Letter from Thessaloniki

As early as the golden age of Byzantium (about the 14th century AD) Thessaloniki hosted a regular spectacular «New Festival» each autumn. In modern times, since October 1966, a reborn festival bearing the name of St Demetrius, – also known as the Great Martyr (Megalomartyr) and as he whose tomb gives forth a sweet fragrance (Myrovlitis) – takes place here. This year’s festival is organized in several cycles of events. Opera is being represented by Verdi’s «Aida,» performed by the Opera of Thessaloniki several weeks ago without the customary camels and elephants for the triumphant march in Act II, and by Strauss’s «Salome,» famous for its dance of the seven veils. The daughter of Herodias, Salome, the Bible tells us, danced for her stepfather, Herod Antipas, and demanded the head of John Baptist as a reward. In Thessaloniki, the director Nikos Petropoulos transferred the action to the early 20th century, when Richard Strauss composed the opera and when the founder of the psychoanalytic school of thought, Sigmund Freud, created his theory of sexual desire as the primary motivational energy of human life. A hundred years have passed since those vigorous days. Understandably, Salome’s story as told in Thessaloniki’s Concert Hall takes place in a lunatic asylum. Incidentally, the Thessaloniki Concert Hall has just embarked upon its new season with a rather limited program. Its stable, yet meager, funding, which amounts to just 1.5 million euros, has resulted in very few events taking place this autumn. Considering the Athens Concert Hall’s funding, the sum for its northern sister seems ludicrous. At any rate, there are no flamboyant opera openings in this city. Do not imagine black-tie at the inaugurations in this Balkan capital. Instead you come across the arty, mini-skirted, bearded and habitually casually dressed local glitterati. During intermissions, one can easily chart the social and cultural changes of the – once – second city of two empires, reduced today to an unremarkable provincial capital. However, and just for the record, Maria Callas once sang here. In one of her first appearances, in July 1940, la Divina was one of «the girls» in the choir of the Greek National Opera, when it was touring with «Die Fledermaus.» At any rate, no one remembered the event, with all the Callas festivities also happening in Thessaloniki. Back to Strauss’s opera where the dangerous, sensual, tempting character of Salome has John the Baptist beheaded just to touch her lips to his. A Thessalonian actor and a C.P. Cavafy scholar, Nikos Naoumidis, reminded me that there might have been other reasons as well for the beheading, beyond those in Oscar Wilde’s imagination. There is a Cavafy poem titled «Salome» which was not published during the poet’s lifetime. In it, Salome instigates the death of John the Baptist as part of a futile effort to win the interest of a young sophist who seems indifferent to the charms of heterosexual love. And when Salome presents him with John the Baptist’s head, the sophist rejects it, remarking in jest: «Dear Salome, I would have liked better to have received your own head.» Now, taking this jest seriously, the hopelessly wounded Salome lets herself be beheaded and her head is duly brought to the sophist on a golden platter. He, however, rejects it in disgust and turns to studying the dialogues of Plato. «Salome» will be performed another two nights, on October 17th and 20th. As part of the Demetria Festival program, the National Theater of Northern Greece opens its winter season with a tribute to Nikos Kazantzakis, this time on the 50th anniversary of the death of one of Greece’s most important writers and thinkers. Although the play «Julian the Apostate» was written some decades before Gore Vidal’s homonymous best-seller, it is reminiscent of the spirit of the novel. Could Vidal have ever read the French translation Kazantzakis did in 1948? «Julian the Apostate» is a heretical, provocative, grandiloquent play little known to a wider audience. It was written in 1939, in the house where Shakespeare’s daughter lived, in Stratford-upon-Avon, under the roar of combat warplanes. An extract of the play appeared in Kathimerini on April 8, 1940. Through the historical figure of Julian, Kazantzakis expresses his personal thoughts, creating a drama of extreme situations, rapid plot development and bombastic theatricality. He focuses on the contradictory and unpredictable personality of the emperor, on the lonely struggle of a fighter and philosopher who sought freedom and self-awareness since he was a child. The Roman Emperor Julian (AD 331-363) linked his name to the effort to convert the empire to the ancient Greek religion, as he was deeply influenced by his education, which was focused on antiquity. The Church branded him an enemy of Christianity and he was stigmatized with the epithet Paravatis (Transgressor) or Apostatis (the Apostate), although some believe that what he had really attempted to do was to reconcile the Greek spirit with the Christian religion. Why did Thessaloniki’s National Theater of Northern Greece choose this play? Well, perhaps because of a paragraph – from Gore Vidal’s well-researched historical novel – that perfectly suits our TV-adoring city: «In every city there is a special class whose only apparent function is to gather in public places and look at famous men… An elephant would have pleased them most, but since there was no elephant, the mysterious Prince Julian would have to do.»