Since its inception in 1955, the Athens & Epidaurus Festival, the foremost public cultural institution in Greece, has hosted numerous major Greek and world-famous performing artists. Over the years, audiences have enjoyed celebrated musicians, ranging from Dimitris Mitropoulos, the New York Philharmonic, Maria Callas and Mstislav Rostropovich and Luciano Pavarotti to Leonidas Kavakos, Dimitris Sgouros, Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, Dionysis Savvopoulos, Maria Farantouri, and George Dalaras. When it comes to dance, audiences have been spellbound by high-calibre artists, among which George Balanchine, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Ballet, Martha Graham, Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, Maguy Marin, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and Dimitris Papaioannou. Spectators have also had the privilege to watch memorable productions by the crème de la crème of world theatre, including Dimitris Rontiris, Karolos Koun, Giorgio Strehler, Peter Hall, Ariane Mnouchkine, Romeo Castellucci, Thomas Ostermeier. Noh Theatre, the Peking Opera, Volksbühne, the South African Brett Bailey, and Lefteris Vogiatzis, to name but a few.
The Festival was set up in 1955, when director Dinos Giannopoulos undertook the organization of the first Athens Festival, on commission by then-Minister of Culture, Georgios Rallis. The prestigious New York Philharmonic performed under the conduction of Dimitris Mitropoulos in what was, arguably, the standout moment of the inaugural Athens Festival. Initially held exclusively at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Festival was, from the outset, conceived as a springboard for introducing the work of major international artists to the Greek audience; an ideal forum of interaction between Greek and world-renowned artists.
The Festival’s programmatic agenda was initially twofold: to present major orchestras and to promote the revival and re-interpretation of ancient Greek drama. In 1956, dance was added to the core programme. In those early years, Mitropoulos’ dominant presence was a catalyst for the invitation of internationally acclaimed orchestras and soloists and the promotion of major Greek musicians; a case in point was Nikos Skalkotas and his famous Greek Dances, conducted by Mitropoulos in what was the latter’s debut in a Greek venue. In theatre, director Dimitris Rontiris’ equally dominant presence established a stereotypical approach to ancient Greek drama, largely informed by neoclassical tropes.
Almost twenty years prior to the launch of the Festival (1938), a production of Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Rontiris, became the first modern performance to be held at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. The play was presented at the ancient orchestra of “the most beautiful theatre in the world” without a set and lighting design: in the absence of electricity, the production had to make do with the natural afternoon light. That historically important performance was organized by the Peripatetic Club, in the hope of launching an annual “Epidaurus theatre season.” However, any such ambitious plans were indefinitely postponed by the outbreak of World War II, followed by the Greek Civil War.
The Epidaurus festival proper began in 1954, with a production of Euripides’ Hippolytus, again with Rontiris at the helm. The official launching of the Epidaurus Festival coincided with the debut of the Athens Festival in 1955, featuring a production of Euripides’ Hecuba, directed by Alexis Minotis. It bears mentioning that, over the years, contemporaneous social and historical developments were reflected in those two Festivals’ parallel histories – culminating in their unification into one festival – and especially in their different takes on ancient drama.
Epidaurus was quickly reimagined as a terrain of major artists putting forth their best endeavours. It should be noted, though, that for the next twenty years, only the National Theatre of Greece would be allowed to stage productions at the Ancient Theatre. In Rontiris’ distinctive style of ancient drama, the chorus typically expressed the collective consciousness through uniform movement and by reciting the choral interludes in unison. Whenever accused of having a distinctly “German” style of direction, Rontiris would retort that he draws inspiration from moiroloi (laments) and Byzantine music. Alexis Minotis would later undermine this uniformity of movement, or, as he put it, this “submission to the German Sprechchor.” However, despite a variety of techniques adopted by directors, a largely archaic style prevailed at the time. Major performers, among which Katina Paxinou, Alexis Minotis, and Thanos Kotsopoulos, and emerging tragedians (for instance, Eleni Chatziargyri and Anna Synodinou) embraced the neoclassical aesthetics of the National Theatre. The regular duo of set designer Kleovoulos Kelonis and costume designer Antonis Fokas consistently took care of the visuals: the former became known for his massive architectural constructions, the latter for his chiton (tunic garments) designs, having previously been tutored in the art of weaving by Eva Sikelianos.
