Opera singer, director aims to embody music’s epic storytelling

LAWRENCE – For Stella Markou, opera is a ticket to a magical world where she can embody not only life’s ecstasy and agony but even inhabit the skin of the greatest singer of all time.

KU professor Stella Markou with an image of Maria Callas. Credit: Courtesy Stella Markou

After 15 years of establishing and creating a nationally recognized opera program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Markou joined the University of Kansas School of Music in fall 2022 as an associate professor and area coordinator of voice & opera.

Opera is also an opportunity for Markou to travel the world. Last summer she was in Urbania, Italy, directing for the Festival of International Opera in collaboration with the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini. Markou directed Baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi’s rarely performed “Lo Frate ‘nnamorato” (“The Brother in Love”), sung in the original Neapolitan.

She will be in Brazil in November for a series of concerts, lectures and master classes at the University of Campinas in São Paulo and at the Federal University of Uberlândia, working with collaborative pianist Thiago de Freitas.

“I love performing incredible repertoire with wonderful artists,” Markou said. “Through arias and art songs, you get to tell unbelievable stories, fall in love, die, be resurrected and live these epic scenarios onstage through musical storytelling. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you get to go home in one piece.

“You also get to show the extreme joys and sorrows of the human experience and express it within the most beautiful vocal and acrobatic extremes. This is why I also love directing — because you can tell unforgettable stories and, in their creation, not only transform the lives of your audience but of those who bring these stories to life.”

Markou is a lyric coloratura soprano.

“It means we sing both in a lyrical style along with the capacity to display a lot of fioritura, which means melismatic runs,” she said. “Lyric coloratura sopranos typically have a three-octave range and also possess a lyrical vocal warmth throughout the staff. Our repertoire is very demanding and difficult but also extraordinarily rewarding and satisfying to perform.”

Well-known coloratura roles include the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” with her famous vengeance aria, and the title character in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with the thrilling “Mad Scene,” which Markou will perform in April 2024 with KU’s orchestra.

Markou said she is dedicated to getting the best out of her students and in helping them discover their full vocal potential (“it is like polishing a diamond”), no matter what their vocal type or musical and educational aspirations.

She also enjoys the directing and designing aspects of opera, such as costumes and sets. This fall, she directed and designed KU Opera’s productions of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona.” Next semester she will direct Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in collaboration with KU’s Department of Theatre & Dance. She promises “a haunting — albeit not your typical — ‘Sweeney Todd.’”

In Brazil, Markou will perform two different recital programs. One is a solo recital, and the other will be a combined lecture-recital performance on singer Maria Callas to mark the 100th anniversary year of her birth.

“Given my Greek heritage, Callas was an extremely pivotal figure growing up, and it is an incredible honor to be able to celebrate the life and musical accomplishments of ‘La Divina.’ Callas’ voice was indescribably unique, possessing truly astonishing abilities of technical and dramatic prowess. I will highlight the roles that were quintessential to her career’s success, singing excerpts from ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Tosca,’ ‘Norma’ and even ‘Carmen.’

“I will give an all-encompassing view of her life and works, linking through my lecture how, in many ways, her life imitated her art. For instance, in Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly,’ the character of Pinkerton betrays and abandons Butterfly, much like the relationship Callas had with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.” 

Not that Markou allows the offstage drama to overshadow Callas’ onstage achievements.

“I talk about the repertoire,” she said. “I describe what makes it so musically breathtaking, and then I sing it. It's not an easy task when you're talking about the greatest singer of all time and continue to sing some of the most challenging repertoire of all time ... but it's a supreme honor, and, in the immortal words of Callas, ‘Coraggio.’”

Images: Stella Markou, associate professor of voice & opera, with an image of Maria Callas. Credit: Courtesy Stella Markou

Tue, 11/21/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service