The art of managing opera and giving it new life

The first non-Italian – not to mention youngest – casting director to date in La Scala’s history is Greek. While not particularly well known back home outside of operatic circles, he continues to be feted in Milan, even though he is no longer with the company, after having moved to Paris, where he currently holds the same position with the French capital’s Opera. During his four-year tenure in Milan he succeeded in revamping the company, staging exemplary productions and raising revenues during difficult times.

Born in Larissa, Central Greece, Ilias Tzempetonidis had always dreamed of working in opera. He studied law, communication and cultural marketing at Munich University, and began his career in the German city’s opera house. It didn’t take long before his abilities and hard work were recognized. When he initially moved to Milan, the city’s strict operatic public appeared distrustful, yet by the time he had decided to take on another challenge, the equivalent position at the Paris Opera, the Milanese people asked their mayor to intervene to ask him to stay.

How did you go about planning the 2015-16 season?

The first season’s planning was based on three central pillars. First, unity: between ballet and opera, between the Palais Garnier and the Bastille, as well as between music and dance. Second, ambition: We will be working with a number of the world’s leading maestros, singers, directors and dancers. And third, artistic balance, starting from the Baroque period through to contemporary times. The program is also built around the belief that opera must keep on broadening its repertoire, so we have to suggest new productions in view of attracting new audiences. For the first time in Paris there will be a greater number of new productions, as opposed to restagings: 18 in total. The program includes 428 performances, among them 187 opera performances, 176 ballet performances, 13 avant-premieres for under-28s and 10 symphonic music and singing recitals, among others.

Do you keep track of young artists and developments in Greek opera in general?

I’m always interested in what is going on back home. Greece has always nurtured talented artists with very good voices. The problem lies in the lack of quality prep work and a solid education system – for example, the absence of institutions such as an arts academy. This inefficiency is a hurdle for young artists, both at the beginning of as well as later on in their careers, because straight after graduating from music conservatories they have to compete against foreign artists who have processed their talent and stage presence professionally through higher education.

How do you think the financial crisis has affected state theaters?

In the case of state theaters the problems go way back, before the crisis – which of course didn’t help. In Greece artists are required to handle both financial and management issues successfully – in other words, to act as managers. At serious theaters abroad these are very distinct roles. An opera director’s qualifications are those of a cultural manager: running the company based on a kind of broad knowledge as well as a combination of good judgment and organization. Working together with music and ballet directors, they develop and implement the company’s artistic program, taking into account a variety of different factors, ranging from artistic to financial. Times have changed and given the European and and global models, you now need a more rounded vision in order to manage an opera company.

Do collaborations between companies help when it comes to staging productions which one theater might not be in a position to stage on its own?

Sure, collaborations and co-productions on both an international and a local level as well as working with all kinds of institutions but as long as they are based on a single strategy: that in the final review, you will not only take into account the financial benefits of the project but, mainly, the artistic ones. The target of companies such as the Greek National Opera, for instance, should be to acquire a higher artistic standard. This kind of fertile dialogue is the purpose of art in general and a kind of indispensable criterion when it comes to international collaborations and exchanges. At the same time, in terms of fund-raising, there should be openings towards the private sector and economic players who could support your vision.

Does Greece’s opera world differ considerably from those in other countries?

The fact that Greece has only one opera company is a particularity which no doubt brings a certain level of inertia to whoever is in charge, such as working with people who are recycled around a single organization; this means an absence of healthy competition upon which an entire system of values operates. In this case the country’s entire operatic “work pool” is put to use by a single company. The way I see it, when it comes to managerial decisions, the quality criterion ought to be the determining factor. In all the theaters I have worked, nothing was taken for granted. You are rewarded for worthiness and professionalism. It’s time, more than ever, for new institutions and cultural organizations to develop across Greece. Art brings in revenues. The new opera building at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) is an outstanding donation. But we should go beyond that. What is needed are opportunities so that young talent may be put to good use and find work at home.

How do you attract new audiences to opera?

Opera is a very powerful art and includes all other forms of art. It’s usually enough for young viewers to walk into a theater and watch a good-quality production. These days, of course, marketing plays a major role in luring them to the theater. The audiovisual aspect of a performance could prove highly attractive because opera is such a complete form of spectacle. Precisely because of this grandiose dimension, I’m absolutely against any kind of sloppy opera stagings.

Would things have turned out the same for you had you stayed in Greece?

The powers we carry inside, our talents and experiences, our entire trajectory is what makes us who we are, what makes us progress. Everything we go through changes us somehow. My experiences in Greece and abroad have contributed to who I am today.

What would be your advice to young Greeks wishing to try their luck abroad?

I would advise them to follow their heart. We have the stamina to persevere only when it comes to something we truly love; that’s the only thing we can succeed in and feel complete. No matter how hard conditions may be, people, and especially the young, must dare to dream. I have faith in the Greeks. We will make it.

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