Interview by Dana Papachristou
ORFEAS2021 is a queer sci-fi opera by greek artist duo FYTA, the first of the genre to be composed for a greek audience, produced and presented by the greek National Opera. The spectacle was supposed to be on stage, but recent sanitary conditions changed the plans of FYTA. The whole work appeared on film, which deprived us of the lively festival mood of the operatic art, but created additional narrative possibilities for FYTA, through the technological potential of the audiovisual material versus stage prοduction.
As I was going to attend a work-in-progress closed preview screening of the opera in September 2021 in Athens, I had many questions and uncertainties in my mind.
Opera as a genre was created as an attempt to revive ancient greek tragedy, with the first endeavour being Dafne by Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini (libretto) at the Palazzo Corsi during the Carnival of 1598. Since then, many styles have been adopted, both in popular and in western classical music tradition, depending on various eras, composers and regions. It is one of the most stylised genres, but it also incorporates some kind of freedom, mainly because of how rooted it is in the western classical tradition, and of how much this tradition has used the genre as a canvas for experimentation and social expression. But, regardless of the amount of freedom the genre has to offer, it always requires technique, form, and narrative skills so as not to tire the audience.
So, what has greece got to do with the western tradition today? How can various movements articulate their discourses and claims through such a stylized genre? Why choose a genre with such a heavy and varied part in the history of music and not invent one for the occasion? How do we approach opera today and how much does it concern us? How does an artistic group like FYTA use opera, and how does an institution like the greek National Opera perceive and promote it? And, most importantly, what does queer opera mean and how will this queerness be demonstrated throughout the work?
I had a good feeling that FYTA had in mind these very same concerns, but the artistic result exceeded my expectations and my doubts dispelled: I was dazzled by ORFEAS2021’s theme and plot, the opera’s strongest point to my opinion, which was beautifully embraced by inspired music, as well as fitting cinematography, costumes, make up and scenography.
The work is dedicated to activist and performer Zak Kostopoulos/Zackie Oh, who was brutally murdered on 21 September 2018, in public view and on camera, by the owner of the jewellery store where he sought asylum, a broker who seems to have followed him according to Forensic Architecture, and eight police-men who were called to the crime scene. Zak died in the ambulance, while being transported to the hospital. The assassination sparked marches, political reactions and protests in the center of Athens and beyond, while the trial began just a few days ago, on 20 October 2021.
As for the plot of ORFEAS2021, we see the first openly gay prime minister of the country marrying his partner and struggling to remain aligned with the history and the stakes of the LGBTQI++ movements, through the adverse conditions of post-truth era, alt-right and generalised conservatism. Confronted with dystopian circumstances, the prime minister will relive the myth of Orpheus, and will go down to the underworld to claim his beloved partner. There, he will be reminded of the struggles that need to be given, of the allies and enemies of the movements, and he will be offered a glance of the collective and personal ethics, as well as how his stance becomes a matter of life and death.
As in any opera and in any myth, the work is full of symbolism and allegory, presented in wagnerian ways as a retrofuturistic melodrama of our times. It is indeed really refreshing to discern symbolisms that concern us, that emerged from our own era. From this point of view, the project manages to capture its audience, who identify with contemporary issues and can place themselves in the plot: social networks, influencers and commentators, state-controlled media, cyberpunk hackers, government executives and advisors, algorithms, deep fakes, greece and europe, the NOs of modern and contemporary greek history and archaeolatry are just some of the elements that are revealed to us, until we reach a tutti finale of despair, violence and destruction. This finale comes naturally and unaffectedly, as the only answer to a fragmented, cruel dystopia, where we all feel anxious, exhausted, helpless, and where our bodies are susceptible to violence within the streets of our own city.
Below are some of my questions and comments as I expressed them to Foivos Dousos and Fil Ieropoulos, the two members of FYTA, along with their answers, unedited and uncut. What is certain is that I will see ORFEAS2021 as part of the Thessaloniki Film Festival, in order to combine their answers with an attentive listening of the finished work, the myth of Orpheus and the way we all experience and understand our collective traumas and despairs.
