A cynic would say that it’s just another of the many online arguments that kick off every so often: The logos of Levi’s, McDonalds, Apple, Marlboro and other American corporate giants that make up part of the set in the Greek National Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly,” which is currently on at the Herod Atticus Theater have sparked outrage on social media. The reactions were not so much about the stage design’s theatrical merits as they were about whether it was appropriate for this specific monument. “Horrible,” “despicable” and “sacrilege” were but some of the words used to describe it.
A few days earlier, the Central Archaeological Council (KAS) had expressed reservations about a Coca-Cola logo that is to appear in the set design of a production of “Medea” going on stage at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus on July 21 and 22, directed by the renowned Frank Castorf. It is not the only detail of the stage design that worries KAS, which has summoned the production team for a hearing on the subject next week. There is also a piece of scaffolding between the ancient stage and the orchestra that archaeologists are concerned may cause damage.
How did we get here? According to information shared with Kathimerini from the Greek National Opera, the organization – as it does every year – compiled a folder with the descriptions of all the productions it is planning to present at the Herod Atticus and submitted it for approval to the City of Athens Ephorate of Antiquities, which gave it the OK. That was not a given, as the GNO had also been summoned by KAS to provide additional details concerning its 2019 “La Traviata” and its 2012 “Tosca,” which featured a big cross that had to be downsized. No issues were raised during this year’s approval process, though. If they had, add the sources, the production would not have been allowed at the Herod Atticus.
Sources at the Culture Ministry, meanwhile, stress that there are significant differences between the cases of the Herod Atticus and Epidaurus, as well as “Madama Butterfly” and “Medea.” The ancient Greek play caused concern because, apart from the logo, the integrity of the monument is also an issue. It is worth noting that stage sets planned for Epidaurus have to go through a separate committee before they even reach KAS, which is not the case with the Herod Atticus.
Katerina Evangelatou, the artistic director of the Athens-Epidaurus Festival (which is organizing both the shows), tells Kathimerini that the organization plans to defend the contentious logo in “Medea” by explaining that is not there to advertise the brand, but is an integral part of the set. Castorf and his stage designer, Aleksandar Denic, have used such logos in other productions as symbols of a culture of greed and consumption that destroys historical memory. “It is something that defines their idiom,” says Evangelatou.
One of the questions that may, perhaps, arise from this debate is whether there are or should be limits to how monuments are used for art. Kathimerini saw “Madama Butterfly” and posed this question to an archaeologist and a stage director.
The discussion, moreover, will likely become even more heated quite soon, as a famous fashion house is due to present its new jewelry collection at the Herod Atticus next week.
A ‘political’ take
Speaking to Kathimerini a few days before the opening of “Madama Butterfly” at the Herod Atticus Theater, acclaimed director Olivier Py said that his was a “political” take on the classical opera that revisits the Japonisme that gripped Europe in the latter half of the 19th century, through a post-colonial prism.
He also makes specific reference to the Perry Expedition of 1853-54, when US Navy ships were sent to establish diplomatic relations with Japan, among other nations. One of the ways he does this is with a plastic cowboy hat emblazoned with a US flag alternating between different character and a Marilyn Monroe-style wig on Cio-Cio-San. As for the set, advertising signs in Japanese and English hang above a staircase in the first act of the opera.
These are elements that express Py’s beliefs about his directorial approach, which treats the modern-day audience like a group of aware and wired individuals in synch with their time and who communicate with symbols and revere logos: from Apple and Google to Facebook. Those who also know their history know that the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, Cio-Cio-San’s birthplace, leaving behind the scorched earth that replaces the logos in the second part.
Whether drawing a parallel between the lovestruck heroine and the violently Americanized Japan or whether the destruction of Nagasaki can be compared to the demise of Cio-Cio-San is a subject for an artistic debate, and should be treated as such.
We can judge its merits once we decide whether ancient theaters hosting performances should be treated as rigid monuments or living organisms.
Monuments deserve respect
Panos Valavanis – Professor emeritus of Classical archaeology at the University of Athens. The anxiety of the creators (directors and stage designers) of a play to connect Classical works with the present is understandable, as is their need for originality and innovation. However, the “new” approach to Classical texts should not require impressive external stage props, but a deep interpretive approach that appears before the audience mainly through the speech and movement of the actors, against a backdrop that does not undermine the form or the spirit of the monuments and their era.
Innovation in direction and set design can be demonstrated in other spaces, in one of the thousands of modern theaters around the world. There is no need to bring them to the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus and the Herod Atticus Theater in Athens.
We usually read in interviews with directors what an important moment the presentation of their work at ancient theaters is in their career and about the awe they feel from their contact with those monuments. The same feeling should prevail in the show. When we visit or, even more so, when we are invited to a special place, even someone’s home, we usually show our respect by behaving accordingly.
Much more so when we use monuments of the past, of different cultures and perceptions. Creators are obliged to respect the monuments and their natural and symbolic endurance. The creator’s work should submit to the monument instead of the creator trying to impose his/her imagination on the monument.
This may be the general tendency of modern man – i.e. to subjugate and use everything (nature, animals, monuments etc) as he sees fit and for his own benefit – but from particularly sensitive artistic creators we expect a different approach, an approach that goes against trends. This, after all, was and remains one of the characteristics of great art in all ages.
I can accept anything on stage
Io Voulgaraki – Theater director Within the general social conservatism that I think we are experiencing, some issues arise around culture. For example, the councils and committees that approve the sets of the shows that are presented inside historic monuments and archaeological sites should, I believe, focus on safety issues, to ensure that these venues are not damaged by any stage props and to avoid jeopardizing their stability, building materials etc. But I don’t understand why they should judge and opine – because that’s what it’s all about – about the narrative of a show.
As far as I am concerned, I can accept anything within the framework of a stage set. I could watch a church burn down – we have to understand that it’s one thing for something like that to happen on stage and another thing for people to actually burn one down. I could also watch a giant Coca-Cola poster on stage and whatever else a creator chooses, imagines and suggests.
Whether a certain presentation is to my taste or anyone else’s is a subjective matter; whether the set in question connects with the respective space and converses with it or not, all these are conversations that take place while having a drink after the show. Do we even know, moreover, what the spirit of each monument with which a certain set converses with is or not? Can anyone claim to be in touch with this spirit? I consider it a little dangerous to discuss on such a basis and to make some people – any people – the gatekeepers of such concepts.
In my opinion, we cannot ban or cut out parts of a visual ensemble that a creator wants to present just because of a sterile reverence of archaeology that grips us every summer. More specifically, I am not offended by a Levi’s or a Coca-Cola sign at the ancient Herodes Atticus Theater in Athens or at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus, but I may, as a viewer, be offended if there is something of essence wrong in the show – a certain sloppiness, for example – even if a show has no logos, brands or anything similar.
This article was previously published at ekathimerini.com.