On 21st February 1821, fighting broke out in the Danubian Principalities of the Ottoman Empire, the first of many revolts which were to become known as the Greek Revolution and result in the foundation of modern Greece. Two hundred years on, Greece celebrates the anniversary of that defining moment in the country’s history.

Giorgos Koumendakis
© Andreas Simopoulos

Giorgos Koumendakis, the Artistic Director of Greek National Opera, has been working for three years on how to pay appropriate tribute to the bicentennial, which requires, in his view, the broadest possible response. “Our intent is to open, both in Greece and abroad, the discussion about revolution and through our artistic work to raise questions and help people rethink the concepts of freedom, struggle, unity and even division. Our theatre’s goal is not to do politics, nor history lessons. Our aim was and is to talk through art and artists about the concept of revolution, and about the links of the Greek Revolution to others like the American and French Revolutions.”

GNO’s programme certainly isn’t short of ambition, encompassing a wide variety of operas and concerts linked either to Greece or to the revolutionary theme. To name just a few: André Chenier is set in the French Revolution; Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans was commissioned in celebration of a Venetian victory over the Ottomans; there are Greek 19th century composer Paolo Carrer’s Despo (described as “the first Greek tragic melodrama”) and Frossini (set in the pre-revolution Ottoman years).

The Greek Revolution was notoriously fractious, very nearly failing because of infighting between different factions. In Koumendakis’ video introduction to the season, he hopes to meet us again in the theatre “to agree and disagree”. Are Greeks more argumentative than other people? “I don’t know if Greeks are more argumentative (they are rumored to be so), but we certainly need more viewpoints on history. Research, questions, disagreement are never useless or dangerous (Besides, isn’t every scientific approach based on them?) What is dangerous is one-sidedness, stereotypes, bigotry. Through art, we try not to remain indifferent to the challenges of the difficult world surrounding us, even when we risk not telling easy truths.”

Andrea Chénier at Greek National Opera
© A Simopoulos

To paraphrase: the quest for different angles on history has been paramount. “Independence struggles are usually historic events which we turn into unbreakable stories of sacrifice and heroism. We know that history never has just one interpretation. In the Greek Revolution there was a lot of heroism, but also many contradictions which continue troubling us as a state and as a people. Every nationalism (and there is plenty in Greece) wants history to have one version. We believe that we don’t have to tell the same history all over again, but to bring out issues, historical narratives, people, places, sounds that highlight the complexity and polysemy of contemporary Greek state’s historical trajectory. That is why we integrated traumatic events into our programme, like the destruction of the Greek Jewish community in World War II, but also gave a voice to the “eternal enemy” commissioning a Turkish creative team to produce a work about the Turkish perspective on the destruction of the Ottoman empire.”

That Turkish creative team – composer Kamran Ince and librettist İzzeddin Çalışlar, are responsible for the most eye-catching work: the oratorio Jus soli (the title is the Latin legal name for the right to be a citizen of one’s birthplace). The point is to present the Greek Revolution “through the eyes of the other”: to appreciate the courage involved in presenting this, you have to realise the level of antipathy towards Turkey that persists to this day. Not that this caused an atom of hesitation on Koumendakis’ part: “From the first moment of our programming for 2021, it was my great wish to stay away from the known readings of the Revolution and to avoid nationalistic and patriotic clichés. In this context, I thought that the view of the other side should also be heard in our programme. The choice of Kamran Ince was a one-way street, as I knew and appreciated his work. Fortunately, he was immediately excited with the idea and we began working. I believe that this will be one of the most interesting bets of our programme. And I must tell you that the President of the Hellenic Republic, Mrs Katerina Sakellaropoulou, placed this production under her patronage, as she understood the importance of such a commission. So far we haven’t encountered any obstacles to this production. But, even if there will be reactions or negative criticism at a political level, we will be here to support our choice.”

Giorgos Koumendakis at the premiere of Fonissa, 2016
© Harris Akriviadis

Jus Soli is one of several works which form part of GNO’s “Alternative Stage”, a programme of which Koumendakis is particularly proud: “We managed, in almost four years, to change the image of contemporary music theatre in our country. The idea behind the programming, both of the Alternative Stage and the Stavros Niarchos Hall, has to do with overcoming stereotypes about opera and music theatre, with an effort to target the general public and not only a section of specialists. We try to integrate into our programming works ranging from the contemporary and difficult repertoire to musical and popular songs. The backbone of Alternative Stage’s programme is commissions, as we believe that we must fill in the void left behind by the absence of commissions in Greek music theatre for decades.” Another eye-catching commission is Ask Ada, by Netherlands-based Greek composer Yannis Kyriakides (“part of a big tribute to Lord Byron, a prominent figure of philhellenism, a movement which laid the groundwork for Greece’s European identity”), based on letters between Byron and Ada Lovelace. 

