The women of Lemnos

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, Tassos Ioannides speaks to Neos Kosmos about his innovative opera, Women in War

This year marks the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign and the Battle of Canakkale of 1915.

As part of the commemorative celebrations, well-known Greek composer Tassos Ioannides has developed a unique and contemporary opera entitled Women in War.

Despite the many existing representations of works that delve into the war period of 1915, the Women in War Gallipoli Project looks to give voice to women and their significant role in war, which can often be dismissed into the background.

“Women dominated the Lemnian story, I felt,” Ioannides tells Neos Kosmos.

“They’re not amongst explosions, but they’re amongst implosions. They have to look after the children, the animals, the fields, and make sure whoever is left
behind survives. And of course they have to grieve!”

Developed by the composer with the assistance of librettist Deborah Parsons and director Alkinos Tsilimidos, the opera focuses on the war base of Lemnos, and follows the story of three female protagonists – Clarice, an Australian nurse, Yeliz, a Turkish mother, and Polyxeni, a Greek war widow.

All three come from different walks of life and sides of the war, yet are circumstantially brought together.

The narrative follows Yeliz, who has just lost her husband due to his being wounded by the Greeks two years earlier in the Balkan War. She travels to Lemnos to bring her only son, Metehan, back to Anatolia at any cost.

Polyxeni has also been left a widow, after her husband was killed by the Turks, also in the first Balkan War, leaving her to raise daughter Myrina on her own.

Australian nurse Clarice, who has enlisted herself to take part in the war, wishes to travel to Lemnos to see her fiancé Ernest. Through her kind nature, she assists Myrina in getting a job at the hospital.

The three protagonists are finally brought together when Ernest finds Metehan wounded on the battlefields and brings him to the hospital.

There, Yeliz finds her son under the care of Clarice and Myrina, whom her son has fallen deeply in love with.

This forbidden union of love, between Greek and Turk, naturally poses challenges for the two mothers who hold deep-seated negative feelings towards one another’s origins.

From the day Ioannides was approached in 2012 about developing an idea for the project, it has been a hectic time for the composer.

Although developing the narrative came quite naturally, securing funding for the project would prove to be more of a challenge.

The Australian Council for the Arts agreed to front part of the funding; however, running out of options, he started to look to the European community to discover that the European Union had just announced that Australia could be part of the EU funding for collaborative artistic projects.

“I thought, ‘heavens, it sounds like synchronicity.’ There’s some kind of propeller that pushes this forward,” he recalls enthusiastically.

After finding three European partners across Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, the application for Women in War was one of three to be successfully approved out of 111 entries.

Although the story itself is fictitious, it is inspired by the true story of Ernest and Clarice, a Victorian couple who were married on the island of Lemnos during the campaign.

But to give the opera and its songs a further sense of authenticity, the composer travelled to the cemetery at Gallipoli, setting himself the task of reading each and every one of the captions and messages inscribed on the tombstones.

“Some of them were little poems, little sayings and so on, and they were very inspiring. I sat down and wrote them all. Even just reading through them you get a feeling of grief, loss, tragedy and the devastation of the time,” he says.

Although taking the form of an opera, Women in War has been specially designed to employ the skills of the three creative minds involved, with 12 performers taking to the stage for 110 minutes in an unconventional 21 scenes.

“In that way it’s quite innovative,” he says.

“We’ve all come from the film industry and theatre industry, so we’ve created a work which is almost like a feature film, but on stage.”

A historic mainstream Australian story, thematically the opera deals with love, loss, family, war, in addition to other elements built into the narrative, such as revenge and animosity.

“Of course it’s also layered heavily by the cultural nuances represented by the three women who come from such different worlds,” he says.

Musically, it can be described as “a tapestry of sounds”, with songs performed in English, Greek and Turkish.

One moment the audience is exposed to the Turkish saz, followed by the Cretan lyra, in combination with the Symphony Orchestra – a musical journey for the ears.

It’s clear to see that Ioannides feels close to his work – the look in his eyes, the tone of his voice, the pauses he takes as he tries to do this work, which he has developed from the ground up, justice.

When asked how he feels to be involved in such a project, there’s a lingering silence as he ponders the last year and a half of its development.

“Sometimes we don’t know why we’re involved in things. It happens to me very often – this path comes and it takes me out, and if it does, I know that it belongs to me and I belong to it,” he says.

“I don’t know why I’m doing this, other than I found it quite unique and one of a kind in the world. That Australia should create such a friendship with its enemy, and that it should become an example to the world.”

Yet despite this statement, the composer makes it clear that he does not wish this work to be perceived as a political statement.

“I don’t want to preach and say ‘I want to save the world’.”

Although history tells us that the Greeks simply assisted the Australians, the Australians eventually lost and the Turks emerged victorious, these are not facts that will be discussed upon the stage.

Rather, the narrative unfolds as the relationships between the women develop and truths are told, truths that transcend the Gallipoli campaign as universal issues and concerns.

“This is not a match between football teams. We are not giving credits to who’s involved more or less. There are three women in our story who are equally important and the grief, that is the result of loss due to war, is equally devastating to any of the three women,” he says.

Set to be performed in Melbourne, Canakkale and Lemnos through the month of July, there is no doubt in the composer’s mind that the opera will rouse a different response from each country.

However, this is something which he claims cannot be predicted, and must wait until opening night.

The opera Women in War will be presented in Melbourne from July 27 to August 2, 2015 at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.