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VOA Interview with Van Christo

Greetings:
I was interviewed recently on VOA about the placement of a plaque honoring the Pan-Albanian Federation Vatra on the site of the building on Tremont street where it was first housed back in 1912. Although the entire video interview with me was conducted in English. I believe you may still get enough of it notwithstanding VOA’s Mr. Ikonomi’s Albanian voiceovers. Still, it may be worth a look.,

Van Christo

Van Christo Uncovers Two 18th Century Operas about Scanderbeg, Albania’s greatest hero

Author: Del Brebner

Liria’s annual dinner dance celebrating Albania’s historic Independence Day
(Dita e Flamurit) was held Sunday, November 24th, 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 mens’ 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 peformed 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?

Image of the cover of the first Vivaldi Scanderbeg Opera

Image of the cover of the first Vivaldi Scanderbeg Opera

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.

Image of the cover of the second Vivaldi Scanderbeg Opera

Image of the cover of the second Vivaldi Scanderbeg Opera

“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 perseverence.

Van Christo

Van Christo

Van Christo poses with a 1927 General Electric radio given to him by an appreciative fan of the Van Christo Radio Theatre. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Van Sotir Christo was born in the city of Korça in southern Albania, and brought t oAmerica at the age of one before World War II. He served as a Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy aboard the U.S.S. Chaffee, DE230, during WWII in the Pacific. Until he formed the non-profit Frosina Information Network, an Albanian immigrant and cultural resource, he was President and Creative Director from 1960 to 1993 of the Van Christo Advertising Agency serving industrial and hi-tech clients in the USA, Canada, and Europe. His advertising agency won just about every award that was offered by the advertising industry. He won the prestigious CLIO award on two separate occasions that is considered the Academy Award of Advertising.

From 1966 to 1981, he also created the Van Christo Radio Theatre where he broadcast Old-Time Radio drama over Greater Boston radio stations, WCRB and WBUR. He was also Executive Producer and director of an award-winning radio program that he created especially for children called “The Treehouse” that was praised by judges for its “informative and entertaining format which capitalizes on radio’s ability to stimulate young imaginations.” He has also served as a consultant on specialized radio programming for children to National Public Radio (NPR), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the U.S. Department of Education.

Van Christo recently donated his personal collection of some 2000 Old-Time Radio programs to the Special Collections Department of the Mugar Library at Boston University. The collection is now in the process of being catalogued as the Van Christo Radio Theatre Archive where it will be made available to students and scholars alike. He is a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University from which he received a BA degree in the English Language and English Literature.

Van Christo conducts The Boston Pops.

Van Christo conducts The Boston Pops.

Van Christo has been interviewed by several Greater Boston TV and radio stations, CBS radio, the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Marti, Wisconsin Public Radio, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, Los Angeles Daily News, and other media where he has provided commentaries on changing political situations in Albania, and, more recently, about Kosova. In 1992, he and his wife, Jane Christo who is General Manager of NPR Radio Station WBUR in Boston, were invited by the United States Information Agency of the U.S. State Department to serve as consultant-advisors to Radio Tirana. This initial working visit was so well received by the Albanians that they were invited back four additional times, and their last visit to Albania in 1996 was expanded to include four radio stations in Romania.

Van Christo conducts Kori Usterit.

Van Christo conducts
Kori Usterit.

In 1996, Van Christo was nominated for the post of Ambassador to Albania by U.S. Senator John Kerry, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, former U.S. Congressman Robert Drinan, community and business leaders. In 1994, he was appointed by then Massachusetts Governor William Weld to his Governor’s Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees, and then re-appointed in 1997 by Governor A. Paul Cellucci. In 1998, he was also appointed to Massachusetts Health Commisioner Howard K. Koh’s Refugee and Immigrant Health Advisory Committee, He is the father of four children – Jeffrey Dean, Pira Frosina, Tana Marika, and Zachary Tomor.

Van Christo conducts The Albanian Children's Chorale

Van Christo conducts The Albanian Children’s Chorale

Van Christo conducts The Concord Pops.

Van Christo conducts The Concord Pops.

Origination of the Name “Frosina”

In response to many inquiries from people who have requested an explanation of the name “Frosina”, the following is a brief description about the person for whom the Foundation was named — my mother, Frosina Naum Christo.

Frosina Naum was born in 1909 in Drenova, Albania, a village near Korçe in southern Albania. She brought me to America when she was nineteen years old and I was only one to join my father, Spiro Christo, who had arrived in America a couple of months earlier to establish a home for us in the Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts. She was an orphan who was brought up by her uncle’s family because her own mother and father had both died when she was a small child.

My mother was outgoing and had a lot of friends. She also had a reputation as a great cook, particularly when it came to making two very delicious and popular Albanian dishes — Lakror and Baklava. I have many memories while I was growing up of my mother singing in the kitchen as she was rolling out dough for Lakror. But life for her was not especially easy, and there were many times when money was scarce. Although my father could speak passable English, my mother didn’t know English very well. Because of that, she seldom had the opportunity to communicate at length with anyone other than friends and relatives from Albania living nearby. Where she was outgoing in her own group, among “Americans” she was often intimidated and uncertain. She had many dreams for herself and for me, but, unfortunately, she didn’t have time to realize most of her dreams or to see me achieve mine. My mother died in her mid-forties in 1956 after having been seriously ill because of heart disease after she had undergone several major operations that eventually resulted in the amputation of both legs.

I feel that in many ways my mother represents all mothers and fathers who emigrated to America. Her hardship and struggle are symbolic of all the difficulties experienced by our families when they came to this land, especially when compared to our cousins that were left behind in Albania. The Frosina Foundation aims to give something of our own good fortune to the mothers and fathers of the next generation of Albanian-Americans.