Van Christo Uncovers Two 18th Century Scanderbeg Operas about Albania's greatest hero
By Del Brebner
Liria's annual dinner dance celebrating Albania's historic Independence Day
(Dita e Flamurit) was held Sunday, November 24, 1986, at the world-famous Anthony's Pier 4 waterfront restaurant. On that occasion, an announcement was made that bears cultural significance to the Albanian people in Albania and to people of Albanian origin throughout the world.
Master of Ceremonies at the Liria dinner, David Kosta, made the following announcement after guest speaker, Van Christo, had just finished his talk. "Ladies and gentlemen," Kosta said, "Van Christo has just informed me that he will soon donate photocopies of the two Skanderbeg operas by Vivaldi and Francouer, along with English translations to, first of all, the Fan Noli Library, the Skanderbeg Museum in Kruja, Albania, the Department of Music at Harvard University, the School for the Arts at Boston University, and the Boston Conservatory of Music."
This striking announcement was the fitting climax to years of search and research on the part of Van Christo, Boston's well-known steward of Albanian culture and proponent of cultural unity among Albanians of differing political persuasions.
Van Christo, owner and President of the Van Christo Advertising Agency, and in recent years, creator/director of the popular WCRB and WBUR radio programs, the Van Christo Radio Theatre, has held as a major personal responsibility, the preservation of the art and culture of Albania. From 1979 to 1983, he regularly made weekly trips from Boston to Worcester where he served as conductor and musical director of Kor' i Usterit which translated into Albanian means "Worcester Choir." Many remember the impressive concerts of that Albanian men's chorale group in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and several other cities in New England.
In 1982 Christo was reading a newly-acquired book, "The Albanians" by Anton Logoreci, an Englishman of Albanian origins. It was with a great sense of excitement, of discovery, that he read the following paragraph: "Scanderbeg's posthumous renown was by no means confined to his own country. Voltaire thought the Byzantine Empire would have survived had it possessed a leader of his quality. A number of poets and composers have also drawn inspiration from his military career. The French sixteenth-century poet, Ronsard, wrote a poem about it, and so did the nineteenth-century American poet, Longfellow. Antonio Vivaldi's list of rarely performed compositions includes an opera entitled Scanderbeg."
Van Christo admits that on reading the paragraph he was virtually trembling with excitement. A Vivaldi opera about Scanderbeg, the 15th century Albanian folk hero who for 25 years successfully repelled, vanquished and baffled the Ottoman hordes in their attempts to conquer Albania? The Scanderbeg who, in effect, created Albania through his military genius and his extraordinary leadership that made a strong and unified nation from a discordant mass of feudal lords and unruly tribesmen?
Van Christo's mind raced with questions. Did the opera still exist? Where could it be? How could one find it? Not one to sit back and wait for answers, Van Christo embarked on what he calls "the search." For the next three years he committed emotion, time, and money to finding and preserving the Vivaldi opera.
He found that the opera was originally performed at the Teatro de la Pergola in Florence, Italy, on June 22, 1718. The occasion was the re-opening of the theatre, to this day a pearl among Florentine theatres. For the event Vivaldi had been chosen to produce an opera, testimony to Vivaldi's standing in the music world at that time. That Vivaldi had selected Scanderbeg as the subject of an opera especially composed for that momentous opccasion confirms the impact that the Albanian folk hero still had on the civilized world almost 300 years after his heroic life.
This, Van Christo learned along with other details from consultations with musicologists in England, Italy, France, and the United States, from a voluminous correspondence extending over a three-year period with music librarians in Italy, from extensive research, and numerous paid consultants.
Complicating matters and adding further excitement was another discovery. In the course of his research on the Vivaldi opera, Van Christo uncovered another opera entitled "Scanderbeg," this one by the 18th century composer, Francois Francouer. While still hunting down the Vivaldi, Van Christo also initiated the search for the Francouer opera, encountering many of the same difficulties and frustrations he was experiencing with the Vivaldi search.
This time, though, from sources in Paris, he was eventually to find the entire opera (both the original plus a revised version by Francouer), librettos and musical scores, and to learn that the Francouer "Scanderbeg" had been given in command performance before their majesties, King Louis XV and Queen Marie Charlotte Leszczynska of France at Fontainebleu on October 22, 1763.
Van Christo believes it is entirely conceivable that, properly presented to various opera companies in the United States and abroad, several of them would accept the Francouer "Scanderbeg" for performance. In an interview following the Liria dinner he was asked about the possibility.
"It has both historical and musical value," he said, "I have had it evaluated and authenticated by a qualified musicologist, Dr. Graham Sadler of the Department of Music at the University of Hull in England. It is intact. Ready for production. It is imperative that opera companies honor their expressed responsibility to restore and preserve masterworks of former times. The Francouer "Scanderbeg" is a sure bet for successful revival."
He was then asked about chances of a revival of the Vivaldi "Scanderbeg." Van Christo muses. "In my heart of hearts," he says, "I'd like to be able to retain someone of -- let's say -- the stature of Gian Carlo Menotti to compose a new Scanderbeg opera based on the Vivaldi libretto and incorporating the four authentic remaining Vivaldi arias. These have been evaluated by an eminent Vivaldi scholar, Professor Michael Talbot of the University of Liverpool, and I have his recommendations for revitalizing and exploiting the work." Christo adds that a composer of Menotti's reputation would, clearly, lead to performance by major opera companies in this country and elsewhere.
"My consultants tell me that it would cost about a quarter of a million dollars to engage someone of the caliber of Gian Carlo Menotti." He tugs thoughtfully as his crisp beard. "What is needed is for a significant number of American-Albanians to come forward and help, especially the younger generation who can bring vitality, imagination, and sophistication to the project." He smiles into space. "Imagine! A Vivaldi-Menotti collaboration on a Scanderbeg opera!" He closes his eyes. Dreaming?
"Ah!" he says suddenly, "It could be done. It could be done."
If it can be done, one senses that Van Christo is the person who could make of the project another successful labor of love and perseverance.
According to data subsequently provided to Van Christo by Peter Rennie of London's Anglo-Albanian Association, there was a third opera about Scanderbeg composed by Bernard Germain le Comte de Lacepede (1765-1805), a French naturalist, politician, and musician. Better known for his later political activities as President of the French Senate and of the Grand Chancelier de la Legion d'honneur, Lacepede was also the composer of five operas. One of these was Scanderbeg which was commissioned by a committee of the Academie Royale de Musique in 1785. The opera, however, was never performed since Lacepede for some reason has destroyed it.
Scanderbeg, the national hero of Albania and a military and political leader of international importance was born in 1405 in northern Albania to the Kastrioti family of feudal leaders, and as the child, Gjergj Kastrioti, he was taken as a hostage from his father, Gjon Kastrioti, to be raised and educated in Turkey and to serve in the Ottoman army. Under the name of Skënder (meaning Alexander, after Alexander the Great), he gained distinction in fighting in the Balkans and Asia Minor. He was awarded the title of Bey (Lord of the Land), adopting the name Scanderbeg (Albanian: Skënderbeu).
In 1443, Scanderbeg led a revolt in Krujë (northern Albania) against the Ottomans and scored repeated victories over them usually against great numerical odds. His successes were due to his firsthand knowledge of Turkish military tactics, his own sound tactics and strategies, brilliant leadership, the mountainous terrain, and the support of the Albanian people.
The revolt ultimately failed because of the overwhelming odds ranged against it and because of Scanderbeg's death in 1468. The revolt's astonishing achievements have ever since inspired and heartened Albanians everywhere they are located in the world.