There is a great deal of Greek classical music, but not much of it is famous outside Greece. One exception is Mikis Theodorakis, best known in the west as the composer of film scores like Serpico and Zorba the Greek. But film scores are just a fraction of Theodorakis’ output, something that GNO will highlight: “This year, we start a three-year cycle dedicated to Mikis Theodorakis’ work. In the context of this cycle, we will learn or remember again Theodorakis’ great symphonic works, his ballets, but also his song cycles that have been associated with modern Greek history, through top Greek poets.” The season will also highlight great Greek composers of yesteryear such as Paolo Carrer and Manolis Kalomiris.

Along with many during the pandemic, GNO has set up a video channel, named GNO TV. It’s a case of necessity being the mother of invention: Koumendakis sees GNO TV as an important tool to present the company’s work outside Greece – and, with it, the wealth of music by Greek composers. One of those is Koumendakis himself – or was, that is, before he discovered that the directorship of GNO made it “practically impossible to concentrate” on the opera he had hoped to compose for 2021: he intends to resume composing after the end of his term at GNO.

Don Giovanni at Greek National Opera
© Andreas Simopoulos

His start in opera was conventional, at least in Greek terms: hearing Maria Callas in La Traviata on his grandmother’s radio when he was five years old. “It may sound like a cliché but I will never forget the feelings it evoked in me. In fact, I should tell you that my good voice and my great love for singing gave rise to a lot of teasing by my classmates and teachers in school and the conservatoire.” He describes his compositional style as an integration of traditional Greek forms into the contemporary music world of the 1970s and 80s, the environment of Xenakis, Ligeti and Boulez. “With all this compositional arsenal, I returned at some point to the folk music material, the polyphonic songs of Epirus, dirges, the dances of Crete and Pontus, and I tried to make them part of my compositional identity. That is, I didn’t start to integrate the folk material into a western compositional form like an ethnographer, but I sought through the material itself, the form of a personal compositional approach and writing.” His most important opera, The Murderess, was written in 2014, based on the eponymous novel by revered Greek author Alexandros Papadiamantis: perhaps GNO TV will help bring that to the wider world in future years.

Two powerful institutions have been instrumental in GNO’s wellbeing over the last few years. The first is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the legacy of one of the great shipping magnates of the 20th century, which built the new home in Athens into which the company moved in 2017 and which continues to provide generous support. “With the people of the Foundation we now feel like a family and have developed a relationship of trust with the president, Mr. Andreas Dracopoulos. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to tell you that since 2017 when we moved to our new home, at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the Greek National Opera has been a completely different company, in comparison to the past. Apart from the obvious, namely the difference in size between the Olympia Theatre and the SNFCC (from 700 seats we now have around 1400, and from one stage, we now have two, each with a different repertoire), I believe that the basic principles of our artistic directorship, among others, the expansion of the repertoire, sharp readings, commissions of new works, lack of conservatism, collaborations with different art forms, co-productions and partnerships with theatres abroad, invitations of celebrated artists, the targeting at international audiences and the qualitative upgrade of our ensembles, make the GNO of 2021 a completely different opera house than what it was in the past.”

Greek National Opera at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre
© SNFCC | Yiorgis Yerolymbos

The second has been the Greek Government: GNO is funded by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. Koumendakis is effusive in his praise of the present culture minister, Lina Mendoni, with whom he enjoys a close relationship. “She is a person who has great love for art and artists and a true interest for the Cultural Organisations of contemporary Greek civilisation. From the beginning of her term, Mrs Mendoni has stood by our side, and during this so challenging pandemic she supported us in every way. Ιt was her excellent idea in summer 2020 – in the midst of the pandemic – to open up all archaeological sites in Greece for a series of concerts and performances, as part of the programme “All of Greece, one Culture”.

Greece had a relatively low impact from the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the second was tougher, Koumendakis says. He is wary of the impact of any third wave but hopeful – as we all are – that the vaccination process will speed a return to normality. Let’s all hope that turns out to be the case and permits GNO to complete this landmark season.

This article was sponsored by Tempo OMD