Friday 20 July 2012

Canto General at Irodou Attikou Theatre

Great excitement. Had been building up for days.... And, as very rarely happens in life, the reality was beyond my expectations.

A combination of: my favourite theatre, my favourite Greek composer and the powerful voice of Maria Farandouri. Bliss...

(photograph by Peter Wilson)

The Irodou Attikou theatre was built during the second century A.D., financed by Irodes Attikos in memory of his wife. It is a semi-circular theatre, comprising 3 levels of marble tiers with only 2 levels surviving today, a radius of 38m and can seat around 5000 people.

It originally had a wooden roof, was partly destroyed during the third century A.D. and was restored in the 1950s.

Today the theatre is one of the many venues for the Athens Festival, a celebration of music, dance and theatre.

One of the album covers of Canto General

Mikis Theodorakis wrote the music to the poems of Pablo Neruda 40 years ago - Canto General has become the anthem of the dispossesed, the marginalised and the persecuted. It  tells of the plight of the South American people, first the persecution of the indigenous populations by the conquistadors and then by the various dictators that have plagued the region.

The composer and the poet met in 1964 and then met again in 1970 in Paris when Theodorakis was in self-exile from the military junta in Greece. Neruda invited Theodorakis to go to Chile to see for himself  how grounded the people were under the Allende regime. Allende invited them to his house. One of the things he said to Theodorakis was: 'Things are going really well. There is only one problem left, that of the military. I am going to solve the problem with the help of General Pinochet whom I trust. He is my man'. It makes you want to cry....

Another cover, in French, so I wonder if it is the original one.

Theodorakis and Neruda arranged for the piece to be performed in Santiago in 1973, to be dedicated to the struggle of the Greek people against the fascist regime, but tragically and ironically, in September of that year Chile itself succumbed to a fascist takeover led by no other, than Pinochet.  Neruda died 12 days after the military takeover. The first performance of the work took place in Athens in 1975 in the Karaiskaki football stadium right after Greece had been liberated from the junta, and what a celebration that was!  From one junta to the next, the work has become a symbol of the struggles of peoples against oppression.

The theatre is right next to the Acropolis - a great pity about the necessary scaffolding.

We arrived one hour early, but so did most other people

going up the steps

and here we are

one more photograph with the Acropolis on the right

still in the 'foyer', people suddenly started clapping. Theodorakis, a very frail Theodorakis, had arrived - he is the one wearing the black shirt with his back to us

people starting to come in. By the time the concert started, all 5000 seats were taken

Theodorakis on his way to his seat, in the white jacket

being given a standing ovation

All set to begin now: at the back the 64 strong choir, the orchestra with its interesting  collection of percussion instruments and at the front Maria Farandouri in red

Theodorakis tends to use poems as lyrics for his music. He predominantly draws on Greek poets but also some international ones, Lorca being a favourite. Canto General is the only work that has not been translated but is sung in Spanish

Each poem was read out to us in translation and then the music would start

Maria Farandouri and Petros Pandis were the original singers when the album first came out 40 years ago - it was therefore very appropriate and touching that they should be the ones singing this time

A last look at the Acropolis on our way home.

This music is woven in the soul of every freedom-loving Greek. During the dark years of the military dictatorship it was the music of Theodorakis, sang by Maria Farandouri, or Maria Dimitriadi, (who  unfortunately is no longer with us), and the rest of Theodorakis' singers that kept us going. We would go to secret 'boites'  and listen to the rousing, revolutionary songs, always apprehensive, always worried that the police, or even worse, the army would burst in. He wrote his best music during those years in Paris. Maria Farandouri was in Paris as well and they would record his latest work and then it would illegally reach us in Greece, would make the round, get copied, listened to and passed on. We lived on his message of perseverance and hope.


  1. Very moving post. What you forgot to mention is that the performance of Canto General in Santiago was not only scheduled for September 1973 - days before Pinochet's coup - but was also going to be performed in the very same stadium that just a few days later became the holding and torture centre for the huge numbers who were rounded up immediately after the coup.

  2. Thank you Sally.

    I didn't know it was the same stadium, what a chilling thought/fact.

    Your comment made me remember the Costa Gavras film - is it State of Siege? It is the only film that I feel captured the savagery of what happened and how much the Chilean people suffered. That scene with the white horse, so powerful, so effective politically, but also artistically. It is one of the most powerful scenes in a film, ever.

    1. No - it was Missing, with Jack Lemmon. But you're right about the power and symbolism of the white horse.

    2. Stage of Siege was about the Tupamaros in Uruguay, but was also by Costa Gavras, and starred Yves Montand, who also starred as the murdered deputy in Costa Gavras's Z, which set the background for the 1967 coup in Greece...

    3. I remember the title 'State of Siege' (such a wonderful title) but remember nothing about the film - must find it and watch it again.

      I watched Z again, recently, and loved it as much as the first and second times. He is such a great film director, and always spot on.

      I also remember that Sissy Spacek starred with Jack Lemmon in Missing.

  3. Eirene.

    I'm glad you enjoyed your concert which took place in such a beautiful, historic setting. Thanks for introducing me to this stirring, inspirational piece of music. A real international piece - Greece and Latin America- for a common cause.

    I admire your courage in being an activist under the dictatorship. I don't know that I could have been so courageous.


    1. Hi Mick,

      it was a great and very emotional evening.

      I have the greatest admiration and respect for the people who actively resisted the dictatorship, but I was not one of them - I have no such courage. I was a school girl when the colonels first seized power. They rounded up as many known activists as they could the night they took over and that was very easy for them as there is a file of every Greek person's political views/activity in police archives. They imprisoned and tortured every activist they arrested and continued to do so the whole time they were in power.

      I lived in Greece for four years during their rule and the rest of the time I was abroad. I kept my head down and was scared for the four years I lived here - everyone was scared. I did read avidly any literature in the form of papers or books that I could get hold of and did take every opportunity I could to go to 'boites' to listen to music, but this is armchair stuff, or at best, low level resistance.

      In the end, it was the heroes of the Polytechnic uprising that brought the regime down.

    2. Eirene

      Low level resistance is better than no resistance and still takes courage. I guess that just to be caught with the wrong literature or attending a boite would have led to serious repercussions. It's hard to appreciate that over here where we can read and say almost anything we want (although files are still kept). Movements are built slowly by people taking small actions, raising consciousness and building - without that your heroes of the Polytechnic would probably not have succeeded.

      I must find out more about the Greece, as I know very little about what the dictatorship - any suggestions?

    3. Ooops! I've been caught out here. Can't think of anything at the moment, but will give it serious thought, and will ask some people as well.

      I read voraciously while it was all going on and even though I can remember books I read, cannot think of the titles or authors anymore. It is something I stopped doing after the end of the dictatorship as I wanted to put it all behind me.

      One thing about the Greek junta was that no one was killed - they prided themselves on that: except for the end with the Polytechnic of course. So in that respect it was very very different from Chile where so many people lost their lives and so many others disappeared without trace.

      They were torture-happy though. They did unspeakable things to so many people....

    4. And Mick, thank you for the sensitive and thoughtful comment.

  4. It looks and sounds amazing.

    1. We had a great time. It was so good to listen to the music live which I had not done for a while, and of course, the setting is stunning.