotony in her way of singing. `Casta diva' comes off rather better than one would have expected though Miss Suliotis does not seem to possess a trill".21
 
She sang Aida in Lisbon on March 9, 1969. "I noticed an overall improvement in technique as if further study had produced beneficial results. Yet there are still faults. Just four or five years ago in her debut, she fluffed the close of
 
`Ave maria' in Otello, she did likewise this time at the end of `O patria mia' - most disconcerting in any singer, let alone one of today's potential stars."22
 
London Macbeth Proves Faulty
Her next venture was her first Lady Macbeth at Covent Garden on June 26, 1969. "Suliotis gave a much subtler, more refined performance than she had done with the London Opera Society last year. The voice still sounded to be in three very separate unwelded registers, and there were the consequent changes of gear between each, but once within one or t'other she could produce arresting results - menacing richness below the stave, many nuances in the middle, especially in the Brindisi, and fearless attack at the top.
 
She always attempted something unusual in the set-pieces even when her imperfect technique hindered her good intentions. `La luce langue' was begun musingly, in rather veiled accents, but then the intensity evaporated because one was too conscious of the singer's uncertainties, emphasized by her constant side-glances at the conductor. Before that `Vieni! t'affretta' was taken too slowly; in its cabaletta a delicately executed piece of fioritura would be followed by a vague, clumsy phrase. In the Sleepwalking scene her excellent enunciation and the intelligently conceived, disembodied quality she brought to the piano phrases were occasionally vitiated by the dangerous lack of support in the middle of the voice.
 
Dramatically, less generously equipped singers have made more of a mark but perhaps with the discipline of an Ebert or a Rennert - if Miss Suliotis would be willing to submit to such discipline - her performance might have made twice the effect it did achieve. She was at her most convincing in the splendid first act duet with Macbeth and in the asides to her husband in the Banqueting Hall where she really personified the iron will driving on or supporting Macbeth's weaker one."23
 
-------------------------------
 
In August and September that year, when the San Carlo Opera visited Rio de Janeiro, Elena appeared on September 5th: "Elena Suliotis was superb in the name part of Gioconda. Gone were the attempts to imitate Callas, vocally or otherwise. It is true that the voice is uneven, with a slight tendency to go out of tune in the upper reaches. But the total dramatic and vocal involvement in the part was really wonderful, and the sum decidedly favorable. With a little more care and patience, she could be one of the truly greats."24
 
Next in Philadelphia on November 14th she sang in Nabucco: “In a score bursting with eruptive energy, Elena Suliotis achieved her local debut as Abigaille. Though my ears had to become adjusted to the vehement style and brutal chest tones of an individual voice that can hardly be called beautiful, this soprano had projection by the bushel as she dominated the stage. But her gift for acting seemed as unformed as her vocalism. That Miss Suliotis can sing when she so desires was demonstrated in the andante of the second-act scena ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ an oasis in a desert of hard sounds.”25
 
“Of course it was good to hear La Gioconda (Drury Lane on November 30). She showed intermittent signs that she had studied Callas in a role without having the wherewithal, stylistically speaking, to equal her famous predecessor. However, in the last act her interpretation not only came to life but she also gave much vocal pleasure. Suicidio was predictably and rightly forceful and melodramatic, the final encounter with Enzo and Barnaba full of excitement and pathos, and the little monologue before Barnaba arrives, ending with ‘Vergine Santa, allontana il demonio’, as Gioconda distractedly thinks of her mother and the dreaded spy, was truly tragic, compensating for much that had been ugly, untidy, lazy earlier on, with the famous baritonal chest register.”26
 
In view of her variable Lady Macbeth at Covent Garden in June, it is somewhat surprising that the Metropolitan Opera signed her to debut in this role on December 13, 1969. However, due to a labor dispute, the season did not open so Elena did not appear, nor did Macbeth when the season finally got underway. Neither was the soprano invited to sing another role at the Met.
 
Reports now were often ominous as critics who had enjoyed her days of triumph watched sadly as she quickly declined. In Naples "On January 25, 1970, Norma showed again that big names in a cast do not guarantee a first-rate performance. Elena Suliotis, repeating her interpretation of the title role at the Teatro San Carlo, had more serious vocal trouble than before: both high and low notes gave her cause for concern. Her interpretation, however, could have been interesting: she sees Norma more as a sad abandoned woman than as a vengeful priestess."27
 
That summer Elena married the Florentine pianist-conductor Marcello Guerrini and they took up residence in a sumptuous villa in that city. They would have one child, a daughter, Barbara. At this juncture she decided to spell her surname in future as Suliotis ... apparently, as some thought, to show she had soul.
 
