Opera in a Time of Crisis: Alexander Rocks in Thessaloniki

Diana Farr Louis

Eating Well Is The Best Revenge

By Diana Farr Louis

“I think that without ‘The Crisis’ Alexander would never have made it to the stage. The singers, who have such wonderful voices, and the musicians would all have been doing their own thing. Costas should get a gold star for bringing something to everyone’s life that wasn’t there before—experience, connections, friendship.” Diana Farr Louis

Diana Farr LouisATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—4/1/2013—Last November, a rock opera based on the life of Alexander the Great opened in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. It caused such a sensation that its seven-day run was extended to ten and booked for another three days at the Megaro Mousikis, the city’s “Lincoln Center,” at the end of March.

Almost everything about this opera is surprising. Here in the homeland of the hero, it dares to portray Alexander as a deeply flawed human being rather than the brilliant world conqueror of myth.

The libretto is in English, not Greek, written by Penny Turner, a British former riding-school owner and fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. But even more astonishing is the fact that it was produced during this devastating economic slump by a troupe of 70-plus unemployed performers, musicians, and stage hands. From the director to the choreographer, the set/costume designer to the orchestra conductor, all but a couple of singers worked without pay, and yet the opera is a completely professional spectacle, unstintingly extravagant and exciting to the eye and ear.

The poster for “Alexander Rock Opera,” performed last weekend in Thessaloniki, Greece.

The poster for “Alexander Rock Opera,” performed last weekend in Thessaloniki, Greece.

It did not happen overnight.

The composer, Costas Athirides, first conceived of the idea in 1996, thinking that although Alexander had been the focus of many a book, play, or movie, he was missing from the musical theater repertory. And having worked for 15 years as a performer, musician, and director in productions of Tommy, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, and others, Athirides decided to remedy this lacuna. He approached Ms. Turner, a friend, who had been putting on shows—circuses and musicals such as The Daltons and Lucky Luke—at her riding school in Thessaloniki, and she agreed to write the libretto.

As Athirides states in his introduction to the show’s CD, “To get the opera on stage took almost as long as Alexander’s campaign.” He then goes on to describe the bursts of creativity, composing and erasing, interspersed with longer pauses where the project was shelved as he worked on other compositions (CDs such as “Sexual Instinct,” “Synnefa” (Clouds) and “Gaia Action Street,” etc.), before he finally managed to pull together the key people who would “give the opera flesh and bones.”

Meanwhile, Ms Turner also kept writing and rewriting as her research took her beyond the “official” sources—Arrian, Curtius, and Plutarch—and modern biographies by A.B. Bosworth, Robin Lane Fox and Peter Green, to Greek folk histories such as the Alexander Romance, which is a medieval collection of anecdotes, fairy tales, and myths from the time of Alexander that formed an oral tradition. Not to mention Homer, Aristotle (Alexander’s tutor) and the Bacchae, a good source for the religion and rituals of the time.

As she told me, “I also went to as many places as I could and heard what people had to say about Alexander—in Egypt and Turkmenistan and even India. I asked people who have been to the Makran desert [along the south coast of Iran] what it was like there . . . to get an idea for Gedrosia [west of the Indus, whose harsh conditions cost the lives of at least 10,000 soldiers and is considered Alexander’s greatest military blunder]. Of course, Alexander exists in Persian legends too as ‘Alexander the Accursed.’”

The Muse of history overlooks the Battle of Granicus.

The Muse of history overlooks the Battle of Granicus.

I caught up with Penny Turner, when she was in Athens in early December to oversee a completely different project, the biodiversity garden at the Center of the Earth, which she helped to design for Organization Earth. She is also known in English-speaking circles for her Athens News (http://www.thelongridersguild.com/greece-story.htm) stories about exploring the Greek mountains on the back of her horse, George. The 8,000 kilometers she covered qualified her for a fellowship in the Royal Geographical Society and a John Muir Trust Conserver Award, but I wasn’t aware of her identity as a poet-teacher-historian.