Dana: Why did you choose to work with opera? How much does opera’s lyricism and sense of transcendence support your concepts?
Foivos: It’s funny you ask — in our first ever interview as FYTA we said that we would like to write an opera one day; it’s been 8 years since we made this declaration but we finally delivered! Coming from a background in queer performance, one has to appreciate the campness of opera: the prima donnas, the emotional extravagance, the maximalist aesthetic. Yet, when we announced we’ll present a queer adaptation of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, some greek opera commentators were outraged we’d do such thing. Maybe for your international readers saying that opera is (and should remain) ‘straight’ would be laughable — but when we said in an interview that opera has always been kinda gay, it was seen as a controversial claim here!
Fil: Apart from the camp aesthetic, there is also a de facto meta thing in the operatic form, which suits our working methods. The fact that the characters sing the words instead of just speaking complicates the audience’s identification with the text, something we have always been interested in. I’m thinking about the way Lars Von Trier used the form of the musical to put together Dancer in the Dark, a dark melodrama that is thematically beyond tragic; the contrasting of the naturalist handheld a-la-Dogme 95 camera and over-produced musical clichés brings the audience often to a very awkward position. Is it meant to be sincerely devastating or whimsically over-the-top melodramatic? As a young cinephile, this film shocked me in the way it goes in and out of Brechtian distantiation modes. I think similar things are at play in ORFEAS2021.
Foivos: I am also personally interested in the political potential of melodrama. I was recently reading philosopher Joan Copjec’s Imagine there is no woman that sees melodrama as a genre with political potency. She talks about the history of the genre and how it emerged in the 18th century at a time when Reason with a capital R started gaining traction as a concept. Melodrama offers a counterweight to Reason — a form of emotional, almost spiritual excess at a period when religious and moral authorities were losing their power. And for Copjec, it is precisely because melodrama is characterised by a sincere commitment to inauthenticity — a form of artifice “in which masks proliferate [and] disguises flaunt their thinness” — that it is a ‘feminine’ protest. Melodrama’s counterweight to realism or to an empirical approach to reality, is not in favor of idealism but in favor of showing that everything is illusory.
Fil: Leaving theory aside, it must be said that those who know our work will see that in this opera we are for sure at our most emotional and sincere.
Dana: Is there an underlying political argument you wish to make with this work? And to what extent can you achieve that through creating an aesthetic experience?
Foivos: There are some big themes that permeate the whole piece. An important starting point is the tension between revolutionary/utopian politics and assimilationism/reformism. On one hand you have purist politics of radical change and on the other hand you have the ‘realist’ view of compromises and fighting for institutional inclusion. And while this tension is centuries’ old, it was compelling for us to investigate it in the context of identity politics in the digital era. Who are the true queer rebels of our times? Is revolution an option? And at the same time, can we reform our contemporary dystopia? And even more broadly, we wanted to reflect on the tension between political and aesthetic avant-gardes, charismatic leaders and the function of populism in contemporary progressive politics; investigating the dialectics, conflicts and intersections between these things.
Fil: Artistic expression is actually perfect for dealing with political dialectics. Or should be anyway. Exactly because an artwork is not a theoretical paper, it is not required to present certainties, offer solutions, reach conclusions. We firmly believe that the purpose of art is to pose questions in order to activate and trigger the viewer. FYTA’s ideal audience would be one that is politically emancipated enough to make its own decisions about politics and ethics, even if that means disagreeing with our own positions. In ORFEAS2021, we use the grammar of both opera/music and film/visual arts to construct an as-multifaceted-as-possible aesthetico-political case, being very much aware of the dangers but also possibilities of the mixture between discourse and affect.
Dana: Can we talk about a “queer aesthetics” after all, one that can “queerify” all sorts of forms (opera, tragedy, pop music etc.)?
