Letter from Thessaloniki

Demetrius the saint (St James in the west) is known as a Great Martyr (Megalomartyr) and also as the one whose tomb gives forth a sweet fragrance (Myrovlitis). In his time, he was educated in the art of war. On several occasions, he has intervened miraculously to save his metropolis: Thessaloniki, the second city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. After its fall in 1430 to the Ottoman Turks, the city continued to be ruled from Constantinople. Its Christians – Greek Orthodox and Catholics – its Muslims and Jews lived peaceably together, keeping a cautious distance from each other. As early as in the Byzantine golden age, there used to be a regular spectacular New Festival every autumn. In modern times, since October 1966, the festival was reborn with the name of Demetria, and takes place in this our «City of Ghosts,» as Mark Mazower calls this city in his scholarly and topical account that has just appeared. («Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950,» by Mark Mazower, 537pp, HarperCollins). In this interesting tome, we read of crooks, pestilence, sinful janissaries, massacres, vagabond politicians and plenty of corruption. Although analogies with our modern times seem frivolous, Thessaloniki is up there among the big international events. A «festival which is listed among all the important European art events, by entering the European Festival Association,» a local site brags, shamefully announcing that: «99 events from August 30, 2004, till January 21, 2005» will take place instead of the meager 11 events back in 1966. And thus the proud moral published on the Demetria site is: «This way it got the glamor and respect it deserved throughout Europe.» Sure, there’s safety in numbers! However, some other numbers by the end of last week sent shock waves through the city’s economy. Thessaloniki lived through its own spectacular Enron- or Parmalat-like scandal. Paratiritis, a large publishing firm owned by P. Papasarandopoulos, the founding patriarch with close ties to the former government (there is an actual godfather relationship – koumbaria – with former PASOK Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos), acknowledged that it could not pay back the millions owed to several banks and that it faced bankruptcy. Papasarandopoulos – who was also made president of the Northern Greece Symphony Orchestra for a short time – stepped down from his directorial job. Insinuating that something smelt fishy here, the local daily Angelioforos wrote last Thursday that: «Many observers in Thessaloniki underline the company’s fall from grace last March when there was a change in the ruling party…» One possibility is for Paratiritis to try to win a breathing space by seeking protection from its creditors. Back to art now. On Friday, there was a grand opera opening night at the local concert hall of Donizetti’s «Lucia di Lammermoor,» sung by Renata Scotto, one of the favourite Italian sopranos of the 1960s and ’70s, who once stepped in for an indisposed Callas – an event that led her to a brilliant career. It was a local production, to be repeated next Wednesday and Sunday. When reading of flamboyant opera openings, do not imagine any black-tie rule for the inaugurations and the prize-giving ceremonies in this Balkan metropolis. There is no reimposition of «the smoking,» as the dinner jacket is known here. Instead you come across the arty, mini-skirted, bearded and habitually casually dressed glitterati. During intermissions, one can easily chart the social and cultural changes in the erstwhile second city of two empires, reduced nowadays to a one-dimensional provincial capital. This year’s festival is organized into the following 12 cycles of events: – Premium Art Events – Symphonic Music Cycle – First Chamber Music Festival – International Month of Orthodox Choirs – Greek Tradition Cycle – Ethnic Jazz Festival – Young Artists Recitals – Theater Cycle – Eighth International Dance Festival – Visual Arts Cycle – Conferences Cycle – Various Events Cycle Of course, this is a pardonable exaggeration. The breadline thrives. But for all its success at home and in southeastern Europe, Thessaloniki’s theatrical life is still overshadowed by Athenian stages. Tomorrow, October 5, is the same day that President Roosevelt, in 1937, called for a «quarantine» of aggressor nations. (At the time, however, he did not name names.) Loula Anagnostaki’s «Nike» (or Victory) will be shown by the Peiramatiki Skini of Thessaloniki at Amalia Theater. Next Friday, at a time when the Athens season is alarmingly full of revivals, the State Theater of Northern Greece (KTHVE) will start the season with the 1920s play «Maroula’s Lot,» by D. Koromilas. A play by Angelos Terzakis called «Emperor Mikhail» (1934), which could be described as an opera without music, also produced by the KTHVE, will open the official season in the probable presence of PM Costas Karamanlis in the rebuilt, and oddly named, Royal Theater of Thessaloniki. But Christos Alaveras’s «Ichnopatimata» – a visual/musical dance production in Thessaloniki’s gorgeous Yeni Tzami mosque – was one of the highlights of this year’s Demetria.