An emblematic Greek opera

A landmark Greek opera, Manolis Kalomiris’s «The Master Builder,» opens at the Alexandra Trianti Hall of the Athens Concert Hall for a run of shows tonight, before heading off to China, where the Greek National Opera will present its production within the context of the cultural program for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Composed in 1916, «The Master Builder» is an emblematic work written during one of the most turbulent and fruitful periods of Greek history. An ardent supporter of the demoticists and of statesman Eleftherios Venizelos (to whom the opera was dedicated), Kalomiris wrote an opera/ metaphor on building a new world, a new country, at a time when Greece, in the turmoil of the Balkan Wars and World War I, was torn between the Liberal Party of Venizelos and the royalist supporters of King Constantine. Medieval legend For the purposes of his metaphor, Kalomiris turned to another of the country’s great artists, Nikos Kazantzakis, and his Nietzschean tragedy «The Offering,» which was later renamed «The Master Builder.» Kazantzakis had drawn his inspiration from the popular medieval legend of the Bridge of Arta. The story is about the sacrifice a man has to make in order to achieve his dream. The master builder on the Arta Bridge project sees each day’s work turn into a pile of rubble every night after he leaves the site. An old woman, a hermit, tells him that for his bridge to stand, he must offer the ultimate sacrifice to the river god. He must entomb the woman he loves in the foundations of the bridge to rid it of its curse. While the master builder hesitates to reveal the name of his beloved and is ready to face the consequences, she, Smaragda, comes forth and accepts her cruel fate. Smaragda is built into the foundations, and the Arta Bridge continues to stand to this day, says the surviving legend. Kazantzakis and Kalomiris both saw how fitting this legend was as a metaphor for the rebuilding of Greece, for the construction of a Greater Greece (the unification of Greek-speaking peoples). Moreover, Kalomiris, who was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor, in 1883 and settled in Athens in 1910 after having studied in Constantinople and Vienna, envisaged a national school of music along Central European lines, with himself at the head of the movement, himself as the master builder. The cultural rebirth of the country was seen by him as going hand-in-hand with its political and geographical rebirth. Kalomiris wrote the libretto for «The Master Builder» himself, enlisting help for certain parts from Nikos Poriotis, Agni Orfikou (the pen name of G. Stefopoulos) and Myrtiotissa (T. Drakopoulou). What Kalomiris succeeded in doing with this opera – which is also one of the reasons why it has survived to this day and is held in such esteem – was to bridge Western classical music with the sound of Greek demotic folk songs. Kalomiris bridged the West and the East, an idea inspired in him as a young man by Wagner and Mahler, and later, while he taught music at the Obolensky School in Ukraine, by the so-called group of five of nationalist Russian composers Cesar Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The first version of «The Master Builder» premiered in Athens on March 11, 1916, in a production at the Athens Municipal Theater conducted by Apostolos Kontaratos. Kalomiris conducted the orchestra, while the stage director was Miltiadis Lidorikis. A reworked version was then presented in 1930 at the Olympia Theater under the baton of Dimitris Mitropoulos. The Greek National Opera first staged «The Master Builder» on February 19, 1943, with Antonis Delendas and Anna Remoundou in the leading roles. This new production – which is sponsored by the Elliniki Technodomiki – AKTOR group – is conducted by Ilias Voudouris and directed by Thomas Moschopoulos. The sets are by Lilly Pezanou, costumes by Angelos Mendis and lighting by Lefteris Pavlopoulos. Smaragda is performed by Kerri Marchinko, the Master Builder by August Amonov and the Singer by Mina Polychronou. «The Master Builder» will be on stage tonight, Sunday and January 29 and 31, at the Athens Concert Hall (1 Kokkali & Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, tel 210.728.2333). Performances begin at 8 p.m.