Orfeas2021: FYTA’s sci-fi video-opera, mines the past to examine the present

GreeceGreece FYTA – Orfeas2021: Soloists, chorus & orchestra / Iason Marmaras & Panos Iliopoulos (musical preparation & harpsichord). Greek National Opera, Athens, 2021. (RP)

Georgios Iatrou as Orpheus

Direction / Editing – Fil Ieropoulos
Libretto / Script – Andriana Minou & Foivos Dousos
Musical transcription – Alexandros Drosos & Iason Marmaras
Original compositions – Andriana Minou, Alexandros Drosos & Fil Ieropoulos
Director of photography – Mihalis Gkatzogias
Art direction & Space design – Petros Touloudis
Costumes – Daglara
Makeup & Prosthetics – Elizabeth Petrou
Lighting – Christos Tziogkas & Mihalis Gkatzogias
Color grading – Dimitris Manoussiaki
Animations – Margarita Athanasiou

Logic – Elena Akrita
Orfeas – Georgios Iatrou
Silvio / Oxi – Diamanti Kritsotaki
Minister of Utopia / Hellas – Lito Messini
Minister of Defense and Safety – Nikos Ziaziaris
Minister of Communication and Information – Stamatis Pakakis
Euri – Antonis Stamopoulos
Poet-Guard – Lambros Tsagkas
Queer Cyber Pirates – Mochi Georgiou, Lia Smaragda, Mariza Tsari
Ghosts of History – Lia Smaragda, Mochi Georgiou, Mariza Tsari, Nikos Ziaziaris, Stamatis Pakakis
Postlude Performers – ActiVista, Alexandros Drosos, Anthi Kougia, Yota5, ER Libido, Lia Smaragda, Mariza Tsari, Metatheodosia, Mochi Georgiou, Veronique Tromokratisch, FYTA

There is a lot to unpack in Orfeas2021, FYTA’s reimagining of the Orpheus myth based on Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo. Originally commissioned as a small-scale work for the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera, the opera was never presented due to the pandemic. The sci-fi video-opera is not only a provocative, timely adaption of the ancient myth, but also a powerful commentary on contemporary Greek society. FYTA takes aim at Greece, but the story is universal and more relevant than ever.

Foivos Dousos and Fil Ieropoulos are FYTA (Greek: ΦΥΤΑ, meaning plants), an Athens-based conceptual art and performance duo. In their work, they explore topics such as over-identification, queer politics and anti-humanist art through a multidisciplinary approach involving various forms of media. Film is FYTA’s natural métier but, as evidenced in Orfeas2021, they have an exceptional feel for how music, especially the human voice, expresses emotion.

In Orfeas2021, Orpheus, portrayed by the fine lyric baritone Georgios Iatrou, is the first openly gay prime minister of Greece. His political success, at least in his mind’s eye, is linked to his eloquence and logic. Although not blind to homophobic undercurrents in the alt-right and other elements of Greek society, Orpheus is of the belief that reason will prevail. He and his supporters are shocked to discover that the LGBTQ+ radical fringe and others do not share his optimism or his misplaced admiration for Northern Europe’s more enlightened ways and exalted place in history.

Lito Messini as Hellas

Orpheus, however, is flush with success after pushing same sex-marriage through the Greek parliament (civil unions have been legally recognized in Greece since 2015, but not marriage), and he now intends to marry his lover, Euri. Before the wedding can take place, Euri is murdered. As in the myth, Orpheus’s eloquent, heart-wrenching pleas move the gods to restore Euri to him on one condition: there will be no wedding, which they deem an affront to Greece’s culture and traditions. However, Euri, finely etched dramatically and vocally by Antonis Stamopoulos, has no desire to be restored to life, certain that he will suffer the same fate.

The twist in the plot involving Euri (in the myth Eurydice dies a natural death) was inspired by the brutal murder in 2018 of Zak Kostopoulos, a 33-year-old LGBTQ+ activist and drag queen performing under the stage name Zackie Oh. Initial reports claimed that Kostopoulos had been armed with a knife and was trying to rob a jewelry store, which eye-witness accounts and video footage from the crime scene contradicted. After a botched police investigation, Kostopoulos’s murder received global attention, and charges were ultimately brought against the two shop owners and four policemen. In November 2021, the case proceeded to trial, but it was halted due to public health concerns.

