March 05, 2007

March 5th is a special day for me. Joe Stalin—the greatest murderer of modern times—croaked, and my two oldest friends, Alexander and Leonidas Goulandris, were born (the latter, in 1927). I will not go on about them because they don’t like publicity. They are great art collectors, big-time ship owners of the old school, and very good guys. Aleko, one of the twins, lives in Gstaad, in a treasured-filled chalet of modern and Impressionist art. For his 80th, the Queen of Spain and her brother, the King of Greece, came over, as well as another 48 old friends. I could write a book about the good times the three of us have had these last 62 years. I met them in 1945, I was eight and they were 17. We’ve lived the good life throughout that splendid period which always comes after a war, the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and so on. The Goulandris boys love art and music, so for their 80th, one of their daughters arranged a trio of tenors posing as chefs and butlers to suddenly start singing. Rich people are known for being hard to please, but this really worked. I then asked them for the Leperello aria in Don Giovanni when the Don’s faithful servant tells Donna Anna that his master is incorrigible and lists his conquests: “In Italia seicento e quaranta; In Almagna duecento e trentuna; Cento in Francia, in Turchia novantuna; Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre.” (It was very hard to score in Turkey in the 18th century.) I know the aria by heart and it worked.

Then I told the Queen of Spain and the ex-King of Greece about the first time an opera was performed in Greece. It was 1890, and the opera was Lucia di Lamermoor. The Donizetti masterpiece was conducted by a Bulgarian maestro and the opera house—recently opened—was filled by Greek society in the good seats, and by poor people,  who had never heard an opera in their lives, who were more or less bribed off the street by fancy types to act as a rapt audience. Everything went fine, for a while. Then the poor types got bored. There was an instant translation into Greek by a poor man desperately trying to outshout the singers. In the famous second act, the hero asks, “Dove la Lucia?”   That is when a bored peasant yelled, “She went to have a crap.” The place broke up. The society types, among whom was my grandfather in white tie and tails and all his decorations, were shocked. The conductor cast his baton aside and walked off the stage. “This is an uncivilised country,” were his last words. Opera did not return to my birthplace until Dimitri Mitropoulos, a great friend of my parents, was named conductor to the NBC Symphony Orchestra, replacing Toscanini, in New York and subsequently in Athens.

What is the point of this story? There is no point. Just that the Queen of Spain and her brother the King of Greece broke up when I told it. Humor, after all, unites us all, and what this world of ours lacks most of all is humor.


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