Piraeus Municipal Theater poised for a comeback
By Iota Sykka
The lofty splendor of the historic Piraeus Municipal Theater is impossible to miss despite the protective fencing placed around the building while it undergoes a radical revamp. Even the ugliness of the streets around it -- the traffic, haphazardly parked cars and dry plant beds -- cannot detract from its beauty, although it does make one wonder what the future holds for the theater after its renovation.
The landmark Piraeus Municipal Theater is considered one of the finest examples of 19th-century Greek public architecture. The building was designed by Ioannis Lazarimos and was a very costly project when construction began in 1884 under Piraeus Mayor Aristeidis Skylitsis Omiridis. It was unveiled 11 years later. According to historian Eleni Fessa-Emmanouil, the design is a marriage of Roman, Renaissance and neoclassical architecture that is every bit as grand as its rival in Athens, the Greek National Theater, which was designed by Ernst Schiller and completed just a few years later.
The people of Piraeus are looking forward to its relaunch, believing that it will help revive the city center and push authorities to tackle some of the eyesores around it.
Once inside the venue, however, there is only hope. A light sheen of dust covers the old chandeliers and the marble staircase in the foyer, but it’s easy to imagine them sparkling luxuriously. Renovation works have also brought out all of the ornate details of the ceiling of the hallway, which has also been hung with rich red velvet curtains. Inside the theater itself, the dark red walls and redone boxes face an imposing stage (20.50 meters wide and 30 meters high).
If you pay close attention to the backs of the seats in the second row, you will find etched in them the names of some of the great playwrights whose works have been shown on the stage: Homer, Aristophanes, Menander, Dante, Racine, Moliere and Shakespeare. The theater has also seen some of the country’s best directors and actors walk its boards, though it has also seen its share of cheap pageants and revues.
The theater’s biggest treasures are the two substages hidden beneath the main stage; their original woodwork has been preserved, while a third houses the theater’s mechanical equipment.
The theater is now ready to open its doors to the public once more after a strong earthquake in 1981 shook its foundations to near collapse. However, the municipal authority to which the theater belongs is balking at the cost of its operations, estimated at 1 million euros a year. It appears that while the Ministry of Culture and municipal authorities did manage to find the funding for the renovation, they failed to make any plans for what would happen next.
“We are working closely with the municipality to find a solution that will suit the city and the historical significance of the theater, so that it does not fall victim to squabbling between various unions,” Culture Minister Constantinos Arvanitopoulos said, suggesting that competition between different cultural organizations in Piraeus who would have the main use of the theater could put its future in jeopardy. But he also added that the ministry cannot afford to cover the cost of theater’s operation itself, nor can it justify the cost of setting up a special management body.
One of the options being considered is making the Piraeus Municipal Theater a charitable cultural foundation, which means that it would be able to host performances rather than produce its own. Another is to allow the space to be used for other functions, such as conferences, as well as to make it a historical attraction for school groups and tourists.
Piraeus Mayor Vassilis Michaloliakos insists that he has yet to open the theater not because he expects the ministry to foot the operation bill, but because there is still quite a bit of work to be done, especially in the area surrounding the venue.
Alternate Culture Minister Costas Tzavaras added that private sponsors may be another way forward.
“We are looking into sponsorships, and even into the valuable help of shipowners,” he said. “I can’t believe that Piraeus, a hub of maritime activity for centuries, does not have any people to help with the cost of one of its greatest symbols.”
For the former head of the state body in charge of the renovation of historical monuments, Nikos Harkiolakis, the issue is pressing.
“A solution needs to be found by October because that is when the contract for the company in charge of protecting it over the course of the renovations expires. The municipality could rent out some of the shops surrounding the theater and use that money to hire a private security firm to guard the building and its equipment. We wouldn’t like to see a repetition of what happened with some of the venues for the Olympic Games,” he added, in reference to incidents of looting at unprotected Olympic sites after the 2004 Games.
Nikos Petropoulos, an architect, set designer and opera director, as well as a theater designer, who was one of the technical advisers to the company that undertook the Piraeus theater’s renovation, believes that leaving the building in the hands of the municipal authorities is not a good idea.
“I am afraid of various things happening, including groups of fifth-rate actors demanding that they be ceded the theater,” Petropoulos said.
His suggestion is that for the time being, the theater be used as a tourist attraction, as it is one of just four venues in Europe that still has functioning baroque theater technology. Petropoulos has proposed to the Culture Ministry that it conduct brief tours of the premises, during which visitors will receive a historical explanation of the theater’s special stage mechanism and a demonstration of how it works. He had also suggested in the past that the building house a baroque set design workshop and a library, all moves that could generate revenue for the municipality.
“The venue could be used for specific performances by the National Theater, the National Opera and the Camerata, and it could even become a permanent home for the Orchestra of Colors, which was founded by Manos Hadjidakis,” Petropoulos said. “If it is not put into operation and stays shut, the Piraeus Municipal Theater will be abandoned and sink into disrepair once more. It is time to undo the curse.”