Shore Leave

Henrietta Bredin previews the Festival of the Aegean on the Greek island of Syros

Opera Now, July/August 2009

Hermoupolis is the capital of the Greek island of Syros and it possesses, rather surprisingly, a small opera house. Anyone who's heard of it tends to say, knowingly, 'Ah yes, it's a miniature of La Scala'. Alluring as this may sound, it is not strictly true. The Apollo Theatre is indeed small, and it is modelled on the 19th-century Italian opera house style as represented by La Scala, but it is not an exact copy. However, it is extremely charming, seats around 350 people and has recently been carefully and lovingly restored.

The Apollo reflects the changing fortunes of Syros and its capital. Built between 1862 and 1864 to the designs of Pietro Sampo, the first opera to be performed there was Donizetti's La favorita in October 1864. As Syros was an ideal stopping-off point on the journey between Milan and Venice to the Middle and Far East, once the theatre was built, more and more Italians visited the island and the opera season became the highlight of the year, with both Greek and Italian audience members vying with each other in the chicness of their dress. During the Second World War, the theatre was badly damaged and fell into disrepair. There was an attempt to rescue it during the 1950s but it wasn't until the year 2000 that the Apollo was restored to its former glory, ceiling paintings, red velvet seats and all. The first opera performance there in over a hundred years was Il barbiere di Siviglia, conducted by Peter Tiboris, on 14 July 2005

Peter Tiboris is a second-generation Greek-American conductor who works extensively in the US but who particularly relishes his work with Greek musicians. Back in 1988 he launched a music festival in Mykonos, which went on tour with chamber music concerts around mainland Greece and the Greek islands. This has now become the Festival of the Aegean, which concentrates its activities on concert and opera performances every summer in Syros. 'I happened on the Apollo Theatre in 1999,' Tiboris says, 'and realized that after the years of travelling around and making music in different parts of Greece, this was where I wanted to be.' And it seemed obvious to him that an opera house should have opera in it.

In the way of these things, this didn't happen immediately, but Tiboris is certainly not a slow mover. He founded Opera of the Aegean the following year, in 2000, training and developing young artists, offering masterclasses with Sherrill Milnes and Martina Arroyo and performing opera extracts in concert. By 2005 he was ready to put on a full production in Syros and, with a mostly Italian cast, and players from the Rome Philharmonic Orchestra, launched the Festival with Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. The year after that, for Don Giovanni, he was pulling in performers from the US, Italy and the Czech Republic, as well as establishing collaborations with local groups; the Syros Opera Chorus was made up of islanders along with singers from the Nakas Conservatory in Athens. In 2007 there was a gala concert of operatic extracts and a Greek premiere, Mascagni's one-act Zanetto with, impressively, Jennifer Larmore in the title role. Last year saw more Mascagni, with Cavalleria rusticana, and concerts including choral music by Haydn, Vivaldi and Mozart.

'We're doing Tosca in 2009,' says Tiboris, 'and something I'm very excited about, the first concert in a church ever to be allowed in Syros. I'm also hoping that we might be able to put on open-air performances in the main square, in front of the Town Hall. The Mayor and the municipality have been hugely supportive of the Festival and this is quite a challenge - but we're working together to see what we can do.' Music under a star-studded Greek night sky does sound a tempting prospect.

Tiboris has proved adept at attracting orchestras and choruses from Europe and the US to perform at his Festival. In 2006 and 2007 it was the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmony, in 2008 members of the Manhattan Philharmonia and the Opera Chorus and Philharmonic from Bialystock, Poland. This year, the fifth festival, will see the participation of the Pan-European Philharmonia and a new venture, two evenings of dance, choreographed by Renata Zanella and featuring dancers from Vienna. 'I feel as if we're growing up as we go along,' says Tiboris. 'We definitely reached adolescence last year and fully intend to continue to ripe maturity.'

All of this reflects an entrepeneurial flair that is a key component of the Tiboris armoury. In 1984 he founded Mid-America Productions, which, as an independent producer of classical concerts, has presented soloists, choruses, orchestras and chamber groups in New York and far beyond. Under this umbrella he has been responsible for introducing the work of many Greek composers to wider audiences, with premieres by Constantinides and Theodorakis among others.

'I really enjoy mixing it up, introducing audiences to a whole range of different sorts of music. We had a big success in Syros last year for example with Taximi, a Greek rebetika ensemble based in Sweden.'

Tiboris aims to make the Festival of the Aegean a focal point of cultural activity for the Cyclades and for summer visitors from all over the world. I'd recommend a visit, preferably arriving by ferry, whch gives an unrivalled view of the lovely old houses cascading down the two hills overlooking Hermoupolis, many of them grand neo-classical mansions reflecting the mercantile riches that once flowed so lavishly into the place.