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Time for Flowers, Time for Snow
A Musical Journey from Ancient Greece to Laval
183 students from 8 Quebec schools perform with the Pop Symphony Orchestra of Montreal.
INTERVIEW WITH DIMITRIS ILIAS AND MARIA DIAMANTIS
Claudia Del Balso (CDB):
Good morning Maria and Dimitris, thank you for being here and allowing me to interview you.
Dimitris Ilias (DI) and Maria Diamantis (MD):
It’s our pleasure. Thank you for having us, Claudia.
The project and the children:
DI: We’ve done it before with our Greek books. We’ve done a combo of a children’s book; it was a picture book with an actual opera. We’ve done it four times with Greek children from Montreal, singing with the Symphonic Orchestra. Our fifth one now with the theme of Persephone we decided to knock on the door of our Canadian publishing house and try to do this in English and not restrict it only to the Greek community. We thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids to participate in such a big project where they sing with an orchestra and be in a book.
CDB: Author Glen Huser is a Governor General’s Award winner, have you worked with him before?
MD: No, we had never met him. We decided to research one of the best children’s writers in Canada. We did a Google search of the Governor General’s Award winners because we wanted to pick out a top-notch writer. We were lucky because we sent e-mails to five writers, right, Dimitry?
DI: We sent e-mails to five Governor General’s Award winning writers in children’s literature and they all responded favorably, but Glen was the one who immediately created an outline of the show, which we loved. We read the books of each of those writers but Glen was our best choice. We clicked right away and he became part of a nice team.
MD: Well, the composer, first of all, is an electronic music lover. We, of course, incorporate traditional instruments. However, being a more contemporary piece, we combine both of them; so old style traditional instruments with new contemporary electronic music.
DI: Giannis Georgantelis is the composer. He’s from Athens and he composed the musical incorporating many different sounds of music. You will hear all kinds of influence, for example, the opening song is from the 60s Mamas & the Papas style, later on you will hear a bit of Andrew Lloyd Weber and then you’ll hear Maria singing a dramatic opera aria depicting a very angry Demeter. You’ll also hear Charleston or Dixieland and even Mediterranean style Arabic influence. For instance, there’s one piece that has that flavor, when the girls, the friends of Persephone play hide and seek with her. So, there are many different styles but the main core of the instruments used is the symphonic orchestra. Most of the instruments are typical symphonic orchestra such as violins, violas, strings, the brass, the woodwinds, and there’s a couple of pieces that are entirely electronic but most of them are just the symphony orchestra.
MD: This is also to appeal to a multi-ethnic collaboration; we’re speaking of the children here. I think the composer wanted to show that and please them, too. That’s the beauty of being in Canada, we have that flexibility.
DI: There are 18 different ethnicities within the kids performing. This is great because music unites them in a unique way. I’d like to add that the composer, Giannis’ music influences are from film scores (movie music), so it’s music that lends itself to a children’s picture book, or children’s music.
CDB: Do you think using Pop rather than classical music will help children be more interested, and in turn, help sales?
MD: Absolutely. We’re always thinking about the children and want to please them, too. So we try not to use too much classical. So yes, going back to the question, it’s mild pop. Yes, there is a popish rhythm, in some of the pieces, like a Broadway musical style.
DI: The thing is that when we say Pop, children in general respond, like the composer says, to a lot of percussion. So you cannot write an opera aria as same as in La Traviata or like one of the big operas and expect the kids to necessarily respond to that. There’s a very strong classical element in it because we’re opera singers and we’re singing in it, but we always try to tone it down to a level that will be accessible to children. Even though it has a little pop element in it, we hope that this will be a beginning for them to explore more classical sounding operas and music. Just by singing with the symphonic orchestra, it’s a good thing. It gets them into that medium.
CDB: I read that Demeter is the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture and the protector of marriage and social order, and Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, abducted by Pluto to be queen of Hades, but allowed to return to the surface of the earth for part of the year. Why is it so important to tell the story of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone?
DI: Basically, the main focus of the story is that a mother’s love for her daughter can change the seasons: that’s what’s happening in the story when Demeter loses Persephone to Hades. Her grief is so great that she causes permanent winter to come on the Earth and when she gets her back, spring comes. We strongly wanted to show that mother-daughter relationship. It’s one of the stories that’s very important to the ancient Greeks; it’s the most important mythological story. All the Eleusinian mysteries which were a whole series of mystical games and rituals were based on the story of Persephone and Demeter. That’s why we thought of choosing that story. Of course, Glen Huser brings it to modern times in order to make it closer to Canadian kids, to create a connection.