Reared in Devon, and educated in Scotland, she became a teacher, choosing for her second job the “roughest school I could find, the kind of place where people are trained not to win. I wanted to tell them it doesn’t have to be like that.

“And because poetry and Shakespeare formed my life, I taught them Shakespeare and theater, too. Some of the kids were Cypriot refugees and they taught me Greek in return. Then, looking for more adventure, I moved to Thessaloniki and taught in a language institute before I opened my riding school. There, as I said, we put on musicals and even invented a new genre, ballet on horseback.

“With Costas, we collaborated really well. He understands that music can create an emotion that illuminates what life is. The only point on which we differed is that he wanted to record the opera in a studio or perform it as an oratorio, but I insisted the CD could not come out without a show.

“Last spring, things finally came together. After they finished the CD, several of the performers wanted to keep going, so Costas mobilized more friends and colleagues in the music world. Apostolos Vettas, a well known set designer who has two successful plays running in Athens, offered to donate costumes and sets from stock; our friend Aspa Foutsi said she’d be the choreographer and use students from her ballet school—she even got Heavy Metal boys out of their smoking, drinking, not-much-thinking routine. The conductor, a famous local guitarist named Costas Tzounis, worked for free. You have to understand, nobody had any money and all the performers were unemployed, which is so demoralizing. We even rehearsed in a space with no electricity. And we only gave those singers a tiny amount because they had to give up part-time jobs to join us.

Olympias, Alexander’s mother, played by Harikleia Hatzisavvidou.

Olympias, Alexander’s mother, played by Harikleia Hatzisavvidou.

“In the end, a whole community emerged from this effort. Everyone gave their all, even the less good surpassed themselves, and all behaved with absolute integrity. I think that without ‘The Crisis’ Alexander would never have made it to the stage. The singers, who have such wonderful voices, and the musicians would all have been doing their own thing. Costas should get a gold star for bringing something to everyone’s life that wasn’t there before—experience, connections, friendship.”

As for the production, Penny wanted to highlight aspects of the Alexander tragedy that are relevant today. What happens when killing becomes a habit, when drink blurs reason, someone has a bad idea—such as burning Persepolis—and everyone jumps on the bandwagon, only to regret it the next day. Or what happens when a leader blames someone else instead of taking responsibility and how when things spiral out of control, a person can become self-destructive, do things that are not in his interest, like kill a trusted advisor who dares to tell the truth, or march his men through a waterless desert. And how poverty and despair can provoke even more suffering.

These ideas set to Athirides’ vibrant rhythms and motifs kept me riveted to my CD player, searching for YouTube links (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKvyGZri1ZA) on my laptop. I and others who were unable to travel to Thessaloniki for the live performances this weekend can only hope that Alexander Rock Opera will be brought down to Athens and then move on to conquer audiences outside of Greece, just as its hero did.

One abiding legend in Greek folklore is that of a mermaid who appears out of the waves and confronts sailors with a question: “Does Alexander still live?” (Zei o Megalexandros?)

There is only one correct answer: “He is alive and rules.” (Zei kai vasilevei.)

For the moment at least, he lives and reigns in Thessaloniki, thanks to the 70-plus players who refused to give up.

Recipe

To find a recipe that might have been served during Alexander’s campaign, I picked up The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger (London, British Museum Press, 1996). It contains stories and recipes from Homer’s time to late Rome, with chapters on such fascinating subjects as A Wedding Feast in Macedon, Cato’s Farm, and Supper at the Baths. To my delight and surprise, the wedding feast actually included a Honey Nut Cake from Crete that closely resembles a dish called Patouda, which I found on my wanderings there for my own book, Feasting and Fasting in Crete (Athens, Kedros, 2001). The cake described by Dalby and Grainger was quoted in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (Dinner Table Philosophers)  and calls for hazelnuts, sweet and bitter almonds, poppy and sesame seeds, honey, and black pepper, and has no pastry. Nevertheless, I think the two are quite similar, so enjoy this version while you watch some of the YouTube videos of Alexander Rock Opera.

