Letter from Thessaloniki

Athens is definitely not famous for its operatic highlights. Except for the Megaron (Athens Concert Hall), where occasional opera performances are presented now and then, the Lyriki Skini (the National Opera) is positively no adequate operatic venue. Yet for those of you itching for the latest news on a Greek Grand Opera House, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Greek soprano Vasso Papantoniou, who in her glory days has been compared to Maria Callas – her performances as Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia and Amina in Bellini’s «Sleepwalker» are legendary – has recently started an initiative to construct an opera building in the Greek capital. It seems there is some vaguely promised public and private funding, however, it hasn’t yet come through. The idea for creating an operatic venue in Athens is hardly revolutionary. Indeed, most postwar governments have paid lip service to such a concept. Nevertheless, apart from occasional articles in the Athenian press, nothing has happened for half a century. Even now, a year ahead of the Olympics, «the Society for the Construction of a Greek Opera House and Music Academy,» presided over by Ms Papantoniou has not been overly encouraged by the Ministry of Culture, headed by Evangelos Venizelos. «Anyone who could pressure the right people should do so!» demanded Ms Papantoniou at a luncheon in Athens last week. Yet there is a considerable history concerning Greek lyric theater. There were – mainly Italian – operas performed in Corfu and on Zakynthos already in the 19th century. It is documented that the first Greek opera performed in the Greek capital, «The Candidate Parliamentarian» by Spyros Xyndas, was presented at the old Theater of Bukura in 1888. In the following two years, a Greek opera company toured Egypt, Russia, Turkey and Romania, important centers of Greek expatriates. Established in 1939, and having taken its first steps during the German occupation, the Greek National Opera, initially part of the then Royal Theater and currently known as the Lyriki Skini is still homeless. Nonetheless, there were some highlights in its history. In 1940, two nights before the declaration of war upon Greece by Italy, at the opening night of Puccini’s «Madame Butterfly,» there were many illustrious guests in the auditorium, including the son of the composer, accompanied by the Italian ambassador. The same year, Maria Callas signed her first professional contract with the National Opera on June 20, 1940. She later left for the USA and Italy to return in 1960 to sing «Norma» at the ancient theater of Epidaurus. And a year later, she appeared at a rare performance of Cherubini’s «Medea.» All that is history, though. Living in present-day Greece, where money seems to play no role when one considers the generous expenditures revealed last week in this paper («lucrative and expensive informal council meetings, official four-days cruises aboard Greece’s love boats, a forthcoming EU summit in Halkidiki with an estimated total cost of 35 million euros»), funding an opera should be considerably easy – considering. Now, does anyone remember laughter? One can find a lot of the same kind of lunacy the Marx Brothers portrayed in «A Night at the Opera» (1935), one of their best film-comedies, with the doings of our present-day Socialist ministers. Built around the skeleton plot of a love affair between two young singers, the film is full of Marxian lack of respect for authority and subversion of the standard codes of social behavior. For one, take the hilarious crowded shipboard stateroom scene from this film, and take also last week’s cruise for 550 guests aboard the Eleftherios Venizelos, Anek Lines’s largest ship, whose disco can accommodate – it was said – 1,000 people. If one searches, one can find analogies between this cruise ship, rented by the government for an informal EU meeting of transport and merchant marine ministers, and the SS Americo in the film. Or take the snowballing revelations of the entanglements between senior government cadres and one Mr Athanassoulis only weeks ago. It takes us directly to the classic parody of all legal contract negotiations and legalese in the same film. In a nonsensical scene in «A Night at the Opera,» disputed and offending clauses are removed from a proposed contract. Paradigm: Fiorello: «How much you pay him?» Driftwood: «Well, I don’t know…. let’s see, $1,000 a night… I’m entitled to a small profit… how about $10 dollars a night?» After that there are terms agreed upon: The singer will be paid $10 a night but, as managers, each of them plans to deduct 10 percent of the fee. That leaves the singer with only $8. However, he will have to send $5 home to his mother, leaving him with only $3. Out of the remaining $3, allowances must also be made for additional income taxes. Driftwood: «…there’s a federal tax, and a state tax, and a city tax, and a street tax, and a sewer tax.» Fiorello: «How much does this come to?» Driftwood: «Well, I figure if he doesn’t sing too often, he can break even.» Fiorello: «All right, we’ll take it.» Really, haven’t we all heard similar stories… of some middlemen bargaining with the government? Or, again, when the same Driftwood (Groucho Marx) realizes he’s been fired for being a fraud and for associating with «riffraff,» Driftwood protests and demands his salary. Gottlieb: «I find that you have overdrawn your salary for the next six months.» Driftwood: «Well, in that case, I’ll take one week’s salary.» Gottlieb: «You’ll take nothing. Get out.» Driftwood: «Well, if that’s your best offer, I’ll get out. But I’m not making a nickel on it.» After so many recent Greek scandals about what kind of relationships have enabled a considerable number of our deputies to make quick money, doesn’t this Driftwood portrait remind you of someone? What fascinates us about opera in this film, or in Vasso Papantoniou’s worried initiative for the construction of a Greek opera house, is not its soprano rivalries nor its provocative particularities, but its political and transcendental levels and social function. Because the money is there, Mr Evangelos Venizelos, Minister of Culture – and Sports.

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