Greek culture is Vasiliki Zisi’s raison d’etre. Vasiliki is an archivist, museologist, culture columnist and opera singer from the coastal city of Vólos in Greece’s Thessalia region. With a passion for history and a love of arts, Vasiliki’s interests span the cutting edge and the classical.
She is currently pursuing a M.A. in digital culture techniques and teaching classical music, which she has been practicing professionally for the past decade. Vasiliki’s fascination with her cultural heritage previously led her to roles with the Ecclesiastical archives of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Volos, as well as the music archives of the Old Philharmonic Orchestra of Corfu.
I learned a lot through my conversation with Vasiliki about her varied interests, vocations and philosophy–and I know you will too! Vasiliki gave me an education into the history of opera, and a refresher in Greek culture and mythology. Among some of the themes she touches on are the magical power of not only music but of sound in general; the benefits of living life with passion and all of your senses engaged; and the importance of life-long learning. Enjoy!
The History of Volos
Meg: You are from Volos. Can you share a little bit about its culture and history?
Vasiliki: Volos is my place of origin and I stayed here until I left for studies in Corfu. The name of the city was not always like this. Some people say that it comes from the ancient name “Iolkos” (Iolkos> Giolkos> Golos> Volos).
It’s a beautiful city in the center of Greece that combines mountain and sea. The mountain is called Pelion or “The mountain of the Centaurs,” because according to Greek mythology, the legendary Centaurs lived there, the anthropomorphic creatures with a horse body from the middle and bottom. The epic “war of Centaurs” took place in Pelion, where the famous centaur Chiron lived, who taught medicine to Asclepius, educated Achilles, and raised Jason, the leader of the Argonaut campaign.
Volos is definitely a city overflowing with culture, as is the whole country! In Greek culture, mythology has a very old history. A story of fantasy that sounds magical to the children. Surely, Greek mythology is alive today in Greece but I think all over the world as well.
Meg: Singing and opera in particular are your passion. Can you share a bit about how your interest in music got started?
Vasiliki: I have been singing since I can remember! I was singing at school festivals every year and my teachers encouraged me. The Greek education system is one of the most difficult and I always wanted to be a good student. Because of this, I did not have time to go to a conservatory and learn music.
I think that people still believe that performing arts are not able to give you enough money for a nice life, so you have to study something else first. It’s funny, because performing arts should be higher in our mind. In ancient Greece, theater was education for the people.
When I got to University, the first thing I did was find a voice teacher and so the journey began! I managed to study for four years during my studies at the University in the Conservatory of Corfu, and finally obtained both degrees. I was studying in the Ionian University: Archives, Libraries and Museology. In addition, I have a diploma from the Conservatory of Corfu with 1st award as an opera singer. It was quite difficult, but when you want something very much, nothing can stop you!
Opera: Enchanting, Artful and Traditional
Meg: What about opera in particular appeals to you?
Vasiliki: Opera for me started with my studies. Before, I generally loved music. When something touches my soul, I listen to it and start to sing. I remember that I was enchanted by the music of Hadjidakis and Theodorakis. They are excellent composers of our country! That has not really changed.
Manos Hadjidakis was a Greek composer, poet, conductor and pianist. With his work he connects the older music with the folk music tradition. So, the artful folk song was created, according to Theodorakis. He died in 1994. Mikis Theodorakis is a Greek composer, lyricist, and conductor, and is one of the most important Greek composers. He wrote the famous “sirtaki” Zorbas, which was based on traditional Cretan music. He also dealt with classical music, wrote music for films, and music for famous poets.
I still love all kinds of music and I don’t want to single opera out. But when I started to learn more about the opera it stimulated me and that’s why I chose it. My teacher discovered that the nature of my voice has something special and falls into a specific category of voices, that of soprano coloratura. Later, as I discovered new operas and composers, I shivered every time I sang something from the repertoire.
Before I even finished my degree, everyone told me that I had to leave the country to be able to become an artist and build a career in the opera world. I realized that my country can not help me to make my dream come true and so I went to Switzerland, because I have relatives there. It was my only chance.
