A steady hand at the helm of the Greek National Opera

At a recent press conference held in the Olympia Theater’s foyer, which is presently under renovation, the chairman of the board of directors of Greece’s only opera company, Nikos Mourkogiannis, presented a fairly classic program for the Greek National Opera (GNO) this season. Mourkogiannis was invited by Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos last spring to save the ailing organization, so this season’s offerings reflect the most popular shows in the company’s repertoire: «Carmen,» «Tosca,» «The Barber of Seville,» «The Magic Flute» and, for the summer, «Nabucco,» «I Pagliacci» and «Cavalleria Rusticana.» In response to reactions insinuating the program diverged from the GNO’s traditions and was too commercial, Mourkogiannis was clear, «It is not the ideal program but it is necessary.» «The truth is that I do believe it is ideal,» he says now, sitting behind his desk at the GNO’s temporary residence on 39 Panepistimiou Street, overlooking the Athens Academy, library and university, with the sound of the Iranian hunger strikers in the background. When I ask him whether the program was drawn up by Giovanni Pacor, the outgoing artistic director (the post is effectively empty, though the chairman believes a successor will be found easily), he responds,«I’m getting really annoyed at this kind of personal barb in some questions.» It’s not a barb, just a question… No, no, look. It is inconceivable to me that a program would be drawn up by one person alone. It is a complicated process. The artistic director alone cannot have an opinion on everything. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism gives me X amount, I have to pay Y amount to my staff, so there is only Z amount left over for the program. This kind of discipline has never been practiced at the GNO before. This is how you end up with 3.5 million euros for this year’s program. The objective is to put together a program that won’t sink you into debt. So don’t ask me to justify what is simply rational. Leadership coach The resume of the man who now holds the fate of the GNO in his hands describes him as «one of the world’s leading experts in the field of strategic leadership.» He tells me about how he met former US President Ronald Reagan («the smartest man in the world») and actor Sean Connery, and how he locked horns at Harvard University with Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates over a woman («that’s why I began smoking»), yet returned to Greece «after 35 years abroad, just for the National Opera. I’m not known for sinking ships: Of the 57 businesses I have been called in to rescue, I only failed with two,» he told the earlier press conference. «The truth is that the proposal for the GNO did not exactly come from the government,» he notes. «Everyone has a mentor. Mine is Dr Egon Zehnder, a Swiss German businessman. We see each other once month and eat dinner at a bar in Zurich and then go to the opera. One day he said to me: ‘You’re such a patriot and you’re allowing Greece’s only opera to close down? I heard that the minister who was about to close it down is a former employee of mine, so I told him not to dare because one of the finest restructuring consultants in the world is a Greek and could save the company in a week.’ That was when I got a telephone call from Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos. At first I thought I was going to be doing what I usually do, a consulting engagement. I told the minister that my services can be quite expensive. I charge 20,000 dollars a day for three months; that’s the price. The minister laughed because the money simply did not exist. So he said: ‘I’ll name you chairman, but you won’t get paid.’ Now I’m funding myself, but I do have to travel to Canada and the US all the time. I’m constantly jet-lagged.» A commercial program, therefore, is ideal in your mind? This separation between commercial and artistic is the invention of responsible/irresponsible people. But the program is not commercial; you misjudge it. It is a popular, national program. Greece has a tradition in opera. «Marathon – Salamis» is the work of a Corfiot composer, Pavlos Carrer. We have Grigoris Bithikotsis [the rebetika legend], but we also have Carrer, and he too is part of our tradition. Furthermore, the GNO’s audience has a very clear idea of what it likes. When, at one time, they heard that the GNO was staging a performance that had a homosexual content, they did not attend in numbers. Now you are the one who is being unfair to the GNO’s recent past. Even at its most experimental, it drew the crowds, and a young crowd at that. I don’t for a moment question the artistic criteria of Stefanos Lazarides. In fact, next year, or the one after that, I plan to reintroduce this artistic formula because even though I am not an artist myself, I know something about it. Are you saying that once the GNO gets back on its feet it will be a pioneer? Absolutely. And I am preparing a big surprise. I’m not one for small gestures. I repeat, my objection is not with the artistic criteria of someone like Lazarides. I may not be an artistic director, but you don’t need a genius to pay 1.5 million dollars to bring an opera from San Francisco just to make a splash. I am against imports in general because my job is to keep alive the continuity of the Greek nation, even more so when such imports rob the taxpayers blind. Is this why you said that the press and critics had contributed to the demise of the GNO, because we applauded those productions?