What is the Athens Festival? A great celebration that has lasted 56 summers, and that has hosted some of the leading lights of theatre, music and dance. From Mitropoulos and Callas to Rostropovich, Pavarotti, Leonidas Kavakos and Dimitris Sgouros. From Theodorakis and Hadjidakis to Savvopoulos, Protopsalti, Dalaras and Marinella. From Rondiris and Koun to Streller, Peter Hall, Noh theatre, Bunraku puppet theatre, and the Peking Opera. From Balanchine to Pina Bausch, and from Nureyev and Fonteyn to Martha Graham and Alicia Alonso.
Above all, however, it is a venture with an eventful past often clouded by events in Greece’s recent history. A venture that, over the last two years, has taken on a youthful vitality, and openness. But how did we come to this point?
In 1955, when George Rallis was Minister of the Presidency in the government of Alexander Papagos, the decision was taken to organise a high arts festival in Athens. To this end, the renowned theatre director Dinos Giannopoulos was invited over from America, and was in effect given the complete freedom to found and organise the Athens Festival as he saw fit. The Festival programme included theatre and music performances, all of which were held at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The highlight of the inauguratory year was the appearance in Athens of the great New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Dimitris Mitropoulos
The Dilemma: Backwater or Eastern Metropolis?
The performance by this fine orchestra made comparisons with Greek ensembles – and in particular the Athens State Orchestra – unavoidable. The music critic Minos Dounias, whose opinion held great sway, wrote in the national daily newspaper I Kathimerini (10/11/1955): "Following the visit of Mitropoulos and his Philharmonic Orchestra, the output […] of our orchestra is clearly dull and graceless. […] We must not be the last remaining musical backwater in Europe forever."
Over the course of its history, the Athens Festival has often given cause for such comparisons to be made. Whenever the socio-political climate allowed, it opened up the Greek cultural community to the world. But when the status quo succumbed to Greek introversion, a provincial mentality prevailed. Modern Greek culture emerged from a series of advances and retractions – bold steps forward, and painful steps back. By casting a critical, comparative eye over past Festival events in conjunction with the political events of the time, the history of the Athens Festival can be divided into distinct periods.
The Cosmopolitan Period
The Festival was staged at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in an attempt to bridge modern recollections of antiquity with contemporary artistic output (Nikos Synodinos, Giannopoulos’ successor as Festival head, stayed true to the original spirit of the institution). Efforts were made to establish a festival that incorporated all forms of high art that were informed by the most significant, in the main Western trends whose influence had yet to reach the shores of Greece. The two main foci of the Festival were performances by major orchestras, and the revival and contemporary staging of the theatrical works of classical antiquity; an emphasis was also placed on dance at a later date. Many of the taboos surrounding music were swept away thanks to the decisive influence of Mitropoulos.
Major ensembles and soloists of import were invited to perform, and a concerted effort was made to give exposure to important Greek artists (such as the composer Nikos Skalkottas, a number of whose Greek Dances were presented for the first time in Greece by Mitropoulos; the work of Skalkottas was only rediscovered and recorded many years later – and by musicians outside Greece at that!).
Meanwhile, the highly influential presence of Dimitris Rondiris in the world of Greek theatre led to the firm adoption of the neoclassical, bombastic approach to the ancient texts. Doubt was only cast upon this approach in the wake of a scandal: the production of Aristophanes’ The Birds mounted by Karolos Koun’s Theatro Technis (“Art Theatre”) company, and its subsequent eventful withdrawal from the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in 1959 because its anachronistic approach was considered blasphemous and profane.
The Athens Festival became the focal point of the never-ending battle between modernism and established forms of artistic expression, but in 1967 all such concerns were swept aside as the seven-year-long dictatorship put a stop to (among many other things) all interaction with the cosmopolitan spirit of the Western world, thus imposing an intensely regional air upon Greek public life.
The Period of Isolation
The junta years were a period of intense introversion. The country’s complete isolation from the international community, the disdain of the Regime of the Colonels for Western culture, and the ignorance of the major players of the military coup d’etat led to the stagnation of the Athens Festival. There were a highly limited number of exceptions – productions which lit the Greek capital with flashes of artistic modernism – but these were rare instances that could do nothing to reverse the unmitigated isolationism pursued by the Regime.
The Period of Recession
The sense of freedom that enveloped the country after the 1974 shift in the political climate, the alternative approaches to artistic production that gradually emerged, and the general revolutionary atmosphere that prevailed (and even the misunderstandings that this atmosphere generated) had but little effect on the Athens Festival. Its placement under the bureaucratic control of the Ministry of Tourism coupled with the increasing intervention of arts agents in the selection of the programme saw the Athens Festival overcome by a certain self-centredness.
The institution soon lost its sense of direction and purpose, becoming a mixed bag of events, with significant names and productions placed side-by-side with the insignificant, and all in the name of society life or fleeting fame – and at times the belated cashing in on former glories. A cultural recession also helped drive the Festival to an impasse that had been apparent for years.
A reversal of this state of affairs was clearly necessary – to pursue modernism once more, to systematically open up the Festival to cutting-edge international productions, and to promote young Greek artists who have something to say to contemporary audiences. To spread the events of this arts festival across the entire city, to seek out new and different audiences, and to cater for ever more arts lovers through the select events of a contemporary festival.