Spiced Nut Rolls (Patouda)

This confection from Eastern Crete combines a lemony, shortbread-like crust folded around a filling of crushed nuts; even the confirmed non-sweet-eater will find the smoky taste of the sesame seeds and the hint of honey hard to resist. (Do add pepper and bitter almonds if you wish.)

For the filling:

350 grams (12 oz) chopped walnuts and/or almonds

3 heaping tablespoons sesame seeds, browned quickly in a non-stick frying pan

1 full teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

2 tablespoons dry bread or zwieback crumbs

60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil

4 tablespoons honey dissolved in 6 tablespoons hot water

 

For the pastry:

about 400 grams (4 cups) sifted cake flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

240 ml (1 cup) olive oil

70 grams (1/3 cup) sugar

80 ml (1/3 cup) soda water

60 ml (1/4 cup) raki* or brandy

grated peel of 2 lemons

confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Mix the filling ingredients thoroughly in a bowl.

Sift the flour with the baking powder into a medium-sized bowl. In a separate, larger bowl, beat the olive oil and sugar together until the mixture is smooth and then slowly add the soda, raki or brandy and lemon peel. Finally, beat in the flour, 100 grams (a cup) or so at a time, until dough begins to form. When the electric beater gets too sluggish to have any effect, take out the dough and knead on a floured surface until it is soft and pliable. Roll it out immediately into four strips about 26 cm long X 12 cm wide (11 X 5 inches), as thin as possible.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Lay the filling on one side of the first strip and fold the other side over it, pressing the edges together to close the seam. Repeat with the other three. Place them on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake until golden, about 10-15 minutes. When cool, dust with confectioners’ sugar and cut each “loaf” into slices about 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick, on the diagonal. Makes about 48 pieces that can be kept up to a week or more in a biscuit tin.

You can also shape the dough into circles (with a glass or cookie cutter), placing a spoonful of filling in the center and folding the dough over to make crescents. But then you will have some filling left over.

*raki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rak%C4%B1

Prospero's Kitchen

About Diana Farr Louis

Diana Farr Louis was born in the Big Apple but has lived in the Big Olive (Athens, Greece) far longer than she ever lived in the US. She was a member of the first Radcliffe class to receive a degree (in English) from Harvard . . . and went to Greece right after graduation, where she lost her heart to the people and the landscape. She spent the next year in Paris, where she learned to eat and cook at Cordon Bleu and earned her first $15. for writing—a travel piece for The International Herald Tribune. Ever since, travel and food have been among her favorite occupations and preoccupations. She moved to Greece in 1972, found just the right man, and has since contributed to almost every English-language publication in Athens, particularly The Athens News. That ten-year collaboration resulted in two books, Athens and Beyond, 30 Day Trips and Weekends, and Travels in Northern Greece. Wearing her food hat, by no means a toque, she has written for Greek Gourmet Traveler, The Art of Eating, Sabor, Kathimerini’s Greece Is, and such websites as Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s www.greecetraveler.com. A regular contributor to www.culinarybackstreets.com, she is the author of two cookbooks, Prospero’s Kitchen, Mediterranean Cooking of the Ionian Islands from Corfu to Kythera (with June Marinos), and Feasting and Fasting in Crete. Most recently she co-edited A Taste of Greece, a collection of recipes, memories, and photographs from well-known personalities united by their love of Greece, in aid of the anti-food waste charity, Boroume. Her latest book, co-authored with Alexia Amvrazi and Diane Shugart, is 111 Places in Athens that you shouldn’t miss. (See Louis' amazon.com Author Page for links to her her titles.) (Author Photos: Petros Ladas.)
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3 Responses to Opera in a Time of Crisis: Alexander Rocks in Thessaloniki

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    Diana, this is fabulous! It makes me really want to see this opera. Also, a story like this is totally inspiring, and helps keep the rest of us going. Hooray for you and for everyone involved in this project. I want it to come to New York!

  2. diana says:

    Thanks, Anita. I want it to come here and then conquer the world. xx

  3. eboleman-herring says:

    It may well do that, you know, Diana. The timing’s right….

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