‘The National Opera president should have trusted me more,’ says ousted director Stefanos Lazaridis

Is he in Athens or has he gone back to London? Has he left his apartment in Plaka? Did Giorgos Loukos make him a proposal concerning the Athens Festival? Will he go to the premiere of the three one-act works he had selected a few weeks before his sudden removal from the post of director of the National Opera in June? Stefanos Lazaridis withdrew from the cultural scene of Athens as swiftly as he entered it. Though he is absent, his spirit is vividly present in this season, which to a large extent bears his signature. In fact he is not exactly absent. Theater people like actor-producer-director Lefteris Voyiatzis, have invited him to collaborate with them. He meets Hellenic Festival director Giorgos Loukos but it’s too soon to talk about anything new, in Athens at least. Lazaridis talked to Kathimerini from his home in Plaka. London seems to be out of the question right now. The National Opera and the manner of his departure still haunt him. He often spoke of it in the present as if he had never left, referring to National Opera president Odysseas Kyriakopoulos as «our president.» But he did say at the end of our conversation: «Mr Kyriakopoulos should have trusted me more and had the patience to teach me the things I didn’t know.» How did your life change when you stopped working for the National Opera? Did you think of returning to London? It isn’t easy for me to go back to London. I’m going through a period of deep reflection. I left my place in London, gave up the studio I had. You can’t set that up again so easily, for both practical and substantial reasons. I said I’d do other things for three years. The National Opera was a full-time job. Now I’m trying to get on with the business of life. Have you had any offers since you stopped working for the National Opera? Yes, two or three, but I’m not ready at the moment. Of course there are things that interest me. I need time to say yes, I want to do that. The way I work as a set designer is not just a simple set, I work dramaturgically, so it’s very different from a commissioned set. It demands far more personal involvement and more time. But you did go to London for a few weeks. Yes, it was the end of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Covent Garden and as the set designer I had to be there. And I enjoyed it. I went to my old hangouts and caught up with my friends. The performances went very well and that restored my confidence and certainty that the way I work is not strange or disastrous for anyone. Last Sunday was the premiere of three one-act works that mark the start of a new season which, to a great extent, you had planned. How do you feel? Strange. Like most of the seasons, it is a project on which I worked intensively. It is a daring composition. The idea behind it is that the three works show us not only the political and ethical atmosphere of the era, but also three musical styles from different European countries in three different languages. I had spoken to [director] Yiannis Houvardas. We had thought about putting on «The Seven Deadly Sins» the following season at the National Theater in Greek, in a separate performance, framed by excerpts of German works by writers such as Brecht and Kurt Weill. That would set up cooperation with the National Theater and communication and exchanges between our audiences. I’ve heard that «The Seven Deadly Sins» is already being performed in Greek. That’s a mistake. Won’t you go and see them? Aren’t you curious? Very, but I don’t trust myself. As director, I followed the evolution of each production from planning to the final rehearsal. Now that I’m not involved, if I don’t like them I’ll be in a difficult position. I can’t be neutral so it’s better to stay away. In an interview with Kathimerini, the National Opera’s president Odysseas Kyriakopoulos referred to «a lack of administrative skills.» He also mentioned the production of «Carmen,» which overshot its initial budget by 80 percent, as being «the last straw.» As to administrative matters, before I accepted the post the first thing I asked [then Culture Minister Petros] Tatoulis to appoint three people of my choice to work directly with me, managing the finances, administration and musical side. That didn’t happen. The moment I took over I assigned an outside economist to do a study of the finances and administration of the opera and make proposals for improvements and solutions to problems. Although that study won the approval and admiration of the governing board, in the end, due to lack of support (from both the ministry and the board), no proposal was implemented. As for «Carmen» running over budget, I have all the data in my possession, and it shows that the budget for productions performed was 5,130,000 euros and that eventually, «Carmen» included, we spent 4,774,965 euros. In other words, there was a surplus of 355,000 euros. If we add to that the 230,000-euro grant from the National Bank which we secured exclusively for the perfomance at the Herod Atticus Theater, it comes to 585,000 euros. I would like to know how many operas in the world have managed to achieve a surplus in their first year under new management. But Kyriakopoulos does not accept the logic of a trade-off, which applies at every opera company in the world and which applied at the National Opera before me. On that we did agree. What’s more, as soon as I heard how much «Carmen» was going to cost I informed him personally, but the matter was never discussed again. It is said you were not good at handling staff. Were you happy? I wasn’t. But nobody is infallible. I should remind you that I had arrived with a mandate to sort out a problematic situation at the National Opera, so my task was to «go into battle» as they accuse me and stir things up, not to maintain a dysfunctional company. It was inevitable that that there were repercussions and that the usefulness to the company of a certain number of workers had to be redefined, and that is exactly why I should have had the support of the board and the state. We know that you never received the fee you had agreed upon with the minister. What advice would you give a foreign colleague who accepts an invitation to work with the National Opera? To start with, get detailed information about the state of the National Opera in terms of both staffing and the existing administrative structure. Then, for sure, a written guarantee of the personal fee and the conditions of work and the administrative structure. With your hand on your heart, have you regretted saying yes to Tatoulis? Each and every experience is valuable.