New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Under the potent stage direction of acclaimed Greek-born director Eugenia Arsenis, El Cimarrón, an opera about a runaway slave by Hans Werner Henze staged at Symphony Space on January 16 and 17 was highly charged, compelling, and–as it should be—upsetting in its revelations of the terrible injustices suffered by black slaves at the hands of slave hunters, plantation owners, terrorists and even other runaways in Cuba.
This true story that recounts Esteban Montejo’s extreme life experiences from early childhood through adulthood (he lived to 113) as told to Miguel Barnet, Cimarrón is sung and spoken by one character, Montejo, played by Eric McKeever, and given graphic power by Julia Noulin-Merat’s color-slashed scene design, as well as acoustic power by three musicians playing a huge variety of Instruments, including electronic.
The opera ended with an optimistic, constructive epilogue, The Alchemy of Memory, in which Montejo reflects on the importance and responsibility of sharing one’s experience in order to teach lessons for future generations.
bringing a standing ovation from the full-house audience as Eugenia Arsenis, looking like one of the mermaids El Cimarrón describes in the opera, slender in a barebacked, long iridescent blue-green gown, blond hair waving to mid-back, rushed to the stage to embrace and congratulate McKeever. When she appeared, the standing ovation wouldn’t stop.
An interview with Ms. Arsenis confirmed what the GN had perceived at the performance of El Cimarrón: a joyous dedication to her audience and complete immersion in her work.
GN: How did you meet Miguel Barnet? How long were you working with him on El Cimarrón?
EA: Back in 2005, I was directing El Cimarrón for the Greek National Opera. Apart from directing, I was also asked by the conductor Theodore Antoniou to translate it into Greek and adapt it to the music. As part of my research on the piece, I read thoroughly the book on which the opera was based; it was The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by the ethnologist Miguel Barnet. I was fascinated by the true story, really touched by the character, and I tried to contact the writer in Cuba. After several telephone conversations, which were very interesting, we decided to meet. “You were so passionate on the phone that I felt there was something true there,” Miguel Barnet told me when we first met in Paris. Miguel, through Esteban’s narration, gradually became part of his life, and now, through Miguel’s descriptions, I was meeting his personal hero, who by then had become also mine… Both of them.
GN: How old were you when your thoughts turned to becoming a director?
EA: From my early childhood, I was involved in the arts. I started ballet at the age of four and piano and music theory at the age of five. During my school years, I was a student who was receiving many scholarships and awards, focusing on maths, and everybody thought I would follow the field of sciences. Yet I decided to go to London to study theater. It was a conscious decision, as I knew that what I truly wanted was a journey through philosophy, theater and music. I didn’t know whether I wanted to become a director but I knew that I wanted to discover theater in depth. Early in my university studies I realized that the overall vision of the performance was very important to me, and “directing” became my main focus.
GN: And you pursued music, as well. You were honored at the Antikenfestpiele in Trier, Germany, for your performance Mendelssohn’s Antigone, at the Royal Albert Hall
EA: I was trained over fourteen years in the theory and the performance of music. In addition to theater directing and dramaturgy of plays and texts. I have composed music for theater and libretti for operas.
GN: What is the driving force in your work?
EA: The driving force is the vision.
GN: What goes into your vision?
EA: The vision is formed by the way you relate yourself to the work… the starting point is always the research and the thorough study of the work. Then, inspiration comes. It is the music–when it comes to opera–and good collaborators in every work.
GN: What have been your influences as a director?
EA: Music: from Verdi and Mozart to Weill and Cohen; philosophy: especially Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; theater: Brecht, Beckett, Tennessee Williams and many others; cinema: especially Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, Tarkovsky, René, and Rohmer, and also poetry and other arts, as well as mathematics, for the construction of my thought.
GN: Was your family involved in the arts?
EA: My beloved aunt, Kitty Arsenis, an actress of the National Theatre of Greece, who passed away very recently, was a very important figure to me, also for her political struggle against the Greek dictatorship. Moreover, my uncle was the first theater historian in Greece, and my aunt a translator of poetry. Most members of my family are related to the arts, and if not by profession–as most of them are in the sciences–they play musical instruments, sing, and are theater and film lovers.
GN: Did your family encourage your involvement in the arts?
EA: I have memories from my very early childhood of my parents taking me to the Herod Atticus Odeon [a stone theater that dominates the western end on the south slope of the Acropolis] for concerts and performances and, a few years later, memories of my uncle, a mathematician, who introduced me to European film festivals and tributes.
GN: Have you been involved in any other art forms?
EA: I do admire all forms of art. I studied theater, opera and film directing, as I wanted to have an overall understanding of the art of directing. Apart from opera–which I often choose due to my relationship to music–and theater. I have directed cultural events, films, and documentaries. In the last few years, I went back to dance again, more intensively. I also choreograph the performances I direct.
GN: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
EA: I was born in Athens and lived there until the age of 18. Then I moved to London, where I stayed for almost ten years. While in England, I started also directing at the Greek National Opera and few years later I began my collaborations in the States, which have become frequent during the past 6 years.
GN: Do you know what your next project will be?
EA: In a few days I am going to London to discuss a new project and then to Brussels to organize another work in the fall.
GN: What would your dream project be?
EA: My dream project is great collaborators, good working conditions, time for development, and smiles during the rehearsals! Most of the times I manage to experience all of these and this is what brings a good result.
Ms. Arsenis has collaborated with international cultural organizations: Royal Albert Hall, San Francisco Opera Center, Center for Contemporary Opera, Skylight Music Theatre, Oakland Metro Opera House, Greek National Opera, Megaron Athens Concert Hall, and other prestigious venues.
Her impressive and lengthy biography edited for brevity: Ms. Arsenis has taught Directing and Opera at universities in Greece, has collaborated with National Greek Television as a director, scriptwriter, and cultural advisor for documentaries, and has participated in a number of conferences as a panelist or lecturer.
Ms. Arsenis studied Dramaturgy and Directing at the Department of Drama, Theatre and Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London where she went on earn her doctorate in Philosophical Aesthetics, Opera and Greek Tragedy. She also studied Film Directing at the New York Film Academy and was Visiting Researcher at the School of Music of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University for Musical Analysis and Opera Directing.