From international opera houses to YouTube, F&M alumni entertain the masses in many corners of the globe
To celebrate the five-year anniversary of her graduation from F&M, Mallika Dua ’12 recently posted a photo on Instagram of her with her father, Vinod, on a sun-splashed Commencement day. Within hours of Dua’s post, a typical graduation snapshot on Hartman Green became one of the most-viewed photos from an F&M Commencement in history – more than 23,000 people either commented or “liked” the image.
Dua is getting used to the attention, having becoming an internet celebrity in India over the past year. Her story made us wonder: are other F&M alumni striking it big in entertainment overseas? And how did they get there from Lancaster? Their stories resonate from concert venues in Bulgaria, to opera houses in Germany, and, yes – to Instagram, YouTube and Dubsmash.
Stephanos Tsirakoglou ’99
By Gregory L. Wright
Stephanos Tsirakoglou ’99 has performed scores of operatic roles in his career across the United States and Europe—from Falstaff to Figaro and from Don Pasquale to Doolittle. But his burgeoning career on the stage began only after he auditioned for another role at Franklin & Marshall: medical doctor.
“I am the son of two immigrant doctors,” he says. “That means, of course, that it was my obvious destiny to follow in their footsteps. I was from Philadelphia and F&M was the only college on my list because it had an excellent pre-med program and was within reasonable driving distance of the city.”
But a career in medicine was not to be for Tsirakoglou, who now spends most of his time performing in Germany as a bass-baritone in both opera and operette. Instead, he immersed himself in the liberal arts.
“The class I enjoyed the most at the College was one on the New Testament taught by Stephen Cooper (professor of religious studies),” Tsirakoglou recalls. “Many others stay with me to this day. My interactions with Lisa Gasbarrone (professor of French), Alan Levine (associate professor of mathematics) and Scott van Arman (associate professor of chemistry) also left lasting impressions on me.”
A new path in his studies and direction for his life was not immediately clear—and even Tsirakoglou admits that opera was a long shot in the beginning.
“I had only an oblique interest in opera during my youth,” says the son of Greek immigrants. “When I left chemistry, I though about a career in stage acting, but discovered that even busy, successful actors are barely scraping by. So I started taking voice lessons to see if I could improve my sound enough to be interesting to theaters in the opera world. I’ve never regretted that choice. Also, Simon Andrews was on the musical faculty during my time at F&M and he ran two very high-level choruses. My growing appreciation for music found very fertile ground there, which also helped my preparation.”
When asked what his singular career accomplishment is so far, Tsirakoglou does not hesitate.
“Survival,” he says. “International opera singing is a warped, hypercompetitive world, and survival is accomplishment enough. With my voice and my look, I can keep singing well into my 60s, so I look forward to another 25 years on the lyric stage. I’m doing well enough to support myself and I’m traveling the globe doing what I really enjoy. I’m one of the winners!”
Hristo Balabanov ’07
By Kristen Evans ’07
Hristos Balabanov ’07 is jet lagged. He’s just returned to Sofia, Bulgaria, from Los Angeles, where he discussed collaboration plans for his first English-language album, “I Can.”
It’s an aspirational title for more than one reason. Balabanov isn’t interested in reproducing trends in Western rap he considers harmful, whether that’s the glorification of wealth or tough-guy toxic masculinity. Instead, he says, he wants to infuse his music with a more positive message.
“If you’re popular, you have to be responsible to your fans,” says Balabanov. “My most successful hits are the ones where I communicate positive emotions and virtues in a trendy way.”
While he might not yet be a household name in America, Balabanov is something of a sensation in the Balkans and Russia. Since graduating from F&M, he’s produced 28 singles as the rapper Kristo, most of which charted on Bulgarian radio.
“I’ve always listened to hip-hop,” says Balabanov of his influences. “I was impressed by the nature of the culture - it’s so international. You can see the influence of hip hop even in pop artists like Justin Bieber and Beyoncé. Rappers are the new rock stars.”
He writes and directs each of his enormously popular videos himself. Many of his YouTube singles have racked up more than 8 million views - that’s only 1 million shy of the population of Bulgaria, where Balabanov grew up. (For comparison’s sake, the only official video produced by Chance the Rapper, who won three Grammy Awards in 2017, currently has fewer than 12 million views.)