The most fanciful and subversive change to the myth, however, was the transformation of Hades, the mythical Greek underworld, to the Museum of Supernatural History. The museum is the repository of Greek’s national myths: mass illusions of grandeur frozen in time and cast in marble that no one dares to challenge. Logic, the disembodied head of writer and actress Elena Akrita, has been Orpheus’s constant companion in his political rise, but cannot accompany him into the museum: whoever enters must leave all reason behind.

A Poet-Guard, the richly detailed creation of veteran Greek actor Lambros Tsagkas, serves as the gatekeeper to the museum. Orpheus prevails with impassioned arguments that although history is written in blood and set in stone, mortals are able to change its course. He points to the triumphs and tragedies of the past decades – the Stonewall Uprising; the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco; the mobilization of the LGBTQ+ community to combat HIV/AIDS; and the global celebration of Pride – as proof that history can and is correcting itself.

The museum is the realm of Hellas (the ancient Greek name for Greece) and Oxi (which literally translates to ‘no’, but also resonates with Greeks as a reference to Prime Minster Ioannis Metaxas’s refusal to let Italian troops enter Greece in 1940). The haughty, high-camp Hellas, deliciously acted and sung by Lito Messini, is the Goddess of the Great Greek Absurdity, Sunny Beaches, Delusional Superiority and National Superstitions, who holds the threads of Greek history in her hands, weaving them as she wishes.

The arresting mezzo-soprano Diamanti Kritsotaki is the other worldly Oxi, the Spirit of Negation and Resistance and Never Surrender to the Imperial and Fiscal Powers of Northern Europe. The god appears to bear the scars of frequent combat in the cultural wars from which he and Hellas have emerged victorious (in war, if not love). Oxi is one of Kritsotaki’s two remarkable creations in the film. The other is Silvio, Euri’s friend, who brings the news of his murder to Orpheus.

In the myth there are only two worlds, the land of the living and the underworld. There are at least four different domains in Orfeas2021, each with its own distinctive musical environment. Traditionalist opera goers will find safe haven in the exceptionally moving and polished singing of Georgios Iatrou and Diamanti Kritsotaki; as well as a stylish performance of Monteverdi’s score as adapted by Alexandros Drosos and Iason Marmaras and played by a consort of Baroque instruments led by Marmaras and Panos Iliopoulos.

Logic is given voice in a digitally manipulated retro-futurist sound. Electronic music with amplified instruments and voices is heard in the Museum of Metaphysical History. In the final scenes of the opera, tragedy disintegrates into anarchy in a musical amalgamation of styles ranging from classical and pop to noise.

Provocation, not coherency, is the guiding artistic spirit of Orfeas2021, where the visual juxtapositions are as jarring as the musical ones. A surreal mix of the ancient, contemporary and absurd prevail, especially in Elizabeth Petrou’s makeup and prosthetics and the costumes of Nikolaos Tsironis, creator of the fashion brand Daglara. The film environments of Petrus Touloudis and animations of Margarita Athanasiou, especially the fantastic Ghosts of History, are a visually exciting smorgasbord of imagination. The Queer Cyber Pirates, who seek to hijack Orpheus’s political ship, or at least dump a load of reality on it, are captured in stark, gritty reality without any fantasy or glamour.

Orfeas2021 was screened at the Thessaloniki Film Festival and the WIFT Festival Athens in 2021. This spring, the sci-fi video-opera will be presented at The Greek Film Festival in Berlin and at Wicked Queer: Boston’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Future screenings will be at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in September 2022; and at a yet-to-be announced date at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York.

The world is a darker place than it was when FYTA conceived first the opera and then the film. Land war in Europe was inconceivable a month ago, but is now a reality. Liberal values are being put to the test globally. In the US, the murder of George Floyd and the recent passage of a law in the State of Florida that limits teachers from discussing sexual and gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade seems to vindicate the Queer Cyber Pirates’ cynical view of progress. FYTA’s Orpheus is both right and wrong: history is indeed written by the living, but the past is a terrible, heavy burden.

Rick Perdian

For more information on Orfeas2021, click here.

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