Fil: This is a question that we have worked on for many years. When we started our queer music and arts label FYTINI in 2014 and the festival Sound Acts a year later, one of our aims was to deal with this idea of a ‘queer form’. Aside, then, from narrating stories about queer subjectivities and from inviting people other than cis straight males to our roster, FYTINI was in the quest of finding what it can mean to queerify creative language. I do have a number of approaches in my mind that seem to be useful for the queerification of art history and music, e.g. collage/mish-mash messthetics, mixtures of so-called high-brow and low/pop styles, a disregard for the rules of classical harmony etc. Queer musicologist Robin James discusses our beloved and much-missed SOPHIE’s use of vocoders and voice manipulation as an aurally queer strategy, as it literally bends gender identification. Political queer scenes around the world have historically favoured specific music genres, e.g. punk in the 90s/00s or techno these days. We tried to propose something different. Whatever this is, it would be silly to offer a definite “how to queerify”; if anything, queer should be the thing that constantly re-invents itself.
Foivos: And this re-invention requires robust self-reflexivity. For example, gay men fetishising muscular male bodies might have once been an act of resistance against the demands of compulsory heterosexuality but it is an approach with certain limitations. We often see in ‘gay art’ the pervasive and un-critical aestheticisation of healthy-looking, white, masculine bodies and it’s hard not to connect that to the ‘no fems no fats’ culture one encounters on gay dating apps. Beauty ideals often stem from a western understanding of ancient greek statues that are supposed to portray the perfect body or something, that's why when artists pay homage to the ancient greece we are suspicious. A queer aesthetics needs to understand and celebrate the plurality of bodies and subjectivities and even to be deconstructive of aesthetic norms as such. When new norms are solidified — even if they have gay histories and linages — we need to investigate who is excluded from or harmed within the new aesthetic regimes to avoid establishing a new ‘pink’ status quo.
Fil: Recently I was outraged reading an article by a rather prominent greek queer academic, in which he mentions that the fact that the Olympics opening ceremony of 2004 was designed by a gay artist featuring homoerotic images of ancient greek glory signaled some kind of queer prosperity. We are talking about one of the most totalitarian patriotic spectacles anyone can dream of, so how someone could perceive this as even remotely queer is beyond me. And all that happening before Athens even had its first Pride event, so it is simply historically inaccurate to imply any institutional queer friendliness existing in Greece at the time. We have a specific segment on ORFEAS2021 about the potentially pink-washing discussions of that particular opening ceremony, as we consider the 2004 Olympics a symbol of a nadir point for greek neo-patriotism/fascism (the first immigrant pogroms in the country happening just days after the Olympics, when the greek football team was defeated by Albania).
Dana: In the film, big institutions and liberation movements are intertwined and in some sort of struggle. What do you think about the institutionalisation of LGBTQI++ discourse?
Foivos: When we started writing the story of Orfeas as the fictional ‘first openly gay prime minister of greece’ we researched the history of several LGBT politicians in europe. Two particularly interesting cases were Leo Varadkar, prime minister of Ireland, and Ana Brnabić, prime minister of Serbia. In the case of Brnabić, we are talking about an openly lesbian woman leading in an orthodox country where gay pride was banned for several years and LGBT activists have been violently suppressed. And this paradox is even more heightened by her politics — nationalist and aggressively neoliberal. Varadkar, whose family has an immigrant background and is himself a person of colour, is not as conservative as Brnabić, but his financial policies have been paralleled to Thatcher's and he has spoken in parliament against adoption for same-sex couples. Irish queer press Gay Community News has stated that "Varadkar will be as helpful to the gays as Margaret Thatcher was to women". These two figures have alerted us to the possibility that if there was a ‘first openly gay prime minister of greece’, they would not necessarily align with our politics and most probably they would represent a number of things that we actually hate.
Fil: One of the earliest cases of LGBT discourse being used to defend conservative values was that of Pim Fortuyn. The Netherlands, having been the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage, had also spawned the most nightmarish scenario of gay emancipation: a sociology professor that uses gay rights to defend the banning of Muslims in europe — essentially the gay child of Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was assassinated in 2002 and for a moment it seemed like that sort of discourse disappeared, but looking back now Fortuyn looks to me like a clear ancestor of Milo Yiannopoulos and the Trumpian gay alt-right.
