Singer lives his very own fairy tale in the Vat­i­can

Mark Spy­ropou­los, a Bri­tish bari­tone with Greek roots, de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­long­ing to one of the world’s most re­spected choirs

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY MARIANNA KAKAOUNAKI

That morn­ing, St Peter’s Basil­ica was full of tourists. It seemed to be an or­di­nary day, but some­thing in the air made it feel spe­cial. Be­hind a screen, some work­ers were as­sem­bling a huge manger while oth­ers could be seen car­ry­ing big wooden par­ti­tions. It quickly dom­i­nated a large part of the church, and peo­ple gath­ered to see what was go­ing on.

Within a few min­utes, ev­ery­thing went silent. A melody be­gan to play from the speak­ers. Next to the Chair of Saint Peter, 22 men and an or­ches­tra per­formed a beau­ti­ful ren­di­tion of “Adeste Fide­les.” The re­hearsals for the Christmas Eve and New Year’s func­tions had be­gun. Among the singers was Mark Spy­ropou­los, a Bri­tish bari­tone with Greek roots, who, two years ear­lier, found him­self in the old­est church choir in the world, the per­sonal choir of the pope, or Cap­pella Mu­si­cale Pon­ti­f­i­cia. “Even now there are times when I feel that all this is a fairy tale,” he told me as we sat in a cafe at the Vat­i­can en­trance.

Hav­ing stud­ied mu­sic and opera in Eng­land, he de­cided to try his luck at the ma­jor opera houses of Italy. Af­ter one au­di­tion, he had the op­por­tu­nity to speak with the con­duc­tor of the Vat­i­can choir. “The first in­ter­view went well and they asked me to join a re­hearsal which had just started. As I was leav­ing, they ca­su­ally told me to come back for Christmas. I re- turned to Lon­don, not knowing if they re­ally meant it.”

With­out a steady job in his field, he was work­ing days at Har­rods depart­ment store and in the evenings pre­sent­ing bou­quets on stage to opera singers. “I was con­stantly on ten­ter- hooks, think­ing what a great op­por­tu­nity it was. I fi­nally plucked up the courage to get in touch with them again.” He wrote to the con­duc­tor ask­ing, “Does the of­fer still stand?” “Of course,” came the re­ply. Spy­ropou­los took the next flight to Rome.

He par­tic­i­pated in two re­hearsals and they in­formed him that he would be tak­ing part in the Christmas Mass. “Three tai­lors mea­sured me for the clothes I was to wear that night. I couldn’t be­lieve that one mo­ment I was sell­ing per­fumes at Har­rods and the next stand­ing next to the pope, singing in front of 25,000 peo­ple in a performance broad­cast live across the world.”

Spy­ropou­los might only speak a few words of Greek, but he grew up with sto­ries of his Greek fam­ily – such as his great-grand­fa­ther from Vo­los, who ex­ported Pa­pas­tratos to­bacco prod­ucts to the United King­dom, where his cus­tomers in­cluded the royal fam­ily – and spending care­free sum­mer hol­i­days at his grand­fa­ther’s home in Kyre­nia, Cyprus, be­fore the Turk­ish in­va­sion.

His grand­mother and grand­fa­ther met and fell in love in Lon­don, where they had mi­grated with their fam­i­lies dur­ing the 1920s. They were mar­ried at St Sophia’s Cathe­dral, a Greek Ortho­dox church in Bayswa­ter, where they bap­tized their son and later their grand­son.

As a young­ster, Spy­ropou­los never had a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the Church (he was also bap­tized in a Catholic church by his mother), but the last cou­ple of years have changed him. “It might seem strange, but I’ve even felt closer to Greece here – from the ser­vice which al­ways be­gins with ‘Kyrie elei­son’ [Lord, have mercy], the Ortho­dox priest who at­tends each sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, or the count­less sculp­tures crafted by Greek artists.”

He ac­com­pa­nied me to the church, full of en­thu­si­asm. Now he knows ev­ery cor­ner: the se­cret wooden el­e­va­tor up to the ter­race, the com­plex sys­tem of speak­ers and mi­cro­phones re­cently put in place to re­pro­duce the acous­tics of the Sis­tine Chapel, and the “au­to­graphs” scratched into the wall with penknives by the choir mem­bers. When we ar­rived in front of Michelan­gelo’s Pi­eta, he stopped.

“This is the ex­act spot the mae­stro told me to stand on New Year’s Eve in 2014. He sud­denly opened the cur­tain and there was Pope Fran­cis. I lost my com­po­sure, I had no idea what the cor­rect pro­to­col was: Should I kiss his hands? His feet?” The pope, full of en­thu­si­asm, wel­comed him. “You came from Lon­don? And you will sing with us? That’s fan­tas­tic!”

He might not speak to the pope very of­ten, but stand­ing at his side at ev­ery pub­lic ap­pear­ance, he feels like he’s got to know him. “He doesn’t want to stand on the bal­cony but in the square, among the peo­ple. He has in­cred­i­ble em­pa­thy. You see the small things, how he will kneel to talk to a child in a wheel­chair, how he lis­tens and gives time to or­di­nary peo­ple.”

When we crossed St Peter’s Square, shak­ing hands with Pope Fran­cis. As a young­ster, Spy­ropou­los never had a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the Church (he was also bap­tized in a Catholic church by his mother), but the last two years have changed him. ‘It might seem strange, but I’ve even felt closer to Greece here – from the ser­vice which al­ways be­gins with “Kyrie elei­son” [Lord, have mercy], the Ortho­dox priest who at­tends each sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion or the count­less sculp­tures crafted by Greek artists.’ he pointed to the roof of a dark build­ing. “That’s the pope’s new apart­ment. It’s like a room in a three-star ho­tel. He left be­hind a lux­ury apart­ment.”

The small­est state

Be­hind the im­pos­ing gates where the Swiss Guards stand in their col­or­ful uni­forms lies the small­est nation-state in the world. To­day, around 800 peo­ple live there. Apart from their houses and ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices, there are su­per­mar­kets, restau­rants, a gas sta­tion, he­li­port, phar­macy, post of­fice, ra­dio and tele­vi­sion sta­tion, and a shop “where Amer­i­can priests of­ten go to buy Gucci glasses,” said Spy­ropou­los, laugh­ing.

He has now seen three new years in with the pope, and this time Fran­cis gave him a gift of a tra­di­tional panet­tone and a bot­tle of Prosecco. “On New Year’s Eve, we par­tic­i­pate in the ser­vice, then sleep for two hours – some­thing that’s hard to do be­cause of the fire­works and ex­cite­ment – and then we come back here in the morn­ing for the morn­ing ser­vice. It’s ex­haust­ing, but I would not change it,” he told me as we parted ways for him to re­turn to re­hearsal, and, by the time the clock struck mid­night, more than 25,000 peo­ple had gath­ered in St Peter’s Square to watch the ser­vice, in which Spy­ropou­los sang to wel­come the New Year.

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