CDB: Especially because we have long winters here.
DI: (He laughs) Exactly!
CDB: The children participating will benefit in many ways. What about you? Do you think it has benefited you in some way?
MD: Yes, in many ways. First of all, it was an opportunity to do another musical. We enjoy working with children and teaching them. We don’t have children ourselves but having so many children around us as we teach really fulfills us. We have children that have been in our previous projects, so we have seen them grow from eight years old to fourteen / fifteen and are still participating in our projects. Yes, they’ve changed but their love for music hasn’t changed.
DI: The benefits we gain, starting with the most important one, it’s our love for children, teaching them, like Maria said. But there’s also the benefit of working with other artists: Canadian artists like Glen Huser, or the illustrator that is going to do the book, our good friend Giannis Georgantelis from Athens, the narrator, Terry Jones, who’s actually a new acquaintance of ours. We knew him from Monty Pythons but we never thought we would be working with him on Monty Pythons so he was amazing, too. So creating a team and getting the pleasure of working within a team and then, of course, all that for the children is the ultimate pleasure.
CDB: When you embarked on this project did you envision a wider target audience?
MD: Oh, yes! Actually, we wanted to open to the rest of the world because our previous books were only in Greek and were quite limited…
CDB: Oh, I don’t mean just ethnicity. I also mean a wider age group.
MD: I think it’s still limited to the way the story is being told.
CDB: Would you say is for pre-adolescents?
MD: Pre-adolescents for sure but, of course, any adults. For instance, the parents would come up to us and tell us they cry with the music and the lyrics, especially the part where the mother and daughter sing. They tell me they can relate to it. You have the best of both worlds: the child practicing having that experience, learning the music but then the parent gets the interpreted version and enjoy it as well. So yes, I guess it could go to different age groups.
DI: A children’s book will always grab the next generation as well because the parent is involved in teaching the kid and buying the book.
CDB: Are these children voice trained at their school choir or privately?
MD: Most of them are from our choir so that’s a plus for us. I would say 70% they’re in choirs from different schools, from about seven different schools, and privately 30% which are our students, our singing students.
DI: But what we did here was to hold auditions. We always audition the children before they become part of the choir.
MD: Unfortunately, we had to decline some. It breaks our hearts whenever we do that but we have to since recording is a very sensitive process.
DI: I’ll explain to you why we’re doing the auditions. The time limit is so short that we do not have the luxury of giving a one-on-one basis instruction to the kids. They all have potential, of course, but if you want to put this project out quickly you want kids that can respond fast and especially, have the range. A lot of kids that came to the audition have beautiful voice, very good ear, but they couldn’t go to the high notes. So being vocal instructors the last thing we want to do is push a child to sing high notes when their vocal chords can’t take it and create all kinds of other problems. That’s the main reason we refuse kids; because their voices have a lower range so we don’t want them to hurt themselves when they’re singing too high, especially when they’re with the orchestra.
CDB: How did the children react to the idea of being part of Time for Flowers –Time for Snow?
MD: They were excited. Not so much at first, I think. It was until later on after the recording when they were interviewed. That’s when they realized how big it was going to be. The recording itself was a big experience for them, to stand there focused for so many hours; they realized how professional they had to be.
DI: Initially, one of the hooks was that at the end of the project there was going to be a big launch of the book where they are going to get the star red carpet treatment: they are going to be signing their own books, getting a limousine ride, getting sponsors, etc. It was a little hook that we used, we were very sneaky, but they know they have to work for it and they are going to be rewarded for it. But once they got really involved, saw the orchestra, and were in a big concert hall, they forgot a big part of the launch. They talked about the project all the time and not so much about the launch.
CDB: Where did you record the final product?
DI: The product was recorded and mixed in six different locations, everywhere in the world. I’ll tell you why. Terry Jones is a British actor, so he recorded the narration of the book in London. The orchestra recorded at Vanier Auditorium because we recorded separately from the children. Using headphones, the children recorded in two sets of eighty children each at Oscar Peterson Concert Hall. The soloist recorded at our studio. Some of the Mediterranean instruments are being recorded in the composer’s studio and the final mixing and mastering is happening in a studio in Athens.
MD: This is done to achieve the best quality as possible.
CDB: Have you ever worked with a great number of children before?
DI: No, never. Maria and I as opera singers wanted to give something back to the community in the form of a vocal workshop. A lot of children are taught singing but they don’t know how to sing with the proper support that an opera singer can provide. So we created this vocal workshop; we don’t do operatic music but we teach them at least some basic singing techniques. This vocal workshop has been very successful and we’re doing it now in seven different schools. And as result we did one huge rehearsal where everyone came together at the Hellenic Community Center and it worked.
