Story by Isabelle Hahn ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – Efthimis Papadopoulos is screaming into a microphone as blue and pink strobe lights pulse over him at the Silver Dollar, a bar at the center of this seacoast city.
It takes a moment to realize that the song is a heavy metal cover of Beyonce’s 2003 pop hit “Crazy In Love.” Papadopoulos, 21, is a classical voice student at the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki. But tonight, with pumping fists and banging head, he’s strayed from his typical performance material, which is more likely to involve practicing bars of Italian opera than the dark screeching he belts on stage.
But the long-haired student said classical music and heavy metal are similar in execution, and only at a place like the conservatory is he able to blend the two to complete his work as an artist in training.
“My love is metal,” said Papadopoulos on a recent Thursday before his lunchtime dance class at the conservatory. It has been a dream since he was a little boy to be a student at a place like this. “I take everything from all these [classical] lessons and apply them to metal. When I was 5 years old, my mom took me to a conservatory. They told me I was too young, so I went outside and cried.”
The State Conservatory of Thessaloniki is the only music institution in Greece that provides advanced music studies for free, courtesy of the Ministry of Culture, and has 435 students ranging in age from 9 to 23. Programs include voice lessons, composition, piano, violin and percussion. Self-described as a cultural-educational institution that guarantees a superior level of music education, the State Conservatory aims to maintain a leading role in the field.
“Music education is quite vital for students,” said Fotini Tzimourti, who is in charge of student education. “Music is now taught in all schools in Greece. In the past it wasn’t. More and more conservatories are sprouting around Greece as well.” But none quite like this.
Founded in 1914 by then-Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki was created to teach European music while supporting and promoting Greek music. It is the only conservatory in Greece that is entirely funded by the Ministry of Culture.
For the last three years, the subsidy received from the ministry was 750,000 euro, or $841,538, each year. And for the last five years, administrators have been trying to shift its designation to an “academy,” which would allows its diplomas to be recognized outside the country as coming from an accredited institution.
While most state-run programs have faced fierce cuts in recent years because of austerity measures to salvage the country’s failed budget, administrators at the 100-year-old school have managed to escape reductions by the Ministry of Culture while preserving the free tuition available to all students there.
First located in an inconspicuous building on Ploutarchou street, the conservatory relocated a half mile away to the historic Ottoman Bank building in 1987 through an initiative by then-Minister of Culture Melina Merkouri. Nestled on the corner of Frangon and Leontos Sofou streets, it is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful structures in Thessaloniki.
Sophia Karakantza, an instructor of voice at the conservatory for three years, has taught for more than 30 years at various schools including the University of Macedonia department of music. Considered a favorite teacher, she jumps onto the stage to show two drama students exactly how she wants them to walk to their places. Dressed in colorful costume pieces, the students follow her every move.
During an hour-long break after the lesson, Karakantza sits on the white marble steps of the conservatory entrance, finishing her afternoon espresso and cigarette. “I find [teaching] very challenging, very creative. There is an artistic value to teaching [here],” Karakantza said. “You always learn from the students. Communication has to be alive because stage performance is alive.”
The conservatory itself is like a work of art, a sort of monument to neo-Baroque architecture with its high wrought-iron gates and stately pillars. Reconstructed in 1904 by Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli, the building became a symbol of the merchant class. The yard is still adorned with two of the original owner’s statues; one is missing the fingers of her right hand, the result of an organized Bulgarian terrorist attack that destroyed the original Ottoman structure in 1903. The statues are the only remnants of the first building.
Even standing on the steps of the conservatory is an artistic experience all its own. Operatic voices echo into the streets, the call of students who tumble in and out of the building clutching music folders and backpacks filled with books from their regular schools. Some arrive early to lessons and sit on the front steps to eat and chat with their classmates. They are happy to engage with tourists who have come to witness the building and experience the open classrooms.
“We’ll be sitting on the steps taking our break with coffee and cigarettes… watching the confused tourists try to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes people sit and watch the classes. It’s fun because it’s new every day,” said Marianna Erekoglou, a 27-year old percussion student, who takes classes in the morning and then runs out to her afternoon teaching job.
As if on cue, a handful of tourists walks into Karakantza’s class and watches the scene come alive. They witness the instructor and her students reciting lines. Inside is a line-up of chairs that some cautiously claim, as if they are scared to be trespassing on the intimate three-person drama class. It soon becomes evident that the newcomers are welcome. The strangers do the opposite of distracting the actors; they create a small audience to inspire their rehearsal.
The State Conservatory accepts approximately 100 students a year, although that number fluctuates, said Ranja Mountraki, public relations and artistic event manager. Not only is the audition process extremely selective, but each student must re-audition every September to hold a spot, said Erkekoglou – who has been studying at the conservatory for the last 15 years, meaning she has endured 15 auditions.
The audition process is different for each concentration. Vocal students are required to memorize and perform three songs in addition to taking a written examination. Students wishing to study piano must prepare four pieces, including one from Bach and one from the late 18th century Romantic period. The conservatory also has annual tests that include a public performance or concert.
The number of classes a student takes depends on both the level of the incoming student and his or her age. As the levels progress, students take additional specialized classes. They are also required to take basic courses such as music theory, dictation and music history. The sessions run from September to June, and each class lasts about an hour. Students can also take one-on-one lessons from their instructors.
Papadopoulos talks about his first year of classes and the end-of-year exam – his lead performance in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” – as transformative. His hair and scraggly beard emphasized his embodiment of the protagonist, and contribute to classmates still referring to him as the title character. The musical sold out every performance and will have a revival run in November at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall.
“I think [“Jesus Christ Superstar”] was the most powerful experience I’ve had here. It pushed me,” said Papadopoulos, who admitted he has difficulty balancing his passion for music with academics. He has been known to skip classes at the University of Macedonia, where he studies music science and art, to attend his weekly dance class at noon.
Erkekoglou also balances a full schedule. In addition to conservatory classes, she works multiple jobs including teaching music to 4-year olds and African percussion workshops to adults. She spends many hours a week at the conservatory rehearsing because she doesn’t own the instruments she needs. She said she doesn’t know exactly what to pursue when she graduates next year, but is considering musical theater after her experience playing percussion for “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Paraskevi Kadala, 20, has played the violin for 15 years. When she isn’t at the conservatory or practicing, she is pursuing an accounting degree at the University of Macedonia. Professional opportunities for playing the violin are limited, and she is unsure if she will stay in Greece post-graduation. But what she does is fueled by a passion that doesn’t know the practical worry that would compel her to stop what she’s doing in pursuit of something lucrative. So she continues at the conservatory.
“I don’t like accounting. But it is difficult [in Greece] with only [having training] in music,” Kadala said, adding that her instructors at the conservatory make her fall more in love with the violin every day.
While students are pulled in different directions to incorporate the conservatory into their schedules, they talk about the school as a place that gives them great comfort, like a second home.
And after 15 years there, Erkekoglou thinks of her artist peers and instructors as family.
“We spend many hours here,” said Enlekoglou, who greets everyone at the school with a smile and either a hug or a handshake. “The percussion students are my family.”