Opera, a type of musical theatre, tells stories through music, drama, and spectacle, reflecting emotions and societal issues that still resonate with audiences today.

Award-winning Greek Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis will play Lucia, the main character in the opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “who is “up against all the forces of the patriarchy.”

“The role itself is incredibly tragic in that it’s a tale of love that turns to madness,” said Xanthoudakis to Neos Kosmos.

Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, this production will come alive at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre in May, following Melbourne Opera’s (MO) Ring Cycle Cultural Festival, which received an Outstanding Special Achievement Award at the 2024 Green Room Awards.

Elena Xanthoudakis as Lucia. Photo: Nicole Cleary

The Greek Australian soprano said this opera piece is considered as “one of the cornerstones of the entire Bel Canto repertoire,” a particular style of Italian opera.

Greek soprano Maria Callas, one of the most influential opera singers of the 20th Century, and Australian soprano Joan Sutherland were both famous for their depiction of Lucia.

Xanthoudakis’s understudy for Lucia, Emily Szabo is also Greek.

“It’s got a sort of a double resonance for Greeks and Australians in a way,” said Xanthoudakis.

Love turns to madness

Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 gothic romance novel, was written in 1835.

It tells the story of Lucia who falls in love with Edgardo despite their families’ feud in Scotland.

Lucia, “being pulled left to right” by the men in her life, is forced “into an arranged marriage” with a wealthy landlord “to save the family fortune.”

Elena Xanthoudakis as Lucia and Simon Meadows as Enrico. Photo: Nicole Cleary

This drives her “to madness,” leading to tragic consequences for everyone involved.

“And let’s just say, it doesn’t end well.”

The story, Xanthoudakis said, “was very popular in its day,” and has “become famous” for what is called the “mad scene.”

Opera, while loved by many, has faced criticism throughout the years as some see it as elitist and expensive.

Others might say its themes and music are outdated.

However, it remains an evolving art form that has played a key role in shaping Western classical music and continues to touch hearts globally.

The Greek Australian soprano said opera remains relevant today not just because it highlights societal themes like “women’s rights,” but also because of “the beauty of the music” and how it “touches your spirit,” making “you want to cry.”

She said it is like watching a “heightened reality” Netflix show, “but the music touches the soul in a way that a TV show can’t.”

A musical journey of two heritages

Xanthoudakis’s father is from Chania, Crete, and her mother from Australia.

Drawing inspiration from both parts of her heritage, her opera journey was shaped by legendary sopranos reflecting her own cultural heritage Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

“They’re both such incredible singers…But Maria Callas, she’s on another level in terms of her emotionality, the way that the colours that she sings […] she’s something that every opera singer aspires to.”

She said singing at Callas at the Herodium, an opera gala organised by the Greek National Opera in 2023 to commemorate the Callas’s performances at the ancient Roman theatre, was an “exceptional experience.”

She has also performed in Greek at the 200-year Greek anniversary event in Greece and the Hellenic Centre in London.

Elena Xanthoudakis’s understudy, Greek Australian Emily Szabo (left), with Elena Xanthoudakis. Photo: Supplied

Opera heightening one’s experience in life

Born in Mount Beauty, Victoria, and raised in Melbourne, Xanthoudakis studied at the VCA, University of Melbourne.

She pursued studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London on a scholarship, where she earned her second Masters of Music with distinction.

Music came naturally to her, starting with singing at around four years old during calisthenics classes and attending a music primary school and later high school.

“I really just had a passion for music and passion for singing. I think because I was exposed to classical music at school because I might not have been. I was really fortunate to be in that world that really beautiful.”

She said “opera” is an art form that “really heightened one’s experience in life.”

Xanthoudakis has won many competitions in Australia and internationally, including Maria Callas International Grand Prix, The International Mozart Competition in Salzburg and both the female first prize and the overall Grand prize in the International Adam Didur Opera Singers Competition in Poland.

She was awarded a Solti Foundation Award to undertake Italian language studies in Florence and has participated in masterclasses at the Opera Studio at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome with La Signora Scotto.

Xanthoudakis has performed with numerous orchestras including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic (London), BBC Concert Orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony, Orchestra de Quebec, Oxford Philomusica.

As for questions about opera’s popularity and relevance, Xanthoudakis’s views remain strong around this form of art.

“I think Opera is super relevant and more people should go.”