CDB: How long did it take you to complete this project?
DI: Well, we’re in the middle of it now. We’re still editing, I haven’t recorded my aria yet, and Maria hasn’t recorded a duet.
MD: We’re last. We’re always last. It’s like a puzzle. The children are finished but now we’re putting it together, shipping it to Greece.
DI: The biggest parts of the puzzle are finished already, the more taxing I would say, the one involving the orchestra and the children. Now we’re on mixing and editing, tweaking, putting it together and still some recording to be done at the time of the interview. But we expect all the mixing and editing to be done by mid-June and the book to come out in August and
CDB: What about the narrator? He was part of the puzzle, too, right?
DI: He recorded in November. He was one of the first to finish.
CDB: I know you have recorded four children’s operas and musicals in collaboration with top Greek labels and publishing houses. Would you like to continue working with children?
MD: Absolutely. First of all, we’re gaining a lot of experience. I cannot say I am who I am if it weren’t for for the children who are gaining experience, too. We’re like a family. That’s how I see it.
CDB: Children not only grow physically, they grow professionally.
MD: Absolutely. We have children deciding to take music because of the project. Unfortunately, most schools don’t have musicals, orchestras, they don’t have instruments, they don’t have an opportunity and they don’t have the experience. We want to pass on the knowledge to the children.
CDB: Will you and the children go on a tour?
MD: Anything is open.
DI: Yes. First of all, we have the big launch coming up in October this year, where the children will perform. I will be in Montreal City Hall, Laval City Hall and the Parliament and the Hellenic Community Center. After that, Garden View is doing a staged version of the musical where everything is done by the kids. That’s a very big project because it’s a different thing having an aria and a different thing creating a theatrical version of the musical and, of course, we are approaching some French publishing houses to do it in French.
CDB: Do you think Time for Flowers – Time for Snow will go international?
MD: It should. It has the possibility since English is a global language and the music appeals to everyone. It has a strong possibility but there are other factors at play. We have to find distributors and we’re limited in a way.
DI: But it is up to the publishing house; they do have distributors in the US and in England so hopefully the book will do well in Canada and then they will pick it up abroad.
MD: We’re excited just being in Canada since it’s such a huge country.
DI: Well, this is nationwide because the publishing house is in Vancouver.
CDB: Will the profits from these sales go the schools involved in the project?
DI: We have a special agreement with the publisher, Tradewind Books, to get the books at cost so that we can give them to the participating schools to use as a fundraising tool. All net profits of the sales of the books within the school systems, launches and events go to the participating schools. So we should encourage readers to purchase from the schools. Of course the books will be available nationwide in all bookstores. This project would never have been able to take off without our sponsors (many Montreal and Laval businesses) and our partners which are the Cities of Montreal and Laval, the Government of Quebec and Canada, the Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal, EMSB, Gardenview Home and School, and Pierre de Coubertin Elementary.
CDB: When will this multimedia project be officially available to the public? And where?
DI: The book comes out in August and then of course it gets distributed from there.
CDB: What about online sales?
DI: There will be of course, because Tradewin Books is a well-known children’s books publisher and it goes automatically to all the online sites and it’s sold there of course.
More about Dimitris Ilias and Maria Diamantis:
CDB: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you fall in love with music? How did your training start?
MD: I first fell in love with music at a very, very young age. I think all children love music, but the actual contact to learning to play an instrument was a brochure for piano lessons that came to the house and, of course, I jumped at the opportunity to ask my father if I could take lessons. Right away it was love at first sight: piano and myself. I felt it came to me naturally. My teachers always told my parents, “Maria has a talent.” So my parents then told me, “You should practice more.” Although I know it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration I don’t think it was more of the competitive aspect I wanted, I just loved music and as a child it kept me occupied. It was a beautiful hobby; I always wanted a piano. I always wanted to sing, record myself. I had a piano at home. It was a fortunate thing the moment I started taking lessons. There was no doubt it was meant for me.
DI: I attribute my love for music to this tradition at home where my mother loved classical music and she listened to a lot of it. She had a lot of records so I developed my first love for music from that. A lot of influence in me liking symphonic music was movies music just like Giannis, the composer. I loved Star Wars and E.T., and all those movies that have amazing symphonic music in them. That got me interested in music at a very young age and that’s how I asked my parents if I could start with violin. But after puberty when my voice changed, I got into my first choir because I loved singing as well, and I was hooked.