I would say that in order to get to know music, you must also have money. This part was very difficult for me and everything I have done so far I did with scholarships and savings. Yes, sometimes you have to sacrifice a lot for your goal and I did not regret it for a moment. There, I passed the exams and I enrolled in one of Zurich’s Conservatory and after one year I had my first participation in the Mozart’s opera “Magic Flute” and many concerts after that.
I remember the first time I sang the “Queen of the Night” aria of the opera “Magic Flute” from my beloved Mozart. I still can not describe the emotions. My whole body was boiling, my soul was calm and happy, while my mind was traveling. This made me think that I will not leave opera no matter what happens, no matter how difficult it is for me to work professionally.
An Art Intertwined with Tragedy
Meg: Opera and Greek tragedy have been intertwined for as long as opera itself has existed. Can you share some background about the Greek connection to and tradition of opera?
Vasiliki: Certainly the structure of opera was based on the dramatic art of ancient Greece, and on the other hand, on the experiments of drama and music of the 16th century. Back then, opera was treated mainly as a literary genre, i.e. based on speech, with music being just one random pop-up item. The carefully expressed speech of the actors and the dance were combined with the actions of the basic elements of the tragedy.
In the Renaissance, there was renewed interest in the dramatic arts of Greek antiquity. In 1581, Vincenzo Galilei, an Italian composer and theorist, published for the first time some of the only surviving excerpts from ancient Greek music. These were three hymns by Mesomedes, a Greek poet from the 2nd century. The haunting Greek melodies were preserved in ancient notations in various Byzantine manuscripts.
Galilei was part of a circle of artists and educators in Florence who were fascinated with Greek culture and drama, and sought to recreate it with music. This group was known as “camerata,” after the Italian word for “chamber,” a room where important meetings were held. The Camerata’s work led to the development of the first opera.
Daphne is considered the first opera. In 1598, Rinuccini wrote the libretto, or text, for the piece, which is a recitative, meaning it’s a melodic speech set to music, in this case by Jacopo Peri. The piece is inspired by the Greek myth of the beautiful nymph Daphne, told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic poem that chronicled all the transfigurations of Greek and Roman mythology.
Rinuccini and Peri then composed a musical drama entitled Eurydice, presented in 1600 to celebrate the weddings of King Henry IV of France and Mary of Medici. Eurydice is the first of many operas based on the myth of Orpheus, the Thracian poet and musician who played the lyre. Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, dies from the bite of a snake and he goes down to Hades to beg for her life. There, his expressive song evokes the pity of demonic creatures, which allow him to return to the Upper World with Eurydice.
We meet Orpheus at other times in the history of opera. The myth of Orpheus inspired major works by both Claudio Monteverdi, a Renaissance composer who was influential in the development of opera, and Christoph Willibald Gluck, a German composer who “reformed’ opera in the 18th century. Orfeo ed Euridice is the first of Gluck’s “reform” operas, in which he sought to replace the arcane plots and overwrought music with a “noble simplicity”.
Monteverdi’s next opera was based on the Greek myth of Ariadne. She was the daughter of Cretan King Minor and Queen Pasiphae. Under a curse by Poseiden, Pasiphae had an affair with a white bull, and gave birth to the half-bull and half-man Minotaur.
When the Athenian hero Theseus arrived in Crete to slay the Minotaur that Minos kept in a labyrinth, Ariadne fell in love with him. She gave him two gifts to fight the Minotaur: a sword, and a ball of thread. She told Theseus to tie the thread at the labyrinth’s entrance and let it run as he made his way into its bowels to confront the beast. With Ariadne’s help, Theseus completed his mission and then the pair eloped.
Monteverdi’s next opera was based on the Greek myth of Ariadne. She was the daughter of Cretan king and queen Minor and Pasiphae. Ariadne fell in love with the Athenian hero Theseus and, with a thread or glittering jewels, helped him escape the Labyrinth after he slew the Minotaur, a beast half bull and half man that Minos kept in the Labyrinth.
