Into the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), that has welcomed some 3.4 million visitors by exceeding initial forecasts of 700,000 up until now, the successful relocation and operation of the new National Opera plays the first fiddle at the moment. It is a prime destination for entertainment, learning and exercise and a top cultural destination in Athens for both tourists and locals. EBR was there in an exclusive interview of the Greek National Opera’s Artistic Director
by Alexandra Papaisidorou*
EBR: Mr. Koumendakis, please, would you introduce the Greek National Opera (GNO) in a few sentences to our readers?
GK: GNO is the only lyric theater in Greece. This year marks its 80th anniversary and this is one of the most productive moments in its history. In 2017 GNO moved to its new home, the impressive Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which was created thanks to a significant donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. At SNFCC, Lyric co-exists with the National Library of Greece and the unique Stavros Niarchos Park. GNO presents productions of opera, opereta, and ballet in the Stavros Niarchos Hall with a seating capacity of 1400, and musical theater productions in the Alternate Stage with a seating capacity of 350. In addition to that, every summer GNO organizes two major opera productions at the Herodes Atticus Theater, in the shadow of the Acropolis.
EBR: What is it like running an Opera in Greece during the years of political changes and financial difficulties while you have been championing new audiences, how do you think you achieved this goal? How can opera be made palatable for newer and younger audiences?
GK: Crisis is now a part of our lives and the only way to handle it is with inventiveness and creativity. As we consider that today we are in need of art, more than ever, we provide the public with top-notch performances, we collaborate -and co-produce- with major artists and major foreign authorities, we create performances that bring close the lyric art with the artistic affairs and the cinema, and we develop dozens of educational and social programs for children, adolescents, adults, people over 65, prisoners, refugees, immigrants etc. Moreover, we offer free seats to the unemployed and keep our ticket prices low so that we can be accessible to as many as possible spectators.
EBR: We speak about an Opera with 150 years of history, is it a thought of yours the need to make these operas to remain still alive today? And how is it important on that to stay in an interactive contact with the audience - both the most familiar & inexperienced one too - ?
GK: Opera can convey messages to today’s audiences and young people through sharp performances that spark discussions and bring the lyric art to today. At the same time, however, lyric art has a unique timelessness that speaks to the soul and heart of people of all ages. Of course, our Alternative Stage, has also an educational character, as its mission is to talk to young people through experimentation and modern forms and make them partakers of the musical theater and the opera.
EBR: Regardless of the period of time they were active, which Opera composer of the past is the most “contemporary” to you, in terms of theme and score?
GK: I consider Richard Strauss- Electra to be an extremely contemporary play, with which we inaugurated our SNFCC beginning in October 2017, as well as Wozzeck Berg’s which we will present in January 2020 at the Stavros Niarchos Hall.
EBR: What do you regard as the early influences on your interest about how to choose each production of the Greek National Opera?
GK: The selection of the plays is a combination of my desires, the needs arisen by the theater and the opportunities we have at both an artistic and economic level. My biggest concern is to expand our repertoire and my greatest desire is to provide GNO –till the end of my appointment- a pool of high productions with major plays.
EBR: In the past, you composed and presented four operas, among which the two-act opera The Murderess (2014, to a libretto by Yannis Svolos, based on Alexandros Papadiamantis’ ‘social novella’ under the same title). As I have read, this work combines the Greek musical tradition with the genre’s contemporary European identity. Has opera the role of this utter universality for you? How do you feel regarding its role of a cultura-service which it transcends centuries, continents, and ethnicities and at the end of the day it may create a common european identity or being a tool of cutural diplocay? Does it consist a part of your mission?
GK: Opera is a universal language capable of bringing together diverse and distant cultures. We notice that from the Baroque era till today. Music always helps break down the communication barriers and has the magic of speaking directly to each person regardless of their level of education and their cultural characteristics. I am delighted that through my music at Fonissa I was able to bring elements of Greek music into a dialogue with contemporary European music.
EBR: Are you still consciously dreaming about the things that everyone wants to see happen in the Greek National Opera?
GK: I am dreaming a lot about GNO and I consider that some of my big dreams have been accomplished. At the moment, GNO has opened its wings to the worldwide operatic event with valuable support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which with a new € 20 million donation enhances our artistic extroversion. At the same time, supported by SNF, we are preparing an extremely ambitious anniversary program for 2021, a landmark year after completing 200 years from the Greek Revolution.
EBR: Is opera for you a synonym of emotion or philosophy?
GK: I would venture to say that opera is an art flooded with emotions – most of the time wild and merciless-, but at the same time it is perhaps the ultimate work of art dealing with major philosophical issues, those of existence, of knowledge, etc.
*Editor-at-large / PhD cand. University of Piraeus, Cultural Diplomacy & International Relations