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Greek poet becomes a Greek opera

Breathlessly waiting for The Barbarians

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Constantine Koukias is pushing the boundaries with The Barbarians.

13/01/12

The much adored Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania has recently announced the program for this year's summer spectacular, The Festival of Music and Art (FOMA). Curated for four years now by former Violent Femmes bass player Brian Ritchie, it will include a new opera, The Barbarians, composed by Constantine Koukias.

Koukias is the co-founder and artistic director of IHOS Music Theatre and Opera, a company about to celebrate its twenty-first birthday. It has an impressive CV, including two previously commissioned short works produced for FOMA. It was largely on the strength of those that MONA has granted its biggest commission yet for IHOS to produce this piece. Koukias is full of anticipation.

"I've got musicians rehearsing at the moment. We're in pre-production mode and we're flat out with the musical director and all the technical aspects of the whole thing," he says. The opera is in modern Greek, but is accompanied by a bilingual narration. Based on the 1904 poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, by Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, The Barbarians explores the same themes as its source; sensuality, patriotism and Christianity.

Koukias believes that, despite the poem's antiquity, the contradictions in Cavafy's life give the poem a modern resonance.

"Here is a Greek who spent very little time in Greece. Displaced in Alexandria, he wrote all about the beautiful and historic elements of Greek culture. Also, there are aspects of sensuality, which I imagine would have been very difficult for him as a homosexual man in that era. And he never gained recognition as a poet. It's very poignant."

Koukias feels privileged to be exploring this text, and is treating it with the utmost respect, going right back to the original version to ensure their inspiration is uncorrupted. He has been working closely with Athanasia Houndalas, who is creating a fresh translation of the poem for them to work from, as well as acting as advisor on the text and structure. But respect for the original doesn't mean this will be a conservative production. While Koukias has drawn on the conventions of classical Greek theatre to create The Barbarians, he has completely re-worked the form.

"I'm throwing out the rules of theatre, using the classical Greek device of the chorus and turning it on its head. The chorus leader will be traditional, in an ancient Greek chorus outfit with the mask, except she's a woman. Then there's a chorus of ten men but they don't speak; they are pretty outrageous and abstracted at times, and very modernistic at other times. It's creepy."

Koukias has been working on this production for almost two years now. After seeing some of his previous work, MONA founder David Walsh was keen for him to create on a larger canvas. Walsh discussed it with Ritchie, who planted the seed. "David Walsh had seen some of my bigger work in Greece and he loved those so he said 'wouldn't it be great if we could commission a large-scale work from Con for FOMA.' Brian said 'well, lets introduce him to the text of Constantine Cavafy' who they both absolutely adore. That was two Januarys ago and I've been working on it ever since."

As well as talented singers, Koukias has been collaborating with artists from all fields to produce something exciting. Musicians, designers, and installation artists are all contributing to what is shaping up to be an ambitious and original project. On a technical level as well, The Barbarians is also pushing the boundaries. Koukias says it is very cinematic but he wont give much away.

"I don't want to spoil it by talking too much about the imagery. But on an emotional level, the audience can expect a very lyrical work that at times will be incredibly jarring and disturbing; sometimes it will be uplifting, and at others it be extremely harrowing."

The Barbarians is at City Hall in Hobart from 18 - 22 January. More info at www.mofo.net.au

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