"Returning to Dallas (on November 1st) as Aida a deeper, more involved artist than the season before in Anna Bolena, her singing again was uneven, but when it was good (as in the Nile scene) it was very good." (John Ardoin in Opera, March 1970.) Earlier he offered a more positive view writing "Her Aida sounded warmly human and beautifully colored, and it had a ring of importance."28
 
In Genoa, another Lady Macbeth on 15 March evolved into a true fiasco. Annoyed by the whistling and booing that had greeted her unfortunate opening aria, Elena, according to Gualzieri, "promptly turned her back on the audience and swept off to her dressing room, leaving poor Mario Zanasi, who had just begun the duettino preceding the arrival of King Duncan, alone on the stage. After fifteen minutes conductor Patane was able to convince her to return. The opera did in fact end but with little satisfaction to the ear which was assailed by Suliotis's grotesque and steamwhistle top. She was also inclined to sing flat. Apart from the temperament and residual beauty in the middle of her voice, Suliotis is now a mere shadow of the promising singer of a few years ago."
 
Home again in Buenos Aires, she entertained locals with Anna Bolena on June 12, 1970 before going off to Mexico City for two operas. Denied the chance to sing Lady Macbeth at the Met, she did so now in Mexico City in September 1970 along with La Gioconda. “In both she exhibited her usual uneven singing but scored points in climactic moments. Her `Suicidio' came over particularly well because of the feeling she poured into it; the conclusion of La Gioconda also made it clear that she can sing lyrically if she tries."29 
 
Then, back in Italy, she performed in Rome her signature role of Abigaille on November 16, 1970. At least nine major cities, including Milan and Naples in Italy, had experienced her in this role. Now it was the Romans’ turn. “Apart from a certain unevenness between the dead, vibrato-less low notes and her splendidly luminous top register, Elena Suliotis gave an exemplary interpretation of the ambiguous Abigail.”30
 
Following a Cavalleria Rusticana in Florence on 2 January 1971: "This interesting singer, who began so promisingly only a few years ago, is dismayingly uneven. In Nabucco, opening the Rome Opera Season last November, she seemed in better form than she has displayed for some time. This Santuzza was distressingly unsteady; the voice was at times inaudible, at other times wobbly, and she abused her chest notes in a throaty parlato as if to compensate for the other defects.31
 
The year produced a couple of highlights. On March 10th, she made her German debut, via television singing arias from Cavalleria Rusticana, La Forza del Destino, La Gioconda, and Nabucco as well as duets from Il Trovatore and Aida with Canadian baritone Norman Mittleman. Then in September she took part when an Italian company went to Tokyo where she sang Norma with Gianfranco Cecchle, Fiorenza Cossotto and Ivo Vinco as Oliviero De Fabritiis conducted.
 
Once issued, the Macbeth recording prompted a scathing review: "In all honesty how can one recommend a recording of Macbeth in which the part of Lady Macbeth is so disastrously sung? The performance of Miss Suliotis marks yet another stage in the downward development of this initially talented artist. Her performance is excruciatingly painful."32
 
Paying little heed, Elena plunged on. In Naples she sang Manon Lescaut in May 1971, "Since her first appearance on this stage her singing has become uneven, and indeed that seems to be its chief characteristic. On this occasion, she had troubles of intonation at the top of her range. However, her low, chest notes sounded more powerful and beautiful than in the past. Will she become a mezzo? The most convincing moments of her Manon were during the first act (where she really was a girl who loves life) and during the last act where her singing had passionate and desperate accents."33
 
A series of Toscas in Naples in December proved interesting. “Her voice is of first rate quality; yet the more I hear her, the more I notice her technical deficiencies (particularly the difficulty with intonation in the top register when singing mezza voce). At the same time her stage magnetism cannot be denied. At the first performance (December 18) she had such serious trouble with intonation that the evening ended with a failure: nobody applauded and the audience was silent and on edge. At the third performance (December 28) things changed: Souliotis not only sang in tune all the time, but also created an outstanding Tosca. Her success was genuine and one again understood what a great singer she could be.”34
 