CDB: Are there any other artists in your family? Who are you music muses?
MD: I have an uncle who was a tenor, he had a beautiful voice, and actually, he was the only musician in the family. That was very rare, especially in war time to actually pursue a career in music. I was very difficult so unfortunately, he could not pursue it. However, he participated in choirs, learned the accordion, and studied notes, so I think he was the closest musical connection I had in my family. Later, when I took music seriously, I had many idols, especially in opera, that’s important in order to advance. But for me that was Maria Callas and my uncle again, who I think passed the torch to me.
DI: In my case there are no artists in the family, none whatsoever. It was through my mother’s love for classical music that I started getting into the idea. As far as idols, like Maria said, they changed but some of the basic ones I’d say as a composer I adore John Williams, who’s a composer for film music, I love Tchaikovsky from the old composers, one of my favorite. And as far as singers, as tenors go, I adore the voice and the artistry of Plácido Domingo. I like Luciano Pavarotti, but Domingo is a musician; he’s not just a singer, he’s an orchestra conductor and an amazing pianist. As far as modern composers go, I like Vangelis a lot even though he plays more electronic music. These are just a few that have influenced me a lot during my years of music.
CDB: As the Founders and Artistic Directors at Chroma Musika, what do you strive for?
DI: Chroma Musika is the label I created with Maria before we got married and that was for the purpose of making CDs and organizing concerts but we also have a non-profit organization, Panarmonia Atelier Musical and both entities are involved in this project. The goal is the same for both: to produce concerts, record CDs, promote young musicians, give opportunities to Quebec artists to perform, to record, get job opportunities like that, help us explore new music as opera singers not just as educators, so there is a multi-faceted aspect as a company. So the goal of Chroma Musika and Parnarmonia Atelier Musical is education, exploration, and giving opportunity for employment to young musicians.
CDB: You have four CDs. Do you plan to record another one?
DI: We always have one planned. The thing is that these projects are very time-consuming and they take place in our free time. We’re planning but we haven’t decided yet on the repertoire.
CDB: Would it be a duet?
DI: Yes. It would be the two of us together.
CDB: This week I read an article in Yahoo saying that a career in any field of the Arts is not worth studying. What advice would you give to children and young adults who are interested in a career in music?
MD: You never say no to any studies. I think it’s a crime to say no to a specific career. If you start focusing on the end result then you lose the journey. Let the children enjoy singing, that’s the beauty of it, don’t put ideas in their heads they’re going to be famous or be the next American Idol. I was very shy growing up but thanks to music I overcame that. I can’t think of a better milieu to have helped me in that aspect. I feel so special being a musician and I carry that feeling around like a crown on my head.
DI: I think that it’s very shallow to tell kids not to study for a certain artistic field like music. In the old days a lot of artists were self-taught but they didn’t have a lot of the distractions we have nowadays. Studying gives you a discipline that allows you to enjoy music in a much broader level than by you just saying I’m talented and I’m going to learn the guitar from Youtube. Let’s put a little parenthesis here about studying, of course, the teacher plays a huge role in this. If you study with someone who does not have a passion for teaching, yes, it could turn someone away and it’s not good for their artistic development. On the other, if you have a passionate teacher, it would be paramount in the development as an artist and musician. Unfortunately, some educational approaches that parents go for now focuses on letting the kids try a myriad of things because they don’t want to overpressure the children. Yes, you do have to decide on that thing you like, but there’s a limit and you have to create a little bit of pressure to practice in order to see the reward. There’s a balance.
CDB: What’s next for Maria and Dimitris on a personal and professional level?
MD: Well, bettering myself. I think I’ve reached a point, I would say the pinnacle of my career. Now I’d like to learn. We haven’t really planned but it’s good to expand and explore.
DI: Don’t forget that this is our first English project. It opened a lot of doors for us for future collaborations, especially with composers, writers, and illustrators. I think it will be very interesting. And children will always be part of that, too.
CDB: Well, I’d love to continue interviewing you but we’ve come to the end of the interview. I want to thank you both, Maria and Dimitris. It was really a pleasure and an honor. And I also thank Luigi Morabito for giving me this opportunity to interview you for Laval Families.
About the Author
Claudia Del Balso is a writer, editor, translator, and blogger. She works as a freelance translator for Dollarama Headquarters in Montreal. She has published ten short stories, including one that won Award of Excellence with the Poetry Institute of Canada. She also provides helpful tips to aspiring and emerging writers on her blog at: http://claudiadelbalso.blogspot.ca/
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