"Yasou Aida!" - An opera about the difficulties of dealing with easy truths

Empfang mit Musik: Künstler der Neuköllner Oper und dem Projekt "Yasou Aida!
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Empfang mit Musik: Künstler der Neuköllner Oper und dem Projekt "Yasou Aida!

by Alexander Efklidis

Political theater is a particularly misused artistic field that has often been utilized as an alibi for aesthetic and ideological monstrosities. Nowadays, the old function of political theater, to teach or even to instruct, seems outdated: everyone has access to such diverse and deep political analyses, that the theater cannot aspire to add something new to them. Instead, political theater can now draw on the vast reservoir of stereotypical public discourse to turn it into raw material for the stage. Political theater does not have to be overly intellectual, while the discourses being fought in the political arena are not. Besides the aim to deconstruct the dominant discourse, there is also the obligation to find out what the dominant discourse is, as the battle of stereotypes is so wide spread that they nearly substitute what we once called “political controversy”. In the example of the so-called "Greek crisis", this factor was evident: while rudimentary serious economists of all ideological hues drew attention to the prospect of the spread of the crisis throughout the European economy, the media both in the North, and in the South insisted on reading it as a version of the Aesopian myth of the cricket and the ant. Unfortunately, the decision-making was much more determined by Aesop, rather than scientific data. The results are visible, as the crisis continues to spread rapidly, so fast that no one remembers now that the crisis was thought to only concern Greece.

For the last two years we were watching two European countries, Greece and Germany, becoming focal points of a series of imaginary representations imposed rapidly within the European Union. We are observing how a series of eloquent symbolic representations (the "hardworking" North and the "lazy" South, the "disciplined" Germans and the "rakish" Greeks) gained more ground in the field of stereotypical speech – meaning, the primary field of expression of the imaginary "average" citizen. Often, indeed, the shapes of this in its essentially colonial rhetoric seem to bring back to life forgotten ghosts, dynamiting all the (admittedly awkward) attempts for a meaningful political integration of European countries and people. Based on these political issues we created a Greek-German artistic cooperation in the field of opera.

Mapping the field of cultural production in Greece and Germany

The Neuköllner Oper in Berlin specializes in music theatre creation with political and social ramifications, located within a constructive dialogue around the burning issues of the present. It is a theater with means much smaller than these, which the other, bigger opera houses in Berlin have and is trying to go alternative ways in the field of music theater, avoiding the pitfalls of gigantism, aestheticism and of technocratic approaches which one can usually find in opera houses. The management team of NO, Bernhard Glocksin, Andreas Altenhof and Christian Römer (who was recently succeeded by Laura Hörold) realized in 2010 that the so-called "Greek problem" was getting rampant. They decided that they should take over this issue, seeking to hear the voice of Greek artists. They thought that a performance on the crisis should not only be the subject of cooperation of both Greek and German artists, but also an artistic product that will be shared with both German and Greek audiences. The idea of a "friendship meeting", which eventually became the subtitle of “Yasou Aida!”, was since the beginning in the genetic code of the production, which is an exemplary, allow me to say, case of international cooperation, as it goes beyond the usual forms of international festival invitations (usually of a culturally stronger to a weaker country, according to the international artistic stock-exchange values). The Neuköllner Oper created the conditions of an equal artistic cooperation and that was the requirement for the production of a politically interesting discourse. Unlike the field of politics, in the field of art, a democratic debate between subjects from countries with unequal power in the field of international politics seems possible now.

The Greek theater production (and even less the music theater) is rather introverted and participates very little in the European and global dialogue. This has less to do with the current crisis, but more with the structure of the cultural life of the Metapolitefsi, the era that started with the post-dictatorship transition to democracy and seems to end with the current crisis. The Greek cultural production of this era followed the same patterns and ways that characterized the Greek production and economy in general: it has been based on importing products and reselling them, and has actually never been released from the ideology of "comparable with the European". What failed in every aspect in Greece was the model of artistic production, the supportive actions for emerging artists, the mechanisms of distribution of government grants, and above all artistic decentralization. Each of these factors contributed to the systematic extermination of artistic creation, which was the favorite hobby of each Minister of Culture over the last thirty-five years. The result was and still is the perpetuation of a self-referencing and self-fulfilling production system of public artistic discourse.

From Verdi’s “Aida” to “Yasou Aida!”