A new identity – a festival that is inclusive, that reflects its host city, and that brings the livelier aspects of society back into play. This is the challenge to be met; work to this end began in earnest in 2006, and the wager has yet to be won.
Sunday, 11 September 1938
“Sophoclean tragedy has arisen once more; Electra was revived before a large audience who came not only from Athens to witness this great occasion, but also from many of the areas surrounding Epidaurus in the Peloponnese”.
This National Theatre production of Electra, directed by Dimitris Rondiris, was the first to have been staged at the “most beautiful theatre in the world” since ancient times. Sophocles’ tragedy was performed in the orchestra of the Epidaurus Ancient Theatre without sets or lighting (the site was without electricity at that time) in the late afternoon sunshine. The modern Greek translation was produced by I.N. Gryparis, the costumes were designed by Antonis Fokas, and the chorus was trained by Lucia Sakellariou. Katina Paxinou played Electra, with Eleni Papadaki taking the role of Clytemnestra.
This historic production was mounted by the Greek Touring Club, which aimed to establish an annual Epidaurus Season, but the outbreak of the Second World War and the ensuing Greek Civil War meant this ambitious plan was shelved.
The 1954 production of Euripides’ Hippolytos, directed by Dimitris Rondiris, was to act as the dress rehearsal of the Epidaurus Festival. The institution was officially inaugurated in 1955 with Euripides’ Hecuba, directed by Alexis Minotis. The Epidaurus Ancient Theatre became a great competitive arena for the arts – a place of cultural reckoning. During the first two decades of the Epidaurus Festival, the theatre was reserved for the exclusive use of the National Theatre.
In the works directed by Rondiris, the chorus performed both movements and choral odes in unison as an expression of group consciousness. In response to the criticism he received for taking this “German approach”, Rondiris claimed he had been inspired by laments and Byzantine music. It was Alexis Minotis who finally broke what he called the “obedience to the German Sprechchor form” and the unity of the movement.
Despite differences in the approaches taken by each director, an overarching performance style emerged. Acclaimed actors (such as Paxinou and Minotis) and tragedians (such as Synodinou) expounded the classicising aesthetic house style of the National Theatre. All visual elements of the works were produced by an inseparable in-house National Theatre duo: the set designer Kleovoulos Kleonis, with his architectural forms, and the costume designer Antonis Fokas (taught the secrets of this art by Eva Sikelianou), with his renowned chiton pleats.
Maria Callas, the leading light of the opera world, also appeared at this theatre in the Argolid, performing in productions of Bellini’s Norma (1960) and Cherubini’s Medea (1961).
In 1957, the theatre designed by Polykleitos the Younger welcomed the work of Aristophanes into its fold. The modern performance style of Attic comedy was shaped by the director Alexis Solomos and the set designer Yorgos Vakalos. They introduced neo-classicising elegance, painterly sets that formed an aesthetic unity with the costumes, elements drawn from pottery, figurines and the Athenian carnival season, and vivid colour that worked in harmony with the setting.
In contrast, an antiquated style became entrenched in the directorial approaches to ancient tragedy. Certain pleasant surprises sprung by artists brought in by the National Theatre as external collaborators (such as the 1964 production of Euripides’ The Suppliants, directed by Alexis Solomos, with sculptures by Yannis Pappas and costume design by Yannis Moralis) failed to usher in a different aesthetic. When Antonis Fokas left the National Theatre in 1967, a pale imitation of his art was adopted. A disingenuous humanist tone, adopted with a complete disregard for the social upheavals and artistic ferment of the time, was projected throughout the difficult junta years of the Regime of the Colonels.
In the summer of 1975, one year after the fall of the junta, the Epidaurus Festival opened its doors to the Theatro Technis, a company that had stood for innovation since its foundation in 1942, and which had been feared and shunned by the National Theatre. It mounted a production of the legendary comedy The Birds, an Aristophanic “Dionysian revel” which balanced lyricism with humour, the popular with the modern, and ancient phrases with anachronisms (directed by Karolos Koun; modern Greek translation by Vassilis Rotas, set and costume design by Yannis Tsarouchis, music by Manos Hadjidakis, and choreography by Zouzou Nikoloudi). This was followed in 1976 by the renowned production of Aeschylus’ The Persians directed by Koun, and with music by Jani Christou.
In 1975 the State Theatre of Northern Greece took part in the Epidaurus Theatre for the first time with a production of Sophocles’ Electra directed by Minos Volanakis. The years that followed saw the Cyprus Theatre Organisation and the Spyros A. Evangelatos Amphitheatre make their Epidaurus debuts, and eventually all theatre companies were embraced by the institution. Foreign theatre companies have also been called upon to appear, as have young artists. Academic performances of the material were gradually interspersed with more experimental productions. Until recently, the Festival was criticised for the dull nature of its theatre company selection criteria, and accused of stagnation and monotony.
The commissions of the new directorship of the Hellenic Festival (2006) are made with an eye to the qualitative improvement and overhaul of the Epidaurus Festival.