Finally responding to longstanding appeals from National Opera officials desperate for extra breathing space, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos yesterday announced plans to expand the opera’s central Athens premises, while ruling out construction of a new building in another part of town. If the preliminary study Venizelos presented yesterday materializes – and, from what he said, the drastic overhaul could be finished by 2007 – the renovated opera house will have over twice its current stage area, new rehearsal halls and a much larger pit for the orchestra, while offering spectators decent legroom, better views and improved acoustics. Capacity will remain virtually unchanged, at 900 seats. And the Greek National Opera (GNO) will no longer have to rent the premises. «The current state of affairs borders on the unacceptable,» Venizelos told a press conference. «[The opera house] will be radically renovated, upgraded and rebuilt in a totally different way.» He said the project would cost over 88 million euros – slightly less than the new Acropolis Museum – and could take two years to complete. During that time, Venizelos suggested, the GNO could use the Athens Concert Hall or go on tour in Greece and abroad. GNO officials have long complained that the opera house, whose essential proportions have remained unchanged for the past 60 years, is simply too small for everybody involved: opera-goers, performers and staff. In early 2001, Venizelos had promised to do something, but no more was heard until this summer when the minister engaged in a public row with soprano Vasso Papantoniou, who had launched a campaign – including television adverts – for Athens to acquire a new, functional opera house. A first indication of the government’s intentions came two weeks ago when the ministry’s Council for Modern Monuments decided that the current opera house – which occupies the former Olympia Theater on the ground and first floor of a seven-story, 1950s office building at 59-61 Academias Street – must retain its function in the future. The building belongs to the Bank of Greece employees’ pension fund. Under plans presented by Venizelos, the Culture Ministry would buy the entire block, including a smaller, adjacent building, as well as an open parking lot on Harilaou Tricoupi Street that belongs to the taxi drivers’ fund. According to the minister, negotiations have already begun with the Bank of Greece, whose initial response was «immediate and positive.» The site was initially occupied by an open-air theater that was replaced in 1916 by the Olympia, which was designed for opera performances. The theater was rebuilt in 1943 for use by the GNO, which was formed in 1939 and it moved into the Olympia in 1944. The current building went up in 1957.