I met Nikos Petropoulos at the “Maria Callas” Auditorium at the Greek National Opera where he was directing Verdi’s “Traviata”. With his assistant Fausta Mazzuchelli they were presiding over the detailed setting up of Violetta’s dinner table. Even though the set was not lighted properly one could still feel its reality, and from every angle one could see a different view point of the set.
How did you start your career in the field of the Theatre Mr. Petropoulos?
When I was still at high school there came a time to have a talk with my father who was a diplomat about my future. He asked me what I planned to study. I said that I wanted to be a scenographer. He looked at me, shook his head and said “All right we’ll talk again sometime”. When I was finishing school he asked me again if I remembered our previous discussion on the matter, and asked me the same question again. I replied that I wanted to study scenography and architecture. “Oh I see…” he said “you want to be a builder and a painter”. He told me that since I insist so much I should go and study in Rome, he really had a wide aspect on things; let’s not forget we are still in the 60’s.
So I went to Rome and studied at the School of Fine Arts. I finished in 1970, and in 1971 I started my Thesis on the “Russian Baroque” with professor Gucci, and after its completion, I returned to Athens with a suitcase full of designs, and started job hunting.
What was your first work as a set designer once you returned to Greece?
My first commission as a set designer in Greece was Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” with the Northern State Theatre, and it’s New Stage, which was founded by George Kitsopoulos, I designed Karra’s “The Companion”. One day I receive a phone call from my mother who informed me that at the New Stage of the Athens State Theatre there was an interest for young set designers who are called to submit their ideas. I asked my mother to send them my designs for “Macbeth”. A few days later I receive a call from Takis Mouzenides who asked me to design the sets for the opening play of the 1972 season, O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”. In parallel I designed the sets for “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci” for the Greek National Opera. That was the start of my career..
So the Theatre in fact and not the opera was your first love…
The opera won me over however..after all we were musically inclined in my family, we listened to Wagner mostly, and of course if you don’t know music well you can not work on the opera, it is better to do other things otherwise.
But you directed opera quite later however..
I worked with many Directors in my life sometimes successfully sometimes not. I decided however to direct by myself so that I can have the responsibility entirely on my head, as far as the results go, no matter good or bad. What we do is offered to the public for criticism and therefore we must accept good and bad criticism.
I must tell you at this point that the person who prompted me to direct and threw me in deep waters so to speak, was Mr Christos Lambrakis, when he asked me to direct and design Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”. The opera’s that succeed it proved that they were successful, and already “La Traviata” and “Andrea Chenier” will be presented abroad. It’s one man’s work, as the saying goes..
Following your career one will notice your preference for a classical approach rather then a modern one. Why is that?
I think that to be conservative in your approach is in fact very avant-garde. We must try to follow the composer’s wishes because his work is not ours to dispose of as we wish. As Callas once said, music will tell you what happens onstage. I condone a modernist approach as long as it does not clash with the spirit of the work. For instance in “Andrea Chenier” the composer wanted the heroes to be lead to a guillotine onstage, a solution that looked to me dramatically weak, so I opted for a carriage that leads them offstage towards their imminent death, much more effective, but I did not use an electric chair.
In “Traviata” I use during the prelude of the last act, a sort of pantomime which depicts the doctor’s visit, which is not in the opera itself, but it is suggested by the music. Opera has no need for extra trimmings you know, I don’t like to watch “Nabucco” for instance mounted on a modern armament, which is cheap. To create effects in opera is easy, but to be faithful to the music and the spirit of the composer quite difficult. It is important to know well your trade and it’s secrets, that is why a scenery designer must study many years, they are quite hard you know, and last for five years. You can not just become a scenic designer because you just want to, you must study hard. The problem is that today, many scenographers do not “look” or study, and what is even worst is those who “look” but do not understand what they “look” at.
What is to follow after “Traviata” at the Greek National Opera?
As far as directing goes, “Traviata” will be followed by “Lucia di Lamermoor” at the Athens Megaron, the “Assedio di Corinto” in the ancient site of Corinth, a project that requires a lot of work, and then “I Vespri Siciliani” also at the Megaron, and of course the overlooking of the construction of the Megaron that will be built at Sparta.
What I would wish for the future however, is to find one or two talented people so I can transmit to them my experiences and help them to become good scenographers since there is no such school here in Greece. I have already discovered a very talented person who is studying abroad for the moment, and who I hope will follow my steps.
From an interview given to Alexis Spanides and published at the “HIGHLITES” Magazine.