Foivos: Jasbir Puar has really anticipated lots of these in her book on homonationalism. She describes a new era in western liberal democracies where we move from institutionalised homophobia to almost considering gay rights as an essential part of western culture. And as a result, portraying the racialised others — particularly Muslims — as those who come to the west to attack our (gay) freedoms. In a sense, gay rights become part of the arguments that western powers use to justify invasions in the Middle East and to implement brutal anti-immigration laws in the west. In 2013, we presented a paper with Anna Apostolelli at the first and biggest to this day conference on homonationalism in New York. In our paper we argued that even the use of the Parthenon as the logo of the Athens Pride and that year’s slogan “Goddess Athena was one of us” (implying she was lesbian) creates a dodgy connection between greek antiquity and modern gay life that needs to be questioned before we end up with monstrosities like the aforementioned opening ceremony of the Olympic games.
Fil: On a different but related note, ORFEAS2021 also opens up the question of the inclusion of LGBT work in art institutions in greece. Until recently, institutions in the country really didn’t want to know about queer stuff, but in the last three or so years, there has been an increase of interest, a trend of some kind. The way greek art institutions have dealt with the topic has been tokenistic at worst, awkward at best. It often puts us in a rather difficult position; is this tendency of theirs to be critiqued or should we be pragmatic and support whatever comes in the fear of an even darker future for human rights discourses? And how do we participate in this, after having existed in DIY queer scenes for 10-15 years ourselves? Some of our colleagues/comrades believe that there can be no queer politics funded by arts councils; we respect this, but have decided to take a more reformist stance. We think that releasing ORFEAS2021, an intensely anti-greek work, on a platform called greek National Opera is an interesting glitch.
Dana: How did the murder of Zak Kostopoulos / Zackie Oh influence this work?
Foivos: When we started working on our adaptation of L’Orfeo in 2018, we wanted to create something playful and irreverent. Almost like a big queer party, sexual and fun. But Zak’s murder later in the year made us rethink everything — we just couldn’t write a ‘queer’ opera that wouldn’t refer to what we experienced the days following his death, both in terms of the violent homophobia of the public sphere but also in terms of how we mourn, individually and as a community. And as there is a before and after Zak for our creative work similarly, I think there is a before and after Zak in queer politics in greece… Zak’s impact is huge.
Fil: One of the most spectacular characteristics and rare gifts of Zak/Zackie was how she could bridge tendencies, politics, people. You would find her as much at ease hanging around anarchoqueer punks, as institutional middle-class ladies. Not only that, but give Zackie an afternoon and she would turn them into best mates. When Zackie was gone, so was the voice of unity for the greek LGBT++++... activist world. Her complex approaches to politics are implied (and occasionally quoted) throughout the whole opera.
Dana: Can the voice of Logic — which appears as a goddess in your film — be found on social media? Can one say that it is formed more easily, en masse and quicker through social media or is it exactly the opposite after all?
Fil: Social media came with a promise of the democratisation of the spread of information, a giving up of the middle man, a more direct form of communication. It sounded dreamy, ca. 2010. But does the supposed lack of editorial control mean that logic and/or progress will prevail? Somewhere along the way, we seemed to have forgotten that there is a facebook algorithm whose primary raison d’être is to sell. The algorithm favours influencers/being popular and so we are back to square one: very few people being the transmitters of information. And more dangerously so, because it is all supposedly more open than e.g. buying a newspaper. Feeding a culture of like-hunting, in reality, social media gradually built dangerous populist mass psychology tendencies. And we are now at the lowest point politically, when even important emancipation movements have ended up canceling machines, engaging 24/7 in turf wars and bullying/mobbing each other.