Without English subtitles, it’s hard to guess at the precise message behind the video for his song “More Than Anything.” Instead of a sleek Ferrari rolling through the streets, dirt bikes zip through a quarry. Instead of focusing on slick dance routines, the camera cuts between spray painted walls and young men showing off their soccer skills.
The video seems to be about cutting loose and having fun, but Balabanov tells me that the lyrics for “More Than Anything” run a little deeper. “To me, you’re more than everything. I’m here for more than everything,” he translates on the fly. “If you believe, and you want more than anything, go to the end - never give up.”
One visual will be familiar for Western audiences, though: a young woman with long blonde hair, short shorts, and aviators who handles the melody - and controls the gaze of the camera. She’s Lora Karadjova, one of the most famous pop stars in Bulgaria and a former model.
Karadjova is actually the one who gave Balabanov his break. He came to hip-hop through breakdance competitions, and Karadjova invited him to duet on “I’m Staying Here,” which hit number one on the Bulgarian charts. He performed his first live concert in front of 30,000 people - during the middle of midterms at F&M.
“I had to fly back and finish my exams,” recalls Balabanov. “I didn’t know that was going to be my career.”
Balabanov now spends his days thinking about how to combine a commercial beat with uplifting lyrics - a strategy not unlike that of Chance or Kendrick Lamar, as well as one that’s on display in the video for “More Than Anything.”
He says this awareness of audience is something he learned at F&M, while studying studio art. “Start with the reaction you want to achieve,” he remembers being taught. “Art, in essence, is communication - and if I don’t make you move, in any direction, maybe I’m not communicating well enough.”
When he talks about vocal artists who communicate meaning without sacrificing popular sensibility, Michael Jackson tops the list. “My lyrics are about love and believing in yourself,” he says, a message he thinks young kids need to hear. MJ would probably approve.
“It’s a privilege to be part of the culture,” says Balabanov of his career. “Still, I get paid to have a lot of fun.”
Mallika Dua ’12
By Chris Karlesky ’01
It’s happening in coffee shops, living rooms, parks and shopping centers all around India. Or any place, really, where people have access to the internet and social media – and the comic genius of F&M graduate Mallika Dua ’12.
“I stood in the Nutella aisle of a department store today and laughed for 10 minutes straight. This woman is amazing!” wrote one person on Instagram.
Such reactions are common among fans of Dua, an actor and internet sensation who became a social media celebrity almost overnight in January 2016. That’s when she starred in a YouTube video, “Shit People Say: Sarojini Nagar Edition,” doing interpretations of people shopping on Mumbai’s Linking Road. Filled with street stalls and high-end stores, the road brings together shoppers from all walks of life. Dua’s take on the buyers – from the “West Delhi newlywed” to the “corporate drone” – had fans laughing hysterically as they watched on their phones, tablets and laptops. The video went viral with some help from Buzzfeed and Twitter and currently has 2 million views.
“Honestly, I hadn’t the slightest idea it would blow up the way it did,” Dua says. “For me, it was a fun video I did on the side about my city and its unique people. Suddenly I was flooded with interview requests and work in general, and I realized that the medium had a massive audience.”
The audience quickly noticed Dua’s work on the video messaging application Dubsmash, where she had already built a small fan base. Soon she quit her 9-to-5 job as a copywriter in Delhi and moved to Mumbai to focus on acting.
“Besides being a drama queen at home since forever, I started acting on stage when I was 12,” Dua says. “I played one of the Von Trapp kids in ‘The Sound of Music’ and then continued theatre. I majored in theatre at F&M, and I’m forever grateful to Professor Carol Davis for being such an amazing and culturally sensitive mentor to me.”
Many of Dua’s videos include a special guest: her father, Vinod Dua, an award-winning journalist who is a familiar face for viewers of Indian TV news. Some videos on Dubsmash also feature the entire Dua family. “My father has been the biggest influence in my life,” Dua says. “My doctor mother has kept us very grounded and instilled a sense of discipline and humility in us. My sister, who is a clinical psychologist, keeps our little mad house afloat!”
As Dua’s star continues to brighten on Instagram, Facebook and other social media channels, she would like to become a mainstream actor. Already, she says, some of the top names in Bollywood have sent compliments on her work. But she’s keeping her newfound fame in perspective.
“People expect me to make them laugh every single day, but I can't always do that,” she says. “Because like most people, I have all kinds of days myself.”