Monday, 30 September 2013

Opera and the City

Musical journey in 5 acts, hommage to Maria Callas (Source: Lifo)
In early 2011, the debt of the National Opera of Greece (NOG) was over 17 million Euro and there was a serious threat of closure. When two weeks ago the NOG artistic director Myron Michaelides gave a press conference presenting the 2013-2014 season, the picture was quite different:

- The debt is currently 4.697.609 Euro (down 73%);

- The budget for programming in 2012-2013, initially estimated at 3.890.000 Euro, had to be cut down to 2.580.000 Euro; attendance rose up to 90.000, though, and income from ticket sales amounted to 2.220.000 Euro (just 360.000 short of the amount spent on the productions);

- All productions at the NOG main venue, the Olympia Theatre, as well as at the Megaron Concert Hall and the Herodes Atticus Theatre had an occupancy rate of 80% to 100%;

- The NOG also reached 20.000 people outside its walls, in Athens and the periphery, with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which allowed it to develop a series of outreach activites and tour a number of greek cities (the Niarchos Foundation is also building a new cultural center, designed by Renzo Piano, which will be the new home for the NOG and the National Library from 2016).

A miracle? Hardly. Tough decisions, strong commitment, a clear sense of mission, hard work and, consequenty, private/individual support. We cannot ignore the fact that all this has happened at a time when Greece is going through an extreme financial crisis, suffering severe “correcting” measures, which have destroyed the country´s economy. The State subsidy for the NOG has decreased by 5 million Euro in the last two years and this has caused serious problems in the operation of the organization.

I would be very interested to know how they cut down on operational costs, the biggest ‘burden’ in the running of an institution like this. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of data shared publicly, so one can only guess how tough this must have been. Lacking this kind of information, I would like to concentrate on the initiatives taken - despite the hardship or, maybe, because of it - to put the NOG back on the map and connect it with the city and its people.

Having to cut down the budget for in-house productions did not mean that the NOG cut down on its overall activity. On the contrary. This moment of crisis was precisely the moment that the NOG decided to be extrovert, original and innovative. Through a number of initiatives, they managed to be more present than ever in the lives of the Athenians and, physically or virtually, in the lives of Greeks living away from the capital.

A couple of years ago, one of their first outreach initiatives was the “lyric bus”, touring the greek capital´s streets and presenting highlights of the forthcoming performances. Simple, informal, direct, it managed to touch a chord in the hearts of passers by of all ages.


Later on, they developed a project called “The Suitcase Opera”. This is a ‘flexible’ way to present opera in non-conventional spaces, with only the settings that can fit in a suitcase and a piano instead of an orchestra. The NOG went to squares, markets, museum atriums and met people who otherwise might have never got in touch with their art. Some of these concerts brought together a public of almost 4000.


Concert at Varvakios Market  (Source: Lifo)
Open rehearsals in public spaces is another way of being close to the people and sharing with them what usually takes place behind doors. Last summer, the NOG presented Madama Butterfly at the Herodes Atticus Theatre during the Athens Festival. A few days before the premiere, an open rehearsal took place near the theatre, in the pedestrian street that surrounds the Acropolis and Ancient Agora. Last Thursday, a week after presenting the new season, there was an open rehearsal of the orchestra at the port of Pireaus - a one-hour programme presenting some of the season´s highlights -, as well as an open rehearsal of the NOG Ballet by the White Tower at the port of Thessaloniki – a rehearsal of the performance “Journey to Eternity”, a hommage to film director Theo Angelopoulos.


Finally, more than 5000 people followed a public musical journey in five acts on 15 September, celebrating Maria Kallas on the 36th anniversary of her death. “This participation was a clear statement from all of us”, one person said to the magazine Lifo. “It is necessary to connect the art to the life of the city and it becomes absolutely essential in the actual circumstances.”

All this brings to mind the open letter Michael Boder, music director of Liceu in Barcelona, sent to the administration last year, when it was announced that, due to financial difficulties, the theatre would close for two periods of one month. At the time, we had commented on this, considering Boder´s response an excellent lesson on management (read here). Here´s an excerpt: “In this difficult situation for Spain and its population, we could play concerts for free for the unemployed. After all, we have the necessary resources! We could organize concerts and projects with children, youths and elderly people. (...) But we have to play, or we will disappear! We should have to play more, not less. (...) At the same time, the Liceu could also transmit a social message: ‘Look, we are playing for you and we are here, we make music and everybody is invited to listen instead of talking.’ (...) What objective could have more meaning on a crisis? After all, culture gives comfort in difficult times and also gives ideas.”

Open rehearsal of Madama Butterfly (Source: Facebook page of NOG)
Play more, not less. Show the people they are playing for them, they are here. This has been the NOG´s mission and message in the last two and a half years. From the people´s response, one may conclude that this was exectly the message they wanted to hear. In return, they show their affection and support.

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