The year 1957 saw the debut of Aristophanes’ comedies in modern-day Epidaurus. Director Alexis Solomos and set designer Giorgos Vakalo developed a specific look for ancient Greek comedies: colourful productions encompassing elements of neoclassical elegance and painted sets in aesthetic harmony with costumes, with influences from ancient Greek pottery, figurines, and carnival rituals of classical Athens. In 1959, the Greek Art Theatre’s iconic production of Aristophanes’ The Birds at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus stood out thanks to its inspired blend of ancient comedy and contemporary Greek culture (direction by Karolos Koun, translation by Vasilis Rotas, set and costume design by Yannis Tsarouchis, music by Manos Hadjidakis, choreography by Zouzou Nicholoudi). Widely seen as disrespectful, however, this controversial production was shut down after a single performance, at the behest of the Greek government.
Notably, even though most major music productions have been held at the Odeon, the world-famous soprano Maria Callas performed Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1960) and Luigi Cherubini’s Médée (1961) at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus in 1960 and 1961 respectively.
During the Greek military junta of 1967-74, a false image of purportedly “humanistic spirit” was widely disseminated, deliberately chosen in the absence of social conflicts and artistic collaborations. Any exceptions to the rule – meagre attempts at artistic modernization – were few and far between. They did not suffice to mark a shift in the Festival’s introspective stance.
Thankfully, this decline in quality was reversed in the period immediately following the fall of the junta, the so-called Metapolitefsi, amidst a gradually emerging sense of freedom. Around that time, the Epidaurus Festival opened its doors to the Greek Art Theatre, the arch-rival of the National Theatre of Greece, whose name had become synonymous with groundbreaking theatre ever since its foundation in 1942. In 1975, two legendary Greek Art Theatre productions, Aristophanes’ The Birds and Aeschylus’ The Persians were presented in Epidaurus, directed by Karolos Koun, with music by Jani Christou. Also in 1975, the Festival welcomed onboard the National Theatre of Northern Greece, featuring a production of Sophocles’ Electra by Minos Volanakis. The Cyprus Theatre Organisation and Spyros Evangelatos’ Amphitheatre quickly followed suit. Over time, all major theatre companies found their way into Epidaurus, including municipal and regional theatre organizations, such as the Municipal and Regional Theatre of Larissa, with its memorable production of Euripides’ Electra (dir. Kostas Tsianos, starring Lydia Koniordou). Occasionally, foreign theatre groups and younger artists were also invited. Mainstream, canonical performances were presented side by side with more avant-garde productions.
By the 1990s, the Festival was criticized of lowering its quality standards. Overall, this was a period of stagnation. Insofar as it fell under the jurisdiction of the Greek National Tourism Organization, the Festival retained many of the negative traits associated with the Greek state, namely, its bureaucracy and susceptibility to outside pressure groups. Throughout that decade, the Festival embraced both major artistic productions and minor, unremarkable projects carried out primarily for reasons of glamour or, occasionally, in pursuit of former glories. The 1990s overabundance of artistic events further confirmed that the Festival had reached an impasse.
Giorgos Loukos took the reins in 2006 and attempted to reverse this dire situation by opening the Epidaurus programme up to international artists and inviting famous creators to the Ancient Theatre to present early and late modern works, ranging from Shakespeare to Beckett. Loukos’ successful run bequeathed us a rich heritage: the stages of Peiraios 260, a reclamation of a concept of modernity, a systematically pursued openness to avant-garde artists worldwide, and an emphasis on the work of emerging Greek artists who can speak to the concerns of contemporary audiences.
Beginning in April 2016, the new, incumbent artistic direction under Vangelis Theodoropoulos pursues the idea of promoting Greek artists abroad, co-productions with international artists of the theatre and dance world, as well as regional organizations and institutions all over Greece. Above all, it aims for the expansion of the Festival’s audience through opening up to the city of Athens and Piraeus, in cooperation with the Piraeus Municipal Theatre, in the process utilizing public spaces, (squares, galleries, neighbourhoods, sites of historic memory, museums etc.), as well as restored ancient theatres. Parallel educational programmes are also organized throughout the year.
It is of paramount importance to make sure that the Festival is actively engaged with the production of Greek culture, the goal being to re-introduce an aspect of Greekness that is divested of any stereotypical folklore elements. To that effect, the Epidaurus Lyceum, an international summer school of ancient Greek drama, will be launched in 2017. Young actors and drama students from all over the world are eligible to enrol.
In these times of social and cultural crisis, it is imperative that the Athens & Epidaurus Festival contributes to social cultivation, encouraging love for high art. At the same time, the Festival needs to actively support contemporary artists. Highlighting contemporary art and paving the road for audiences that are more critically engaged are both instrumental in enabling the operation of a progressive, cultural institution insofar as they promote a better society: a society of proactive thinkers rather than a society of helpless people at the mercy of market forces.