The idea of a radical adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida originally belonged to me, prior to become the common project of a creative team formed by the composer Kharalambos Goyos, the author Dimitris Dimopoulos, the dramatic advisor Bernhard Glocksin and me. For years, I held on to the idea of a performance of Aida as a chamber opera. Particularly I was fascinated by the contradiction that this opera carries in its genetic code: on the one hand, it is irrevocably connected with large scale productions, with massive voices, with hundreds of performers on stage. On the other hand, three quarters of Verdi's opera are essentially on a chamber music scale, they are musically and dramaturgically intimate. This was the first stimulus: a performance of Aida, as a distillation of the Verdian work. Aida is a product of the late colonial world, a story of conquerors and conquered. I thought this was an ideal platform on which a new story could be told, a story on the relations between Greece and Germany, or rather the European North and South. There are clear signs of a significant penetration of neo-colonial discourse in the field of everyday life and politics. I would not say that Greece is at the heart of this process, but rather the European South as a whole. Greece is more exposed because of its recent past that is characterized by the corruption and ineffectiveness of the state. The area where I thought we should concentrate on was that of the European battle of stereotypes, which for a long period of time has now transformed the controversy within the European Union from a political to a cultural one.

From the beginning the creative team, over the suggestions of Bernhard Glocksin, decided to make a radical adaptation of the poetic text. This is the usual practice in Neuköllner Oper, to treat even well-known operas as entirely new works. The language issue was solved in the simplest way: each of the characters will speak their native tongue (Greek and German), while in group scenes primarily English will be spoken, the lingua franca of the European Union. The dramaturgy was placing the action of “Yasou Aida!” in the headquarters of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, a focal point of the crisis in the financial system.

The conflict between the Egyptians and Ethiopians of the original was shifted into our own version within the framework of the current power relations in the European Union: Our Aida is called Elpida, is Greek and a trainee in the European Central Bank, employee of Anna Riche, the right hand of Boss, the boss of the Bank (a character which summarizes the grotesque characteristics of people in similar positions). She has a casual relationship with the Special Representative of the Bank in Greece, Reiner Mess, a promising member who aims to curb the problems of the unruly economically country. The whole plot of the opera is based on an improbability: Reiner, going to Greece, understands that the measures imposed not only do not improve but worsen the situation of the country. This realization leads him to challenge the public policy of the Bank, which leads to the removal from his position after a series of "fair" disciplinary procedures, which are similar in our show to the Wheel of Fortune TV show. Reiner, who does nothing more than what a conscientious officer in this position has to do, is being abandoned by everyone and by Elpida, who at the end of the show, manages to get a permanent position at the Bank, avoiding what she fears most: to return home.

In our show we had to talk about very serious issues, issues that are nowadays open wounds. We chose not to pursue a serious idiom. The risk of slipping towards sentimentality was evident when trying to invoke the mercy of politically sensitive viewers, who came to watch our project. On the contrary, we wanted to move into the field of playfulness, irony, and of subversion. Moreover, as we said, our field was that of the stereotypes and the disproportionate political power they gain when used by short-sighted irresponsible politicians. The Wheel of Fortune was a way to talk about the unacceptable prominence of gambling in world politics: the character of the High Priestess of the original Aida, is called Krista in our show, based on a famous Greek TV presenter of the 1990s. The Parthenon, the evzones, images from the 2004 Athens Olympics, define our ironic idiom and our intention to play with the non-negotiable national landmarks. There is, of course, the risk for this approach to become a mere reproduction of stereotypes that are actually under attack. However, this risk arises whenever someone plays in the pitch of irony: the ambiguity, the cloudy messages, misunderstanding positions (particularly at the political level) are inherent in irony, which can never be politically correct.

The main theme of “Yasou Aida!” is the peculiar migration of young people with high educational level as a consequence of the crisis. Elpida of our show is not a positive role-model or even less, a victim. Instead, she is the symptom of a situation that is becoming more dangerous: if the best of the country leave Greece, then the land will be left again into dangerous hands, extreme right-wing or extremely clumsy. As the whole creative team consists of people who chose to stay in Greece, our gaze is not determined by the rhetorical question that we very often hear: "Why to stay?" without moralizing, we clearly share the view that beyond individual "salvation" there are many issues and challenges that concern us. Ultimately, just the fact that central to the decision that leads to migration is no longer (or at least for the moment) the issue of survival, but the opportunities for career development, it is sufficient to show that the question "should I stay or should I go?" has no obvious answers.