It is no coincidence that Apollo, god of light and music, as well as Orpheus, appear as characters in the first operas. Mythology is a common theme in Greek culture that gives birth to music full of power. Greece was definitely an inspiration in the earliest days of opera and ever since!
Enjoy the back story of different kinds of music? Check out the history of Azorean traditional music!
Music as Part of Greek Culture
Meg: Can you describe the role that music plays in Greek culture in general?
Vasiliki: In Greece there is a very long musical tradition. Singing and dancing are characteristic of Greek culture both in the mountains and the islands. There are many traditional musical instruments.
Many of today’s Greek instruments are an evolution of the musical instruments of ancient times. They were made by the musicians themselves, but there were also workshops for making musical instruments. The teaching continued from generation to generation and was definitely related to the geographical location. In the islands they played violin, lute, Cretan lyre, canon. In mainland Greece, they played clarinet, violin, lute, santouri, something like flute and daouli.
Later, there were foreign influences but the traditional song is a basis for the great Greek composers, as well as the Byzantine music. I would say that opera today is still alive. Although, I would like singers and people in this field to be more energetic, and certainly it would be nice to have more opportunities for young people.
Corfu, Island of Music
Meg: You were also a music archivist at the Old Philharmonic Orchestra of Corfu. Can you share a little bit about Corfu with readers, and describe the Orchestra and a little bit about your work there?
Vasiliki: Corfu is an island in the Ionian Sea, northwest of Greece, which is very close to Italy and has a great musical tradition! Corfu is characterized as an “island of music” and this is mainly due to the tradition that was formed in the 19th and 20th century. This was done through its philharmonic orchestras, choirs, conservatories, orchestras, the Music School and of course, the Department of Music Studies of the Ionian University.
Corfu’s musical tradition began during the middle Byzantine period of the 10th and 11th century with acritic songs that narrate the folk tradition of ordinary people in the villages of the island.
It is worth noting that in Corfu there was Venetian rule and not Turkish rule. Corfu is one of the Ionian Islands, which were part of the Republic of Venice from the mid-14th century until the late 18th century. The rest of Greece was under the rule of the Ottoman Turks from 1453 with the fall of Constantinople until the revolution in 1821. This historical connection between Corfu and Venice influenced the island’s history.
Corfu’s Old Philharmonic
Corfu’s Old Philharmonic was founded in 1840, with the intention of becoming the first Greek music academy organized on European prototypes. Its students had the opportunity to be taught by professional musicians and teachers basic music theory, harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, composition, as well as piano, vocal music, string and wind instruments. The academy represented the the first time in modern Greece’s history that students could get a music education regardless of their social class.
The Philharmonic’s band became very popular through its participation in public events and religious festivities. The local enthusiasm for the ensemble resulted in ‘band’ becoming synonymous with the term ‘philharmonic’ in Corfu.
I was working at the Old Philharmonic of Corfu as a practitioner at my University. The Philharmonic that I worked on is the oldest on the island, while there are around 17 more now. I chose the older one because I wanted to explore old books and help their work.
My interest was intense, because I wanted to deal with music librarianship and explore it. I worked alone, based on my knowledge from the University, and I managed to correct any mistakes in the archive and to organize it better.
Teatro di San Giacomo
I received a scholarship to study music from the Teatro di San Giacomo, or The Noble Theatre of Saint James. From 1733 to 1893, this theatre was the centre of Greek Opera and attracted many Italian musicians and composers. These Italian artists often became residents of Corfu, and contributed to the development of Greek culture and its music scene. One of the pivotal figures of the times was Nikolaos Halikiopoulos Mantzaros, a Corfiot composer who acted as a source of synergy between Italian and Corfiot musical traditions. Teatro di San Giacomo encouraged cultural interaction and led to the development of the Ionian School of Music.
Music Therapy in Greek Culture
Meg: You are also a music therapist. Can you describe your work and how you use music to help people, and the types of clients you work with?