She tackled another Nabucco in England, at Covent Garden on March 23, 1972, prompting a mixed reaction: "And what of the Abigail of Elena Suliotis? Vocally it was, as one has come to expect of this singer, uneven; but she certainly was singing far better than when I last heard her, and from the time she displayed a true legato and was singing in real big Verdian phrases. But, and it is big but, she still is inclined to exaggerate by over-indulging her chest register, and by singing quite wildly and off note in an undisciplined manner. I would be prepared to accept these faults, or rather to put them in perspective, if I could believe in her Abigail as a real character. However, not for one moment does she convince me; she remained for me throughout the evening, a 1972 young lady, dressed up in costume, with a limited number of facial expressions and gestures, which reminded me of some old films I have seen of Lilian Gish. It just was not dramatically credible. A section of the audience did not like Miss Suliotis, and she was booed - so was the conductor. It was all very childish." So Suliotis had a triumph of sorts despite the rather unconvincing production.35
 
The following year she returned to Covent Garden on February 23rd in Cavalleria Rusticana and showed she could still excel. “Elena Souliotis is of course far better suited to Santuzza than she is to either Lady Macbeth or Abigaille. Here there was scarcely a trace of the insecurity that dogged her in these roles. Instead she gave good, firm singing evenly placed and an intense, intelligent dramatic interpretation. She thoroughly deserved the warm ovation at her call, which happily effaced those dismal memories of a year ago.”36
 
However she was not asked to return. Bookings in Italian opera houses also began to dwindle. But late in 1973 on November 1st, she sang Susanna when Mussorgsky’s Khovantchina was broadcast from RAI studios in Rome.
 
1974 would prove to be her final year on the main stage. On January 15th, in Palermo she returned to her signature role of Abigaille in Nabucco. She sang also in two Puccini operas: a disastrous Minnie in La Fanciulla del West in May and as Manon in Manon Lescaut with Giorgio Casellato-Lamberti as Des Grieux. Finally on December 23rd, she sang Lady Macbeth in San Severo with Giuseppe Taddei as her beleaguered partner. Her top range now in tatters and with a number of fine sopranos on the scene, Elena decided early in 1975 to retire.
 
However, in New York at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening, February 21, 1976, she made an appearance with tenor Rolf Bjoerling sharing the event. A double recital, Elena sang after the interval accompanied by husband Marcello Guerrini at the piano. It proved an ordeal. “There was no announcement that either was ill, but the tenor was coughing discreetly and the soprano not so discreetly. She took to wiping her brow, shrugging her shoulders and letting out little moans by the end. Miss Souliotis’s glory years were in the mid to late 1960s. Her technique was wildly erratic, but her intense phrasing recalled Maria Callas. Now the intensity was largely gone and the technical problems have become even more severe.”37
 
Mezzo Days And Decline
However, the call of the stage remained strong and so, re-fashioned as a mezzo, she re-appeared in Florence on January 16, 1979 as the sorceress Fata Morgana in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, repeating the role several times in Chicago that autumn. "Vivid in colour and varied in texture, the settings (borrowed from Chicago) made relatively simple drops and drapes seem endlessly in motion, aided by all means of expression of the text's fantasy, including wildly diversified costumes, and transparent bubbles in which Fata Morgana and others appeared. One of these bubbles was also guilty of causing the Fata Morgana, Souliotis, a bad fall and serious injury to her right knee and foot; her powerful stage presence and ever-sumptuous voice more than made up for her stick, which, as a wand, was a perfectly valid (dare I say) prop, in this, her return to the stage after several years."38
 
In 1991, when Decca decided to record Il Trittico, Elena came back to sing Principessa in Suor Angelica and to enjoy her daughter Barbara Guerrini as Gherardino in Gianni Schicchi. She continued to fill mezzo support roles, such as the Grandmother in Florence in Prokofiev's The Gambler, the Princess in Suor Angelica and as the Countess in Tschaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. In this role she strode the stage for a final time in Stuttgart in February 2000.
 
This phenomenon who had burst on the scene with such fanfare reached the end in Florence. Elena Souliotis, at age 61 years, died of a heart attack on December 4, 2004. Divorced, she was survived by her former husband and their daughter.
 
