National Opera in revival mode

The hazy situation prevailing at the National Opera is gradually starting to clear up, with the appointment of well-known opera director and set designer Stefanos Lazaridis as the institution’s new director. Lazaridis seems concerned with improving the quality of opera performances, reorganizing the ballet, strengthening the Experimental Stage, taking a closer look at the Children’s Opera Stage and opening the doors for more collaborations with foreign operas. The National Opera still lacks a suitable home, but Lazaridis says he initially wants to work more broadly on the opera’s image. A Greek of the diaspora, he is already distinguished in his field, so he is not here to make a name or earn money. He spoke to Kathimerini about his background and the challenges facing the opera. Have you ever lived in Greece? No, this is the first time. I was born abroad, I studied abroad and I worked abroad, I only came to Greece for the summer holidays. So were you born in Addis Ababa? No, I was born and raised in a small town in Ethiopia, Dire Dawa. We moved to Addis Ababa when I finished primary school; a small Greek community still exists there. That is where I spent my teenage years, with my school, my classical music, my books and rock’n’roll… Then I took off to study, first in Geneva and then in London, where I ended up staying. I only went back to Ethiopia to visit my parents in the summertime, up to 1975 and I haven’t been back since. I would really like to go there again, mostly to Dire Dawa. My grandmother is buried there. What scares you most about the Greek National Opera? Myself. I am afraid of losing the enthusiasm I have to complete something. What could threaten your enthusiasm? The response of the National Opera people. Some of them have responded very well, but there are others who would much rather keep things the way they are. What is important is for me to be able to transmit what I believe in and what I know I can do. That is why I decided to concentrate on actions. Let them judge me from my actions. What do you think is the National Opera’s worst problem? We need to create an attitude of revival, which should come from within. It is very easy to do that on the surface, but it has to come from the very people of the institution. Do you think the repertoire you announced will grant you the impressive first season you desired to gain people’s confidence? It is a start. It includes samples of different things, like «Tosca» and «Nabucco» but also contemporary operas, like John Adams’s «Nixon in China.» There will be «Orpheus and Eurydice,» but also works by Luigi Dallapiccola and then Mozart’s «Don Giovanni» and more… You cannot provoke from the very start – the «succes du scandal» is an easy method if you just want to impress. I’m not interested in such things. The aim is to create a quality repertoire which will lead to trust. We particularly focused on quality in each production and cast a refreshing look where possible. «Tosca» will be very different this year. We really looked into it with Nikos Petropoulos and decided to set it in the postwar period. I do not believe in traditional shows and that will be obvious in our productions. We will also bring two excellent productions from abroad. We focused on providing good staff for every performance. There will be important artists coming from abroad, conductors, directors, vocalists and set designers, while at the same time we will make the best use of local artists. We need to create a strong structure, so that we can then dare to do other things. From next year I will present [Czech composer] Leos Janacek, for instance, in his entirety. You haven’t mentioned any Greek works. This year Greek works will only be staged at the Experimental Stage. Some people on the music scene claim you are against Greek operas. I don’t know a lot about Greek opera so as to condemn it. I have listened to Samaras’s «Rea» and I also like Manolis Kalomoiris, especially his «Mother’s Ring,» which I am thinking of staging in a new production with a foreign opera. I don’t want to produce a Greek opera just to keep people quiet. I want to make an opera which will turn out to be a great performance, so that people are interested and I can also promote it abroad. I will look for Greek works; I am already working on it with Nikos Dontas, my partner in the repertoire department and I am in talks with Thodoros Antoniou. I see you are focusing on ballet. Yes, there is a large amount of structural work there right now. We brought over the famous dancer and dance teacher Lynn Seymour and a couple of top ballet dancers in the world that not even the Covent Garden has at the moment: Truman Finney, Evelyn Hart, Irek Mukhamedov, conductor Alan Barker, educational dance expert Deni Efthymiou… We have started a revival process at the Ballet, which should, at some point, be called the National Ballet of Greece. The revival will also apply to the repertoire to include fresh works by top choreographers (Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and others) but also by talented young people, both Greek and foreign. A look at this year’s program is enough to convince you. The ballet is also equipped with its own stage this year, the Acropol Stage. Is the Acropol Theater stage sufficient for ballet? We have enlarged it and created a space for the orchestra, so that the ballet no longer has to dance to playback music, which is unacceptable. The works we carried out at the Olympia Theater are even more important; I even brought an acoustics expert from Munich. I want everything to be done right, but not with luxury or high-tech perfection, which is very costly. We have already done a lot and I will not stop improving conditions for those working at the National Opera. It is your obligation to honor those working for you by providing them with a better working environment. What are your plans for the National Opera Experimental Stage? I am very interested in promoting the Experimental and the Children’s Stage. I want those working at the Experimental Stage to have a venue they can shape the way they want to every time. What is happening regarding the National Opera’s housing problem, following the minister of culture’s announcement that the government has reached some decisions? For the moment, I know as much as you do… Is your personal work on the international scene over? I keep turning down offers from abroad. It is difficult not to continue doing what you have been doing for 45 years. But I don’t regret it. You can only do one thing at a time, if you want it done properly.