By Tully Potter
Greece has sent forth fine singers to the opera houses of the world but has also produced two of the greatest talents in the more rarefied sphere of the art song. First came Alexandra Trianti (1901–77), a soprano from Athens who shone in European concert halls from the late 1920s but lost some of her best years to World War II. By the time her career ended in 1957, her successor was well established. This was the mezzo-soprano Irma Kolassi, who was born in Athens on 28 May 1918 as Irma Colassanti and was taken to Paris by her parents when she was a few months old. Her first language was French and when she returned to Athens aged eight, she went to a French school. It would be fair to say that, whereas Trianti’s spiritual home was Vienna and her main energies were given to Austro-German Lieder, with forays into French mélodies, Kolassi’s heart was in Paris and she was most comfortable in the French repertoire, while never forgetting the riches of the Lied.
She started as a pianist and at the Royal Conservatory in her native city won a first prize at fourteen and took her diploma aged sixteen (playing Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit), intending to become a piano teacher. But, as she remembered, ‘I used to sing morning to night everything I heard’. Her vocal potential was discovered when she was accompanying the singing class of Maggie Karadja, who had been a pupil of Madeleine Grey in Paris. She took a Tosti song to sing to the teacher and Karadja said: ‘You idiot, couldn’t you have told me you had a pretty voice?’ Kolassi studied voice with Karadja and won a first prize in 1938, whereupon she moved to the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome. Forbidden to study both piano and voice, she opted for the latter, which upset the pianist-composer Alfredo Casella so much that he gave her a year’s free lessons. At the end of that first year she won the first prize in singing.
When war broke out she managed to get back to Greece, where she was hired by the Athens Opera. ‘I was profoundly disappointed by all those people who were shouting instead of singing,’ she recalled. After just two performances as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly she applied to become choral director. ‘In that way I was able to learn a quantity of operas I could never have sung.’ Among other things she coached the young Maria Callas in the role of Leonore in Fidelio. When peace came, she was sacked and for four years she worked for the Radio, getting more and more depressed. Her luck changed when she sang at the French Embassy. Thanks to the ambassador’s wife, she was able to go to Paris with a letter of introduction to the violinist Jean Fournier. She was befriended by Louis Aubert and Pierre Capdevielle and on 9 November 1950 she took part in the French première of Berg’s Wozzeck, a concert performance under Jascha Horenstein, in the role of Margret.
When she made her London début in Oedipus Rex, conducted by Basil Cameron, for the BBC on 26 March 1952, The Times pronounced: ‘Miss Irma Kolassi had a richly regal voice for Jocasta, of whom she made a splendid figure.’ Two months later she gave a memorable Paris concert with Hans Rosbaud, for whom she learnt Schoenberg’s Erwartung in two weeks after Birgit Nilsson cancelled – its Paris première was given at the second of two Oedipus Rex performances. She met Stravinsky, who was sorry she had not been cast in his opera – she later took the role of Jocasta under his baton in a 1959 late-evening London concert which was recorded. In another trailblazing BBC broadcast, in June 1952, she participated in Monteverdi’s Orfeo under Walter Goehr, accompanied by period instruments. Alfred Deller, Pierre Bernac and Jennifer Vyvyan were in the cast and Denis Stevens produced. On 4 May 1953 in Paris, with Horenstein, she gave the French première of Berg’s Altenberger Lieder, which had been shouted down after the second song at their intended world première in Vienna.
Kolassi had a distinguished career, both on record and in the concert hall. Her first LP to be issued in Britain was the ten-inch disc of Ravel, Fauré, Aubert and Greek folksongs. The twelve-inch disc of Fauré’s La Chanson d’Eve and Milhaud’s Poèmes juifs confirmed her success. When she sang the latter cycle at the Wigmore Hall in 1955, The Times commented: ‘The voice of the singer is noteworthy for its variety of colour and control of delivery. Thus the smoothness of a clarinet-like quality was used in the purely lyrical songs of Duparc; it became an oboe in Milhaud’s “Poèmes juifs” and suited the tartness of Roussel; in Debussy she sang parlando and in Ravel’s five Greek folk-song settings she launched it with freedom and simplicity upon the air.’
She sang in the world première of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, given in concert form under Charles Bruck in Paris on 25 November 1954, and with him also made a 1957 recording which was broadcast by the BBC in 1958 – she was a fairly regular broadcaster on the BBC Third Programme. She sang Gluck arias with Sir Malcolm Sargent, Ravel’s Shéhérazade with Sir John Barbirolli and Mahler with Josef Krips and Rudolf Schwarz. In 1959, accompanied by Jacques Février, she took part in a 60th-birthday tribute to Francis Poulenc at the Wigmore Hall. When she performed Mahler’s Second in Tel Aviv in 1960, with the Israel Philharmonic under Barbirolli, she and the chorus had to sing in English because death threats were received when it was originally announced that the concert would be given in German.
Kolassi made her Proms début in 1961 with Ravel’s Shéhérazade under Basil Cameron, and last came to Britain in 1964, when she sang in the world première of Tongues of Fire by Jeni Christou at the Oxford Bach Festival. After she retired in the late 1960s, she taught at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and the Conservatoire de Troyes. In March 1994 she appeared at the Musée du Louvre alongside Gérard Souzay and the two of them spoke about their filmed performances, which were played to the audience. France Musique marked her 90th birthday in 2008 with five programmes of illustrated interviews. She died in Paris on 27 March 2012.
Most of her best work on record is contained in her Decca recordings, now issued complete for the first time, as a 4CD set.
Extracted from Tully Potter’s liner notes for Irma Kolassi: The Decca Recordings