By Sophia A. Niarchos
Oyster Bay, N.Y. – Like any composer, when George Tsouris first considered “The Iliad” as the basis for a work of music, he faced many questions about the direction it would take. Would the genre be opera, musical or a “mere” song cycle? What language would he use? How much would he alter Homer’s original text?
“I had considered presenting it as more of a musical, with a male-dominated cast,” he recalled. “Musicals in New York, I think, are designed to be more accessible and welcoming, and had I chosen that genre, I would have used English as the language.
“However, at some point, the decision was made to take it further from the accessible, and more towards the esoteric, and so I moved more in the direction of opera. The choice to go in the direction of opera, especially modern opera, gave me more liberty in considering the language for the work,” he explained, noting the philosophical and practical factors that led to his choosing ancient Greek; namely, the comprehensibility of European languages when juxtaposed with English, his intent to present the poem as essentially universal, and an exploration of the reasons behind his wanting to present the poem..
To decide on the language, Tsouris considered his experience with operas sung in English and his Italian friends’ experience of operas sung in Italian: neither he nor his friends could completely understand the operas in languages with which they otherwise had no problem.
“Given these considerations, I did not feel a particular need to use English at all,” he explained.
As for his intent to convey the universality of the poem, Tsouris thought about using “several languages at the same time,” taking the opera “in an even more esoteric direction.”
However, through further exploration of his reasons for creating the work, which included a desire “to elevate, or to present the story as on the same level, culturally, as religion, Tsouris found ancient Greek to be the best linguistic tool.
The music used in Ektor extends the natural rhythms of the ancient Greek language with formulas reminiscent of Byzantine chant, while maintaining a modern awareness.
“I recognized I was combining what is essentially religious music with something secular and – perhaps even worse – pagan. I then thought more about the religious experience, and specifically, my religious experiences in youth. I do not speak Greek with any sort of competence. That had an impact on my religious experience, and my experience with the Greek language. When I went to church, the whole of the liturgy was typically performed in Greek, with the exception of the sermon, and, if my memory serves, the recitation of the Nicene Creed. This, along with other elements of being inside the church, contributed significantly to the experience. Church was a magical place, and distinctly different from the outside world. It was other-worldly, in ways that I could not understand. As a child, I imagined that they were speaking the language of heaven. This feeling about the Greek language was compounded by the fact that my father would speak Greek with his friends and my aunt, who were all older than me, and at that age I supposed, superior. From my viewpoint as a child, Greek was the language above.”
A Catholic secondary education, combined with the requisite Catholic Mass, further influenced the composer-to-be.
“This mass, thanks to developments of Vatican II, was spoken in English. That helped me think that the mass was ordinary, common, and lacking of any magic, or heavenly qualities that I saw in my Greek church. Now, as an adult, I can see that Greek is an ordinary language, and that the magic and other-worldliness that I ascribed to it is not really there.”
Another contributing factor to the choice of ancient Greek for the opera was its potential to remain foreign (aka “otherworldly”) for all audiences.
“If Ektor were in Modern Greek, it would be foreign to several spectators here in New York, but not at all foreign to others. And if it were performed in Greece, then there would be none of that foreign magic at all. It was at this point that I decided that the opera should be in ancient Greek, a language that is foreign to everyone, and hopefully lends some element of magic that I have for the story, the poem, and the language.”
When asked whether he had experienced concern that he wouldn’t find singers to sing in ancient Greek, Tsouris replied, “In recent years operas have been performed in Sanskrit, Czech, Russian and other languages that are not spoken by the singers, so it never bothered me much. I assumed that they were already accustomed to singing roles in languages in which they were not completely fluent. I told the singers from the beginning that Ancient Greek was the language to be sung, and I asked them if it would be a problem. I accepted their word as truth.”
While he acknowledges the possibility that some people will have the impression that his work on the production led him into a direction away from accessibility, he also maintains that this “is not entirely accurate.”
“When faced with a problem, I thought long and hard about it, consulted several experienced and supportive people, and with each question, decided to go in a direction that best addressed what I wanted to accomplish. I cannot expect that it will appeal to everyone, but I have gotten closer to answering questions that I have asked myself; and it is a work that I am happy with. Perhaps other people have asked themselves similar questions, or perhaps people will see something that I did not initially see. And so, I hope that Ektor lends itself to opening discussion.”
Mr. Tsouris is especially grateful to the performers, singers and conductor Ramon Catalan who have shared their experience and insights and given him much-needed support in this, his first opera production. He seeks additional assistance, especially sources of funding, so that he can continue to compose and present his and others’ operas, including “Constantine XI,” which he has already begun. Tsouris can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.