Building culture is not just about pouring cement

It’s like the story of the emperor with no clothes. Everybody has the same idea, and many of them have been discussing it in private for some time, but nobody dares say so publicly – why don’t we base the Greek National Opera (GNO) and the Athens State Orchestra (KOA) at the Athens Concert Hall? Why not locate the homeless opera and equally homeless orchestra where common sense puts them and where they have a right to be? In the end, they belong in the ultra-modern facilities of the Athens Megaron, which were built with hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of euros from the Greek State. To what ultimate use will these four perfect halls and the Concert Hall facilities be put when our national opera and leading symphony orchestra are condemned to vegetate, chiefly due to the lack of a proper venue which hinders every attempt to develop them? On the altar of what ultimate purpose are the two most crucial Greek musical bodies being sacrificed? Their lack of a building is mainly due to the fact that for the past 15 years, the Greek State chose to lavish funding (by means of various European Union Community Support frameworks) on the construction of the Megaron complex rather than to equip its opera and orchestra with suitable, modern buildings. It is self-evident (or it would be in any other country) that first one houses, supports and equips the country’s own purveyors of musical education – the national opera, orchestra, conservatory and music academy – before proceeding any further. In Greece, however, for well-known sociopolitical reasons, things have happened the wrong way round, with the result that we have a constant parade of great orchestras and interpreters in Athens while native musicians are made to sit in the corner. Matters have come to a scandalous head, however. We look on open-mouthed as the country’s two major state musical bodies struggle to find a home that will enable them to carry out the task they were charged with by the State. At the same time, at the multi-functional Athens Concert Hall, hailed as Greece’s «cultural reactor,» people are still scratching their heads over what exactly they will do with four auditoriums with 4,500 seats in total, and how they will make best use of the state-of-the-art technology. To give an example, the Skalkottas Hall (a superb, 400-seat construction) has been suggested as a venue for «productions by contemporary dance groups which lack a place to perform in,» said the Athens Concert Hall’s president, Christos Lambrakis. This is a praiseworthy idea – except for the fact that our very own national ballet is homeless, as is the Greek National Opera to which it belongs. But it’s not clear what purpose even the huge new Triantis Hall will serve. Will it be a venue for conferences or operas? How many productions will it stage per year? (Will it replace the GNO?) Already, many at the Megaron are worried about the cost of maintenance of the ultra-modern and costly stage machinery and auditorium equipment. No government, and no minister of culture, has pushed to have the GNO and the KOA housed at the Megaron. Former Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos timidly broached the subject some years ago (when building began on the second part of the Athens Concert Hall). But this idea, if it was not floated simply to impress, appears to have died stillborn. Officials have issued a number of specious statements since then, to the effect that accommodation for the GNO is being taken care of. Indeed, the situation at present is that the «the building in Academias Street, now housing the GNO, has been bought by the State and is being modernized.» The building in question, sources say, will be continued by the new government. But it has not been clarified whether the GNO will remain there permanently, or whether this is a temporary measure. In any case, even if the new building is erected, that still leaves the issue open. Competition «It’s not possible for an opera house to turn into a distinguished artistic ensemble when it has to compete, within the same city, with yet another amazing building that also puts on operas, and which has been endowed more lavishly and earlier than itself,» said an expert in musical matters. «For the opera of a city to get the performers it needs, it has to be the main show in town. The way things have turned out here, with the huge expansion the Athens Concert Hall has undergone, even if the GNO finds accommodation, whatever building they build for it will remain a pariah because of the huge monster on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. «For this reason, there shouldn’t be another building for the GNO, but it should move immediately to the new Megaron – lock, stock and barrel.» Apart from the ultra-modern hall, all the facilities necessary for the opera to function are there, the expert pointed out. «Only in this way will it develop its human potential; only in this way will audiences turn to their own opera, embrace it and give it the opportunity to attain high artistic levels.» But even KOA, which was promised permanent accommodation at the Megaron in 1990, has ended up as a mere guest orchestra that gives a few concerts a year. It does not even have the right to use the Athens Concert Hall – its concert venue – for rehearsals. «That doesn’t happen with any other symphonic orchestra in the world,» commented a leading Greek musician. These are views that have been brewing for a long time in music circles in this country, and have been expressed by distinguished artists: composers, leading musicians, soloists, opera singers, directors and others. Understandably, they are not able to air their views in public, given their great, if not complete, dependence on the Athens Concert Hall for work. The Megaron dominates the music world in the country and also has great influence with the media. For the same reasons, the events it puts on have acquired a certain immunity to criticism – which benefits no one, least of all itself. That is not to dispute the generally positive impact of the Megaron on the cultural life of the country, which this writer has often hailed. But there is a glaring contradiction between having a multi-functional, state-funded music venue with four halls and a rather unclear objective (culturally speaking) when two state musical ensembles are not only homeless but are fighting for their lives. (Athens Concert Hall activities are likely to damage them even further.) It raises the question: What kind of culture is the Megaron promoting?