Burning issues on the road to financial stability
By Dimitris Rigopoulos
OPERA. Sold-out performances of “Norma” and “Aida” are now in the past for the Greek National Opera, but they did bring a ray of hope to the end of a very difficult season. While revenues from ticket sales were significant, however, the company gained more from the success of the two productions in terms of morale than it did financially.
The day after the final performance of the summer, Chairman of the Board Nikos Mourkogiannis met with the GNO staff to thank them. “You defeated a lot of stereotypes and have earned congratulations,” he told staff at Greece’s only opera company. Mourkogiannis was referring to the fact that the success of the “Aida” experiment did not bode well at first, considering that it came in the holiday season and during one of the city’s biggest heat waves. Now, it appears that the success of the GNO’s two summer productions at the Herodes Atticus Odeon has distanced the threat of bankruptcy, which was a very real one over the winter, when it was revealed that the company’s debt had soared to 14 million euros. Meanwhile, however, Mourkogiannis has to deal with a string of open fronts.
The first he will address on his own initiative, and it concerns a detailed audit on finances of the previous management in order to ascertain the causes behind the surge in the company’s debt. Sources say that the examination of previous records will reveal that the company borrowed heavily in the past in order to meet the cost of certain “expensive” productions. Once the audit is completed, the findings will be turned over to the General Inspector for Public Administration.
Significant progress has been made on another open front for the GNO: An evaluation of the staff has been completed and changes are expected to be implemented within the next few months to improve the company’s operation. Mourkogiannis is prepared to deal with the inevitable backlash, but he is also determined to follow through with his plans. “Those who are not willing to contribute to the process of saving the Greek National Opera will be held accountable,” he told his associates.
The company has already drawn up new operation guidelines, though the programme for the 2010-2011 season remains uncertain even though the season is expected to begin in two months’ time. Programming, however, is not the only problem. GNO Artistic Director Giovanni Pacor is on board for the time being, though he has already submitted his resignation. It is therefore likely that Mourkogiannis will be announcing the name of his successor along with the season’s programme in early September.
Beyond all the other problems dogging the state opera company, Mourkogiannis believes that the most important is that the GNO does not have an appropriate venue of its own. Plans to stage productions at the Trinati Hall of the Athens Concert Hall have floundered and it looks like continuing to use the Olympia Theatre is the only solution.
There was a time when people whose business was culture — or, to be fair some people among them — were allergic to the mere idea of having someone involved in the administration of large cultural bodies and especially of having people run their financial affairs. They would cringe at the very idea that “dry” and “cold” economists or managers would be able to grasp their lofty artistic visions, which, of course, tax payers had to bankroll, whether they liked it or not.
The sector of culture in Greece is much like the ferry routes to far-flung islands or city buses: doomed to generate debt. This is partly true because art is not one of the most lucrative businesses to be in. But, in Greece, this became very much the case and it has gone beyond any reasonable limit. Anything that makes money is immediately labeled as being “commercial” and therefore (in artistic terms) worthless. In contrast, a string of events aimed at a very narrow public of just, say, 1,500 Athenians (most of which acknowledge the other’s acquaintance with a slight nod or an imperceptible twitch of the lips, like a pack of our four-legged friends, in the foyers of garages-turned-theaters) have been hailed as “high art” that should (without argument) merit state sponsorship.
There have, of course, been cases that did merit support, but the problem is the volume of those that didn’t, the ties between organizations and political parties, and the prevalence of a statist culture that spoiled people.
Managers have entered the world of culture, but the problem has proven to be greater than them and their presence has not been enough to turn the tide.
By Dimitris Rigopoulos
1 A panoramic view of the theatre during the triumphant Act II – the entire cast of the GNO, plus the ballet, plus the choir, plus musicians on stage. In the foreground, Lukas Karytinos, chief conductor of the GNO Orchestra.
