I am sitting in the town square of Hermoupolis, capital of the Greek island of Syros, when I am approached with great courtesy by a gentleman carrying a bundle of papers, on the top of which I can make out the words Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach.
I am sitting in the town square of Hermoupolis, capital of the Greek island of Syros, when I am approached with great courtesy by a gentleman carrying a bundle of papers, on the top of which I can make out the words Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. It is the island’s Head of Cultural Affairs, Nikos Almpanopoulos, due for his weekly piano lesson after the drink we have arranged to have together.
I had heard, before visiting Syros, that it has the unusual distinction of possessing an opera house, a perfect miniature of La Scala in Milan. When I put this to Mr Almpanopoulos he permits himself a small sigh: ‘That is not strictly true. It has often been called La Piccola Scala but it’s not an exact model.’ And the Apollo Theatre does indeed turn out to be a tiny little jewel of an opera house, with seats for 300, in the 19th-century classic Italian style. It’s not a direct copy but has touches of La Scala about it, and of the San Carlo in Naples as well as the Pergola in Florence.
During the early-19th century the opera- and theatre-hungry citizens of Syros had made do with performances given by travelling companies in all sorts of makeshift venues, from coffee shops to old timber warehouses. In 1861 the Municipal Council agreed to support the building of an opera house and in 1864 it opened with an inaugural performance of Donizetti’s La favorita. The annual opera season became enormously popular, not least because a great many Italians found Syros a convenient stopping-off point en route to the Middle and Far East. They packed the theatre through the spring and summer months and the audience became known, not just for its cultural appetite but for its dazzling fashions and high chic. During the early years of the 20th century, most of Greece’s most famous stage actors performed here as well.
But then the glory years came, temporarily, to an end. The Apollo was used as a cinema during the second world war and became increasingly dilapidated. Attempts to renovate the theatre during the 1950s were unsuccessful and the famous ceiling paintings, featuring portraits of composers and lyric poets, were damaged almost beyond recognition. I found a book about Hermoupolis containing the following emotive description of the sorry state of the place in 1959:
In the early 1980s two friends of mine visiting Syros saw an advertised performance of The Italian Straw Hat and decided it might be amusing to attend. They sat in their seats, the curtain rose on an empty stage and from the wings came the sound of the gentle thunk of needle hitting vinyl, a rhythmic hiss and then the recorded strains of the opening bars of the overture…
Thankfully, a lengthy period of careful reconstruction began in the 1980s and by 2000 the Apollo was — Verdi’s arm included — restored to its former glory. Performances do not yet take place year-round but Nikos Almpanopoulos has that as his target and is so far up to 200 operational days, the theatre remaining closed during the winter, when there are fewer visitors to the island. He invites proposals from actors and musicians, producers and performers from all over Greece and beyond and is particularly delighted to be able to give opportunities to companies from Syros, who always attract full houses.
The Apollo has proved a great attraction to conductor Peter Tiboris, a Greek–American who was determined that, after a hundred years without (live) opera, the theatre should be home to opera performances once again. He conducted Il barbiere di Siviglia there in 2005 and has gone on to make the Apollo the focal point of his annual Festival of the Aegean. This year he opens with Tosca, continues with Schubert’s Mass in G major and is also presenting the Aquila Theatre of New York in performances of As You Like It, and dancers from the Vienna State Opera Ballet in Zorba, a world premiere no less. Tickets are selling fast.
The Festival of the Aegean at the Apollo Theatre, Hermoupolis, runs from 1–11 July.