Vasiliki: The science of music therapy started in my life when I wanted to get to know music globally. I have always liked psychology, but I found it more interesting when I combined it with my other studies.
I studied music therapy in Athens and because I wanted to help people through music. Then, I really realized that music was helping me as an entity. We dealt with adults and children of normal and abnormal development, with patients, with people who had gone through some shock in their lives, others with Alzheimer’s and with people who wanted to find balance in their lives. “Music has butterfly wings. It is the magic art that takes us where the emotion flies” said Viro, and it seems that he was absolutely right.
Working with an autistic child convinced me of the power of music. In my first session with him, he was rocking back and forth and it was like he was in another room. It took time, but eventually there was a connection between the child, the music and me. He came to trust the music and to trust me and he was able to smile, and to go with the rhythm of the music. I don’t know what he was thinking but I know we were connecting. Trust is the key to everything. Not all kinds of music are appropriate for music therapy. Mozart and Vivaldi are especially powerful in reaching people and healing.
Bringing Museums to Life
Meg: You are also a museologist. Can you share an explanation of that profession and one or two memorable experiences?
Vasiliki: In Corfu, I studied in the field of Archives, Librarianship and Museology. This University directs you to three different sciences. You learn how to secure the life of civilization in Archives, Libraries and Museums, how you can treat them right, and how to present them all over the world with exhibitions.
I love them all! They all have to do with Greek culture and I have always wanted that. To get to know culture. The word “science” in Greek comes from (epi + istamai) which means I know something well. The field of Museology has always excited me! Since I was young I wanted to go to our museums and explore them. The Museum is no longer a dead space of old things, but a space with dynamics.
One of my experiences in Museology is my participation in the design and reopening of a museum in Corfu. It was a practical application of everything I knew in theory. I remember that we did a radio show about our museums in a gallery. It was definitely a nice experience. Another time we slept one night in a gallery. The program had exhibitions, discussion, food and games. It was great!
Museums and Digital Lives
I am currently doing M.A. in Digital Culture and I realize how technology is a helpful tool. Technology is constantly evolving, so must we! Everything is digital. We are leading digital lives.
Museums need to be more accessible and digitizing culture can help achieve this. Most people think of museums as silent places with no interaction. I want to make museums more a part of people’s lives. One of the ways to do this is to engage all the senses. When more of your senses are engaged, you learn more.
Intrigued by people who make museums come to life? Meet the curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum!
Theophilos and the Power of Sound
The last year of my University I told my professor that I wanted to deal with the influence of the sound environment on the museum visitor’s psychology. I did a project connecting the exhibits of two museums, one in Volos and one in Mytilene, the capital of the island of Lesbos. The exhibits both featured the work of a major folk painter of modern Greek culture and art, Theophilos, who had connections to both places. Theophilos is a beloved Greek painter. His works depict Greek history, folk life and landscapes and are primitive but prized for their freshness, lack of pretension and warm color combinations.
I selected works by Theofilos from the two museums that exist in Greece and made an exhibition for which I designed an audio environment. I created specific sounds in an audio accompaniment to each painting. For example, for a painting with a war scene, visitors would hear the sound of rifles being fired and horses galloping. I believe that the more senses that are engaged, the better we can understand what we see. My goal in the end was to study the psychology of the visitors and their reactions.
Stratis Myrivilis, a writer from Lesbos, described Theophilos in his 1934 book “Vasilis Arvanitis”:
“He was a strange man and people thought him half crazy. He wasted away poor and alone in his unwashed kilts. You might wonder how an islander came to be wearing kilts. Well it was his passion. He used to long for the annual carnival so he could wear his kilts out of doors. Sometimes he would dress up as a Macedonian, sometimes as a soldier of the Greek kilted regiment. He was a short, pale sickly man but nevertheless there burned within him a passionate desire for the heroic stature which God had denied him. Sometimes at carnival he would gather his friends together and they would all dress up as Olympic gods. Theophilos would always be Ares, the god of war. He would wear a crown of gold-colored cardboard and carry a wooden spear with it’s point covered in silver paper and a round shield made of a thin board. On the shield would be painted the head of Medusa with her snake hair. Because he suffered from alopecia the hairs of his mustache were sparse and he would wear a false moustache made of tow, which he would twist fiercely as he walked behind the red mantle of Zeus.