From production to reception

As for the ways the show was received, I find extremely interesting that there were reviews in the financial columns of newspapers such as Le Monde and Welt, as well as political reportages on major European channels such as BBC. This element is perhaps the most interesting, as it shows how the show managed to exceed its artistic frameworks and entered the field of pure politics. But even for the reviews in artistic columns, I do not think that I observed any serious misreading of the project. On the contrary, it struck me that the reviewers, both in Germany and Greece, have mentioned the political intentions of the show and yet did not judge it in a technocratic way.

“Yasou Aida!” made a round of 23 successful performances in Berlin and then traveled to Greece, to Thessaloniki Concert Hall for another four performances, and was selected to be presented in June 2012 at the Athens Festival, the most prestigious cultural institution in Greece. In general, the show managed to interest the Greek public also, which is not at all familiar with radical adaptations of classical operas, as there have been few cases of such projects in Greece, mainly those of the “Beggars' Operas”, the company of our composer, Kharalambos Goyos. This kind of opera making is even more unfamiliar, when the Greek crisis is made subject of discussions and the audience is invited to see the details of its own everyday life, transformed into an opera. Contrary to common stereotypes, the German public was much warmer than expected, the show was warmly welcomed in Thessaloniki as well, although many viewers thought the way the issue was approached was a bit rough. In any case, it was appreciated, as it was by the German critics, that the biggest hurdle was overcome: the attempt to give one of the "sides" the right, to reproduce the dialectic of "good and evil," which has created so many problems. I think the German public - which seems highly allergic to didactic art - appreciated the fact that the show, despite the issue of the relation between the strong and the weak is in its dramaturgic core, it has not resorted to easy political morality. Throughout the preparation of the project we consistently thought that we are all on the same side, bordered by our European identity. Our problems are political, not cultural. Turning political problems into cultural is the first step towards fascism.

The financing of such an international project was not necessarily an easy task. The management of NO made systematic efforts to achieve both the additional funding required for the hosting of a group of Greek artists for two months in Berlin, and even harder, finding resources for the production of the Greek performances. I regretfully should say that only the German side was effectively mobilized towards fundraising. Most Greek cultural institutions have learned to operate under the direct (and very limited) funding from state funds (on annual basis) and not finding resources for each planned project. The economic crisis has not yet managed to change habits established for years that should immediately change. For me, I learned a lot from the way the NO group sought and succeeded in persuading a number of carriers, from the German Foreign Ministry, to the Liberals, to fund smaller or larger pieces of the total production (I should add that the show itself was just one part of a wider range of actions that followed).

Perspectives on transnational artistic projects

In the long preparation period for the show, there were many times when the Greek and the German perspective on the topics of the show were facing different views that seemed unbridgeable. Through this production, both sides have discovered how difficult and in the end how interesting the attempt of a common narrative in which different cultural identities eventually converge can be. The most interesting fact in “Yasou Aida!” is that it is much more than a glance at the "Greek crisis", it is a Greek-German critique on the European crisis. The delicate distance between a national and a transnational narrative was filled with great effort. Despite the moments of complete misunderstanding, noble, as well as strong conflicts, and even some deadlocks, the compromise (so essential to international politics) was the one which formed a narrative that was more than just a synthesis of views.

This production gave the Greek artists who participated in it an opportunity to talk through the vocabulary of music theater of the crisis, in a way, which would be difficult to achieve in our country. Both the distance, which was imposed by the preparation of the show in Germany, as well as the fact that we had to make a show that is comprehensible for a German audience, but mostly the absence of the paralytic respect of the Greek art world towards the classic works, worked beneficially both in the artistic as well as the political argument we have defended. I think we fully avoided the reproduction of colonial practices, which are preying every time that the right of speech is given to the "weak". Our performance has managed to be a substantial Greek-German dialogue, because, although based on the easy stereotypical discourse, it did not create a story with easy suggestions, for the creation of easy sentiment. Maybe this is one of the challenges for the art of our time: to find difficult ways to deal with the easy truths that overwhelm us.

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Alexandros Efklidis got his PhD from the Theatre Department of the Aristotle University. He is currently visiting lecturer in the Theatre Department of the Aristotle University. Efklidis also directs opera and music theatre productions.