Letter from The Megaron

Bank mergers occur with warnings from mergers past. The same natural reflex is not only of opera productions but sometimes of ghosts, too. Yet when it came over the weekend to the profoundly creepy collapse of the National Bank of Greece, and Alpha Bank merger, a move that would have dwarfed all other Greek corporations, the dangers did not derive from evil spirits alone. In this case, one should readily summon the memories of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Bank of Montreal (BoM), or of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and Toronto Dominion (TD). Not to mention some of Japan’s most powerful commercial lenders and rivals, Osaka-based Sumitomo Bank Ltd and Tokyo-based Sakura Bank Ltd which, unlike the Greek premature fanfares, started by announcing tentative plans to merge. And of course there is also the unification failure of the Dresdner and the Deutsche Bank in Germany. Our local attempt was doomed anyway.»The jar was cracked from the very beginning. It could not possibly hold any water whatsoever!»as experienced financier and ex-governor of the Bank of Greece Timos Christodoulou was heard stating to Flash Radio yesterday. At least others were more honest about the cultural risks they were taking. They got – almost all – the facts on the table before they committed themselves. At a press conference last Thursday, the president of the Athens Concert Hall, Christos Lambrakis, presented the artists involved in «The Turn of the Screw,» a rather modern opera by Benjamin Britten, based on the novel of Henry James (1843-1916). This American author (for decades I have mistaken him for British) has been in the past banned in certain US public libraries for pornography ( for «The Turn of the Screw» of course, what else?). The opening night will be on Wednesday, and this chamber opera will be, of course, sung in English. «Opera in English is, in the main, just about as sensible as baseball in Italian,» journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote. Admittedly this was long before what is arguably Britten’s greatest stage work was composed. Sure enough, not everything is sung in English. There is a scene in the libretto (Scene VI, Variation 5) titled «The Lesson» with some most peculiar «Latin words,» such as Amnis, axis, caulis, collis, and cucumis. Innocent-sounding words of a dead language? Not completely. On Saturday January 5, 2002, an article in the Guardian – titled «Filthy Britten,» by Valentine Cunningham – revealed what those peculiar Latin bits really mean. As I am quite sure that this respectable paper will not print the unspeakable, I restrain myself from elaborating in this column. After all, you can always retrieve the article yourselves through the Net, can’t you? Incidentally, it seems to be some private joke Britten played with people who would, anyway, know. Now back to this cryptic 1890s mystery story about two children, young Miles and Flora, who are abandoned by their uncle and put in the charge of the governess and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, at a palatial estate called Bly. One does not necessarily have to be an opera fan to go and see «The Turn of the Screw.» In this case, what helps most is to believe in ghosts. Because, just as in the failed bank-merger case, there is no suggestion that things are for real. The governess – or the bank governors – may also be hallucinating. The whole thing can be a product of someone’s hysteria. Present at the Megaron press conference was also veteran opera singer Arda Madikyan, a Greek Armenian, who was the first Miss Jessel – the former nanny in the plot, and now the not-so-blithe spirit – at the inaugural performance of this opera at Venice’s La Fenice on September 14, 1954. Miss Madikyan gave us an excellent insider’s look at this first production. Just for the record, Henry James once gave President Theodore Roosevelt a very bad review in the English paper Literature. How did I ever come to this antiquated event? Well, it is because President George W. Bush disclosed recently that over the holidays he had been reading «Theodore Rex,» the new best-selling biography of Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. The idea, his political adviser Karl Rove told the press, is to help the president step back and learn how others have dealt with similar situations. It is interesting to see what James wrote: «Mr Theodore Roosevelt appears to propose – in ‘American Ideals and Other Essays Social and Political’ – to tighten the screws of the national consciousness as they have never been tightened before.» How very much like presidential speeches we have all heard in recent months… And he continues: «It is ‘purely as an American,’ he constantly reminds us, that each of us must live and breathe. Breathing, indeed, is a trifle; it is purely as Americans that we must think, and all that is wanting to the author’s demonstration is that he shall give us a receipt for the process. He labors, however. Under the drollest confusion of mind.» Inspired by the Jamesian irony I cannot resist serving up such quotes as this one by Rudyard Kipling, who in Greece enjoys an immense reputation for his adaptation by Walt Disney and his nursery rhymes: When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your Brains An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

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