More often he would wear a kilt and carry an old curved yataghan at his side or he would paint murals of the Greek War of Independence. It was thus he appeased his passion.
He left for Pelion on the mainland where he found work as a shepherd, and there, whenever he came across a mill or a coffeehouse with plastered walls, he would cover them with murals. He wore his kilts all the time there, even though the local people wore breeches and thus he earned himself the nickname Tsolias. On his return from Volos he threw away his shepherd’s crook and earned himself a living any way he could, begging for a piece of canvas or a white wall where he could paint his pictures. He didn’t ask for money; only a plate of food and a supply of water-colors. His passion was to paint heroic themes, events in the life of Ali Pasha, and hunting scenes. When he was dead the critics of Athens and Paris proclaimed him a great painter and his pictures became extremely valuable.”
Keeping Archives Alive in Greek Culture
Meg: You worked as an archivist at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Volos. Can you share a little bit about that experience?
Vasiliki: There are many monasteries in Pelion and one of my very favorite is St. John the Baptist. A monastery is a place someone can choose to live because they want to unite their life with God by praying. In Greek culture, we strongly believe in Jesus. We are Orthodox Christians and we can see through miracles that God and the saints exist and our religion is alive.
My family and I use to help people as much as we could and we try to offer what we know of our studies. In Greece, religion is one of the most important elements of our culture and I have always loved this monastery. I decided to work at the Holy Monastery of St. John and help to keep their archives alive.
Taking ancient books in your hands and reading them, recording them, and decoding them is something really important for the continuation of culture, and at the same time a magical experience for you.
Meg: What is the role of libraries in Greek culture?
Vasiliki: There are many libraries in Greece and their treasure is great! The National Library has been established in Athens, the capital of the country. There, there are over 570,000 book titles and the collection is constantly being enriched. Books, magazines, newspapers, microfilms, manuscripts, rare and valuable books, archival collections, posters, works of art, papyri and maps are some of the categories available. Definitely worth a visit because of the treasure and the aesthetics of the place.
However, every place in Greece has valuable content about the history of the place. Volos and the villages of Pelion have material that is important not only for the region but also for the whole country! It is worth visiting, getting to know and enjoying!
When you know that you hold in your hands a very old book or document, and you are responsible for its rescue, and maybe others can not even read it because of letters and destroyed parts of it, you have to work hard and with love to achieve it. Your connection to the material you have to explore is inevitable. Your feelings increase and finally if everything goes well and you achieve to save it from its deterioration, you feel proud!
Zoume Kalitera or “We Live Better”
Meg: You have been a culture columnist for three years. What is the goal of your column?
Vasiliki: Three years ago, my siblings and I decided to build a site called “We Live Better” and our goal is that our readers have a better lifestyle because of our advice. My brother and editor of our site is a dietitian, nutritionist and gives health and promotion tips for the Mediterranean diet. My sister as an architect specializing in lighting deals with ideas and solutions for your places.
I have the culture column. There, I write about books, important archives and museums. I divide them according to the season and the interest. The goal is to get to know and promote them. Even in times of the pandemic I want to push readers to get to know a museum, even from the internet.
Also, in this column I write about music and theater. I try to make the content attractive and somehow take the whole world on a journey with me. Sometimes this is difficult, but other times I succeed and the emotion is great. We have a dialogue with the readers and that is only positive. This is also another element of Culture.
Love of Greek Culture
Meg: Why do you love culture so much?
Vasiliki: Culture is in everything around us! It is not only the history of the past, but also what we do now. We can divide it into intangible and material culture. Both categories are important. It is easy to understand that material culture is something you can hold. By “intangible” we mean memories, feelings, tastes and smells. Together they can explain what culture is.