Foivos: In our opera, Logic represents Reason — the objective and timeless. But I would suggest that the ‘logic’ we encounter on social media and that was described above is more of what we would call ‘common sense’ (κοινή λογική), some sort of lowest-common-denominator set of beliefs, notions that the majority of people agree with. The problem with common sense is that the majorities are not always right even when they can impose their norms. But do we think there should be a higher form of pure, ‘objective’ logic that overruns ‘subjective’ common sense? First of all, any claim of objectivity has us suspicious, and secondly, we know that historically, reason has emerged as an ideal that excluded certain subjectivities (namely women and colonised/racialised others). But when it comes to discussing greek nationalism there are times we wish there was indeed a Goddess of Logic. The level of mythologising is so intense it’s too post-modern even for us to navigate.
Dana: The work was originally intended to be a live show (ORFEAS2020), but you turned it into a film in the end (ORFEAS2021). How is the film different to the live version? Could they both happen in the end, when the Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted?
Fil: The original live opera was actually something quite small, created within the constraints of the stage that was available to us then. Then Covid came and we couldn’t present the work live. At the time, it felt extremely tragic, but in the end turning the opera into a film was actually a gift. Working more independently and with much fewer practical limitations, the film is a much more accomplished version of the work. Apart from the fact that we were more at ease with the medium (I myself teach film for nearly 20 years), film gave us the possibility to expand the production value with little means. A single cinematic cut can cost thousands when staged for the theatre.
Foivos: From a conceptual point of view, creating a work that deals with notions of populism and political spectacles somehow makes more sense as a film. It’s a common place in 20th century’s philosophy that the cinematic screen (becoming television) is the main domain of mass indoctrination. As FYTA, our work is always in some sort of dialogue with the idea of the ‘spectacle’ in the Debordian sense. We are both attracted to its affect and function and try to be critical of it.
Fil: When the idea of making an opera came up, it seemed that it should be a live thing by default. Considering that ORFEAS2021 ended up being such a mixture of media and approaches, I don’t think we would have found an institution to support such a proposal if it started as such. It is too operatic for film institutions and too filmic for opera institutions. But I think this in-between state is one of its strengths and one of the reasons we so much prefer it to the live version. I don’t think that we will stage the work live after the film; If we were to take what the film is now and turn it into a live spectacle, it would be a very large production, a sort of multimedia a-la-Théâtre de Complicité show and that would simply be too expensive/complex to stage for most institutions here.
Foivos: Luckily, this new medium allows the work to travel much more easily. We’ll premiere at the international programme of the Thessaloniki Film Festival in November and hopefully more screenings at film festivals, art institutions and beyond will follow in the next months.
The 62nd Thessalokini Film Festival is taking place from 04-14 November 2021.
For developments in the trial of the case of Zak Kostopoulos’s murder you can follow Zackie Oh Justice Watch.
Elena Akrita ….. Logic
Georgios Iatrou ….. Orfeas
Diamanti Kritsotaki ….. Silvio / OXI
Lito Messini….. v Minister of Utopia / Hellas
Nikos Ziaziaris ….. Minister of Defense and Safety
Stamatis Pakakis ….. Minister of Communication and Information
Antonis Stamopoulos ….. Euri
Mochi Georgiou, Lia Smaragda, Mariza Tsari ….. the Queer Cyber Pirates
Activista, ER Libido, YOTA5, Veronique Tromokratisch, Metatheodosia ….. Queer Performers
Fil Ieropoulos ….. Direction / Editing
Andriana Minou & Foivos Dousos ….. Libretto / Script
Alexandros Drosos & Iason Marmaras ….. Musical Transcription
Andriana Minou, Alexandros Drosos & Fil Ieropoulos….. Original Compositions
Mihalis Gkatzogias….. Director of Photography
Alex Dimitriou….. Head of Production
Petros Touloudis….. Art Direction & Space Design
Anthi Kougia….. Associate Director
Elizabeth Petrou….. Makeup & Prosthetics
Christos Tziogkas & Mihalis Gkatzogias….. Lighting
Margarita Athanasiou….. Animations