The story of the Greek National Opera (GNO) is nothing short of inspiring; it’s one of those “everything can change if you want it enough” tales that journalists always love.
In this particular case, the cliché happens to be true – the GNO has completely transformed itself over the last decade, establishing a whole new relationship with its public.
The National Opera was founded in 1940; for decades afterwards, it was a steady draw for opera enthusiasts, but not popular among the wider Greek public, despite having collaborated from early on with a teenaged Maria Callas, who’d later come to be known as the greatest diva on the international opera scene.
Callas signed a contract with the GNO in the same year it was founded, but this wasn’t enough to win people’s hearts. The GNO only started gaining widespread fame much later, during the Greek economic crisis; fortunately, its popularity still lives on today.
What caused the National Opera to become so loved? There were many things, but perhaps the main reason was that it was suddenly forced to market itself more forcefully in order to cope with the growing difficulties brought by the crisis; as a result, people came to know it better.
The driving force behind this initiative was the artistic director of the GNO at the time, Myron Michailidis. He was in charge for two three-year terms, from 2011 to 2017, and was succeeded by composer Giorgos Koumendakis. With an enlarged repertoire, better productions, improved public relations and an innovative and creative approach, the GNO managed to gain momentum.
Another major contribution to the institution’s rise in popularity was the opera’s relocation. It left the beloved but limiting and old-fashioned Olympia Theatre in the center of Athens for the spectacular Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which stands but a stone’s throw from the coastline of the Athens Riviera.
Once you’ve survived one severe crisis, you’re better prepared to handle the next one, and this is what happened with the GNO when the coronavirus struck: the opera company reacted quickly, wasting no time.
They began with the launch of a series, available from April 11 to the end of that month, of recorded performances uploaded online and freely available via various platforms, including the SNFCC’s website, their YouTube channel and their official Facebook page.
Among the available performances were “Carmen” (opera); “Swan Lake” (ballet); Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” (operetta); and a concert by baritone Dimitris Platanias. Some productions were even broadcast on national radio and television.
An Online Festival to Regain Spring
The next step for the GNO is “Exit: Spring,” the 1st Greek National Opera Online Festival, taking place from May 17 to June 8.
The project, curated by artistic director Giorgos Koumendakis, will include 11 new video performances of music concerts, operas, operettas and musical theater productions created during the pandemic, as well as a dance performance taped earlier. Access to the videos is free, and the material will be streamed over a greater number of channels: along with the GNO’s platforms, the works will also be available on the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports’ Facebook page and website.
“This spring, due to the exceptional circumstances the planet is going through, could be considered an unfulfilled spring, during which we didn’t have the chance to live close to nature,” Koumendakis said. The hope is the initiative will help people find a “springtime” within themselves, given that it hasn’t been possible to enjoy the one taking place outside.
Those curious to see how the Greek National Opera has evolved should watch “Lonely Miniatures of Spring” with Theodore Tzovanakis on the piano; Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” with the GNO ballet choreographed by Daphnis Kokkinos; and the other productions of the organization that has learnt not only how to survive in harsh times, but to thrive in them.