A revitalized Athens Festival?

This coming summer’s Hellenic Festival, the annual cultural season featuring events at the Herod Atticus and Epidaurus, is the third being organized by composer Pericles Koukos, whose tenure ends in September. As readers of Kathimerini are well aware, the publication has kept a close and critical eye on the festival’s course. The government committed itself to revitalizing the long-running summer event five years ago by changing the festival’s legal framework and appointing a new administration led by Koukos as its director. It’s true that you have succeeded in getting the festival to operate smoothly. But does the festival director’s vision end there? No. The first and foremost issue is to organize the basics, to prepare those foundations that make the entire thing work automatically. Four aspects determine a festival’s success: the artistic agenda; promotion and advertising; technical support for the components; and organization and operation. We’ve provided equal support for all four and had very good results. As for the artistic agenda, on the one hand, we’ve introduced five keystones for reshaping it, and on the other, we’ve followed the established mode by which the venues, the Herod Atticus and Epidaurus, generally determine the program. We also support the view that we need to have important productions, ones also able to draw big crowds. It seems that the main concern is to fill theaters instead of building a festival with an identity, its own distinctive character. No. The venue, the theater, is what determines things. You book a ballet for the Herod Atticus and a modern dance troupe for another venue, not the Herod Atticus. The existence of these venues [the Herod Atticus and Epidaurus] plays an instrumental role in the festival’s shape. Why don’t you try and extend the festival to other venues beyond the Herod Atticus, with less conventional performances? First, I believe that, even now, less conventional performances are being staged at the Herod Atticus. I haven’t searched for venues beyond the Herod Atticus because time was needed to re-market the Athens Festival, both here and abroad, which, for better or worse, is identified with the Herod Atticus. Tremendous effort was needed to restore the festival’s credibility with regard to its obligations – contracts, payments, organization, and so on. But, yes, it is true, the Athens Festival also needs another venue, which I’ve already sought. This needs to be a venue with significant technical specifications, one at which we can present avant-garde productions in theater, dance, and so on. Whatever happened to the plan to «develop global cooperation with other foreign festivals,» which you announced as one of your festival policy’s «five basic principles.» That’s happening. It’s difficult to do extraordinary things. The cost does not allow it. This is only possible through co-productions. We’re gradually getting into the big productions being staged globally. Nowadays, word of us is being heard abroad. The festival’s credibility has been restored. We’ve improved our ties with the European Festivals Association, and are inviting renowned critics and journalists. With the advertising abroad, the festival has contributed to the country’s wider reputation abroad. What about the «cooperation with cultural organizations and provincial festivals for common cultural activities»? We’re making small, careful moves. We’re sending Epidaurus performances on tours to cities which, otherwise, would not have been included. As of this year, we’re also planning to begin program contracts with important provincial festivals, which will allow us to send some of our productions each year. What have you done with regard to the «support for Greek creativity and promotion of Greek artistic abilities abroad and in provincial areas»? Our aim is to bring together Greek artists and vocalists with foreign groups. That’s been achieved as far as the orchestras we’re inviting here are concerned. But the projection of Greek artists abroad exceeds our capabilities, as it’s a foreign cultural policy project. The Foreign and Cultural ministries ought to develop such activities. Don’t you think that the festival, too, is lacking in the promotion of work by young artists, especially Greek artists, in all fields? This is a matter of venue. An additional venue will give us the opportunity to present the work of young artists in all fields. The Herod Atticus does not allow for this all that easily. We’re doing our utmost. And I can announce to you now that the festival’s main focus in 2004 will be Greek works. On the financial side, the festival has ceased to have outstanding debts. And it’s become profitable! What do you do with the profit? We invest it in infrastructure projects – all the work that has been done at Epidaurus; the new, ultramodern mobile stage at the Herod Atticus, and its new electronic fittings; the new ticket booths… Have government subsidies increased? They’ve been reduced. We had 10.3 million euros our first year, 8.2 million euros our second year, and have approximately 6.2 million euros this year. We accepted this because we’ve had profits since last year, but we’re not satisfied. The State must stand by the cultural institutions. I’ve already asked – both orally and in writing – for additional funds to cover parallel events, specific projects for 2004. Next summer will be a special summer not only because of the Olympic Games but also because the Athens Festival turns 50. Are you preparing for the prospect? First, I’ll remind you that the current administration’s term expires in September. But the 2004 agenda needs planning well in advance, which means that I’ve been working on it for quite some time. We’re in touch with the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee and the Cultural Olympiad, which will need to make quick decisions so that the festival can be organized properly. We’re also preparing a series of events for the festival’s 50th anniversary – publications, special performances, et cetera. Are you left with any spare time for your own artistic activity? I wake up early, play Bach on the piano, which soothes my soul and allows me to produce specks of work before I start dealing with the festival. The work load is exhausting, between 10 and 12 hours a day. Yes, as an artist, I’ve fallen behind. I’d begun work on two operas – «Persians» and «Babylon,» based on an ancient Greek and modern Greek text respectively, which I haven’t completed – before I assumed the position. Nevertheless, I haven’t neglected my work in musical education. I haven’t canceled a single hour of tutoring at the conservatory where I’m director. Isn’t it somehow odd for an artist at his peak to abandon his or her creative output and focus on organizing a festival? Yes; it’s not ideal. I may have judged badly when I took on the festival, thinking that I would have some time left over to deal with my own work. I would never have assumed the position had I known that I would need to work – especially in the beginning – as many as 16 to 18 hours a day. Will you seek a new term when your current contract expires in September? First of all, that has not been proposed to me. We’ll see, if and when an offer is made. But I’d like to point out – and I’ve already notified the relevant ministers – that it would be proper to decide now, meaning this spring, on the festival’s new administration, the appointment of a new one, or the existing one’s renewal. Because 2004 is approaching and September will already be very late.