John Standen, a regular opera attendee in London and elsewhere, saw her in Macbeth, Nabucco, Cavalleria Rusticana and La Gioconda and found her “flawed but exciting. I doubt if she ever did enough study of voice production and so on. There was always something about the vocal quality that limited one’s enthusiasm, the exaggerated slow notes especially sticking in my mind.”
 
I have always wondered about the phenomenon of Elena Suliotis, especially was there a psychological basis for her situation? When I posed this question to Bill Russell, an opera aficionado in Virginia, he replied, “I don’t think there was any deep psychological reason about Suliotis. I’ve always thought she was one of those whose dreams and ambitions (and money offers) outweighed common sense. Another case of too big, too much and too soon which is why a number of young singers today don’t make it. Perhaps too, the voice didn’t have the technique to recover once it was shot as well not having someone close whose advice she respected.”
 
As a member of an affluent family, it would seem financial needs can be ruled out as a factor but the pursuit of fame and glory undoubtedly were influences. Did her family background ill suit her for such a demanding career? The Callas association was inevitable and encouraged by Elena, but was it a mistake? Most singers seem wise enough to know when they have problems and seek proper guidance in finding solutions. Did Elena ever attempt any such cure? There is no evidence she did. Why? A tribute in The Gramophone tells us not to be concerned about “the why,” but to be glad we had her for a while. Is that enough in our quest to understand the remarkable Elena?
 
Postscript
Just as the above article was being developed, a fascinating account of the singer by James C. Whitson entitled “The Short Happy Life of Elena Suliotis” appeared in the Metropolitan Opera News of October 2007.
 
Sources
Reviews in Opera magazine and The Met Opera News, as indicated.
Obituary notice by Alasdair Steven.
 
Liner notes by Paolo Tosi for Elena Suliotis’s 1967 recital recorded by London Records.
 
1 Roger Dettmer, Opera, January 1966. p.53-5
2 Leonardo Pinzauti, Opera. April 1966, p. 314-6 
3 Enrico Tellini, Opera, May 1966, p.343
4 Richard Crowther Opera, August 1966, p. 661
5 William Weaver, Opera Annual, 1966, p. 101
6 Giorgio Gualerzi, Opera, p.629-630
7 Harold Rosenthal, Opera August 1967, p. 666.
8 Oscar Figueroa, Opera, October 1966, p.812
9 Claudio Sartori, Opera March, 1967 p. 201-2
10 Alan Blyth, Opera December 1967, p. 994
11 John Ardoin, Opera, December 1967, p. 1006-7
12 Robert Jacobson, Opera, February 1968, p. 148-9
13 Herbert Weinstock in Opera, February 1968 p. 141
14 Enrico Tellini, Metropolitan Opera NEWS, May 18, 1968
15 Roger Dettmer in Opera December 1968 p. 966-7
16 Arthur Jacobs, Opera December 1968
17 Don Garrard writing to the author, September 11, 2007.
18 Enrico Tellini, Opera, March 1969, p. 1007
19 Enrico Tellini, Opera May 1969, p. 435
20 John Ardoin, Opera, February 1969 p. 121
21 Harold Rosenthal, Opera, July 1968, p.582
22 Richard Crowther, Opera June 1969, p.536
23 Alan Blyth, Opera, August 1969, p. 734
24 Antonio Jose Faro, Opera, November 1969, p.972
25 Max de Schauensee, Metropolitan Opera News, Dec. 27, 1969/Jan. 3, 1970, p. 40
26 Alan Blyth, Opera, January 1970 p. 82
27 Enrico Tellini, Met Opera News March 14, 1970
28 John Ardoin, Metropolitan Opera News, December 10, 1969, p. 27
29 Leslie Frick, Met Opera News, December 5, 1970
30 Luigi Bellingardi, Opera, February 1971, p. 119
31 William Weaver, Opera May 1971, p. 439
32 Howard Rosenthal, Opera, November 1971, p.981
33 Enrico Tellini, Opera, August 1971, p. 732-3
34 Enrico Tellini, Opera, March 1972, p. 264-5
35 Harold Rosenthal, Opera, May 1972, p. 474-5
36 Rodney Milnes, Opera, April 1973, p. 370-1
37 John Rockwell in a New York newspaper.
38 Susan Gould, Opera, June 1979
  

 


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