2 During the curtain call, the main members of the cast bow for the 40th time as the audience applauds them. Lukas Karytinos stands in the middle. From left: Dimitris Kavrakos, Elena Cassian, Tiziana Caruso, Stuart Neill and Yannis Yannissis.
3 In the audience: The composer Professor Theodoros Antoniou, with two professors from Harvard University, Dimitrios Yatromanolakis of the Department of Classical Studies, and Panagiotis Roilos, of the Department of Modern Greek Studies and Comparative Literature.
4 GNO Chairman Nikos Mourkogannis with a young usher wearing a T-shirt stamped with the “Aida” poster.
A jam-packed Herodion sends a message through the arias of “Aida”: the public stands behind the GNO
It must have been the hottest night of the summer on the premiere of “Aida” on July 23, 2010. The marble seats and stone slabs of the Herodes Atticus Odeon were burning, just like the passion of Radames, commander of the Egyptian army, for the Ethiopian slave girl Aida, but also of Amneris, daughter of the Pharaoh, for the brave Egyptian warrior. This is the love triangle of Auguste Mariette, dressed in poetry by Antonio Ghislanzoni. But, neither of the two would have been famous to this day were it not for the fact that Giuseppe Verdi wrapped this tragic love story in his exquisite, powerful music.
The opera in four acts – which requires a versatile cast, choir, council of priests, ballet and instruments on stage, and is also quite costly in terms of costumes and sets – has never experienced a drop in popularity nor has it failed to challenge some of the biggest companies and greatest voices of the world since its premiere at the Cairo Opera on Christmas Eve in 1871.
Here in Greece, “Aida” was selected for the inauguration of the Greek National Opera’s Olympia Theatre in 1958 and later became a resounding success in 1991 when the GNO staged it again in a production directed by Dinos Yannopoulos, with sets designed by Yannis Karydis, costumes by Liza Zaimi (a student of acclaimed artists Yannis Tsarouchis and Spyros Papaloukas) and choreography by Yannis Metsis. It was this emblematic performance that was revived by GNO President Nikos Mourkogannis. The stage adaptation was by Panaghis Pagoulatos, sets and costumes were by Tota Pritsa and the choreography by Irina Akrioti-Kolioubakina. And the experiment worked! The theatre was packed, and not just by the usual socialites who never miss a premiere. The VIP area was empty of politicians, save for the French Ambassador and his wife and children, who graced the performance with which the Greek National Opera stood up and said that it refuses to be buried like Aida and Radames in a dark tomb!
The GNO is determined to fight for its rights at a time when it is easier to find a needle in a haystack than a sponsor. This is the GNO’s second production this summer. With it, it has kept opera alive through the season, sponsors or not, and the public responded by giving the performance its support.
The GNO’s determination to survive was clearly reflected in this production of “Aida,” which filled the Herodes Atticus Odeon for three nights with beautiful voices (Greek and foreign) in the leading roles, an ever-solid choir, a youthful ballet that came like a breath of fresh air, and the selfless efforts of all the others involved in the production. The reward was the heartfelt applause of the audience, which also went out to another protagonist in this production, the Chairman of the GNO Board and co-artistic director Nikos Mourkogiannis, who seems to have put the company on the road to recovery. He has good ideas about how to bring more people into the opera fold – such as the touring orchestra – and all the ushers, including the kindly communications director Maria Karanagnosti, wore T-shirts bearing a stamp of the poster of “Aida.”
We wish the company well and hopefully until autumn when the season resumes, we will be able to hear its band play in the National Garden or in Syntagma Square – maybe we can make a Corfu of Athens!
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- Purpose: The Search for Strategic Alignment
- The Return in HR from Purpose
- Purpose-Led Planning & Strategy Execution
- An Interview with Nikos
- Using Purpose to Drive Innovation
- Thinking on Purpose
- Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Leadership
- The Search for Purpose
- Four Routes to Success
- Purposeful Leadership