Landmark venue to raise curtain again

It took a dozen years to build and over 20 years for damage inflicted by earthquakes, abandon and general decay to be repaired.

Once the jewel of the port city, the Piraeus Municipal Theater, an impressive architectural structure conceived by prominent local architect Ioannis Lazarimos which features a unique Baroque stage-set (one of only three or four still standing in Europe), is preparing to raise its curtain once again.

The theater?s entire renovation has now entered its final phase and although the original plan was for the theater to reopen in July, it is now expected to be ready by the end of the year. A surprise discovery was made during the renovation in the form of a smaller stage hidden inside the building.

As Piraeus gears up for the grand opening in January next year, it should be noted that the refurbishment project was funded by the 3rd European Union Structural Fund through the National Strategic Reference Framework and was carried out by the Directorate of Cultural Buildings and Restoration of Contemporary Monuments.

It is precisely at this point that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism ought to think hard about the theater?s future use. This is because the Municipal Theater of Piraeus can be exploited in a twofold way, both as an entertainment venue and an educational one. If not, it could run the risk of falling into ruin again due to inappropriate usage and unworthy cultural management choices.

Throughout its illustrious history the theater has hosted a string of major theater companies as well as leading stage directors — among them Alexis Solomos, Karolos Koun, Dimitris Rontiris — and eminent actors such as Marika Kotopouli, Emilios Veakis, Katina Paxinou, Manos Katrakis, Dimitris Horn and Ellie Lambeti. At one point the theater was also the home of the Piraeus Music Organization, headed by composer Mikis Theodorakis.

Opera director and set and theater designer Nikos Petropoulos, who is acting as special technical adviser to the contractor and who designed the new stage, has repeatedly spoken of the dangers regarding the theater?s future usage, including the need for the Municipality of Piraeus to cooperate closely with the Ministry of Culture in view of the landmark theater?s revival.

And if the majority of the citizens of Piraeus think of the city?s Municipal Theater as their very own ?national theater,? there is yet another suggestion for its use.

Given that the unique theater is on a par with a number of fellow European stages and one of very few still boasting a Baroque stage-set — sliding coulisses and scenery canvases that create a three-dimensional effect — the development of a program featuring 15- to 20-minute visits could be envisioned, during which visitors could observe changes in the sets and lights on stage and at the same time take a close look at the mechanism?s operation.

More ideas, says Petropoulos, include the development of a Baroque set design studio and the opening of the theater?s glorious library, which features an impressive dome.

This is a country with a huge appetite for the development of its tourism industry and the Ministry of Culture has invested heavily in Piraeus?s cultural development and tourism stemming from visiting cruise ships through the organization of various cultural events near the port, the exploitation of old buildings and the development of new museums. In this light, the revamped theater should not be excluded from the attraction list.

With his long experience, Petropoulos goes as far as to envision collaborations with Italian theater companies for the development of small-scale opera co-productions which would benefit from the theater?s direct port access. Meanwhile, an international Baroque music festival featuring concerts and lectures could be a further cultural boost for both the theater and the local community.

What is considered common practice in the rest of Europe needs to be incorporated into this country?s daily life too.

According to Nikolaos Charkiolakis, who helms the Directorate of Cultural Buildings and Restoration of Contemporary Monuments, the Piraeus theater could follow the example of Venice?s landmark La Fenice. With a 5-euro ticket, for instance, visitors could attend guided tours and take part in educational programs.

As for the venue?s program activity, the theater needs to have an organizing body along with an inspired, flexible artistic director capable of developing the kind of stage repertoire which will be able to invigorate local cultural activity.