The unique challenges of throwing a live music event in one of the world’s oldest venues

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a theatre in Greece’s ancient Acropolis, has stood the test of time with its headline-grabbing music events – but how difficult is it to produce these events from behind the scenes?

Megan Townsend
Thursday 24 June 2021 10:13
<p>John Cleese performing live in 2019</p>

John Cleese performing live in 2019

“We are fully aware that this is a huge benchmark we’ve set here,” comments Theodora Karakassi, one of the organisers behind Athen’s Plissken Festival and the forthcoming Max Cooper AV show at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a nearly 2,000-year-old theatre nestled on the southern slope of Athens’s Acropolis.

Belfast-born audiovisual artist Cooper is set to become the first ever techno act to play in the ancient auditorium after collaborating with institutions such as the Barbican, Zaha Hadid Architects, and Dolby Atmos. “But we are under no illusion here, the monument is the main protagonist in these shows. It will automatically take attention away from any production.”

At 85ft tall the original structure featured a vast roof adorned with ceramic statues, a tiled entrance, elaborate archways – and a markedly Roman curvilinear composition (particularly compared to the nearby Theatre of Dionysus). It held music and theatre events, in particular its ‘music contests’ cut-throat, essential element of the Greek games pitting musician against musician

Though for organisers like Karakassi operating at the Acropolis doesn’t come without its unique challenges: decibel limits, drinks ban, no high-heels, and even a weight limit that has to take into account not only heavy-duty equipment - but people.

But why? Well, the Herodes Atticus hasn’t exactly got a history of being a particularly hardy feature of the larger Acropolis complex. Though many of the iconic structures that make up the Unesco world heritage site were built around 450BC, the Herodes Atticus was constructed much later – between 161-174AD by the Greek-Roman politician of the same name.

Sting performing in 2018

It stood for just 100 years before being left in ruin by invading Herluians in 267AD, losing its roof and much of its 4400-capacity stone seating, existing in a state of decay until the twentieth century.

The site was re-built and restored its intended capacity during the 1940s-50s, initially being home to the Athens State Orchestra and Greek soprano Maria Callas. International interest driven by performances from Frank Sinatra and its hosting of the 1974 Miss World pageant transformed the Herodes Atticus from a cultural landmark into a fully-fledged arena.

‘As a Foo Fighters fan, I never imagined I would be listening to the Best of You in the Acropolis,’ Μaria Thanassoulia notes

It’s featured shows from stars such as Sting, Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, Patti Smith, The Foo Fighters, and Florence and the Machine.

Maria Thanassoulia was part of the team that organised the “Foo Fighters - Landmarks Live” show in 2017 and recognises that though the Herodes Atticus was devised as an optimal location for live music and performance 2,000 years ago – modern logistics can be difficult to navigate around it.

‘Our main challenge is trying to incorporate the character of a show to the venue – the Herodes Arricus will always be the main protagonist so you need something that will achieve equilibrium,’ says organiser Theodora Karakassi

“Even though the acoustics are incredible – because of the design of the space thousands of years ago, the need to control volume and the decibel of the music to protect the marble makes it challenging to hold a rock gig.

“We also had the issue of capacity, this was the first rock band to play in the space but all of Athens wanted to come and see the Foo Fighters – there’s a reason these bands usually play in stadiums, 4,400 is not a lot of people compared to their usual crowds.”

‘It’s a long, long process, To get even the simplest permission for anything concerning production has to go through levels of bureaucracy and tonnes of paperwork. That being said, it’s fulfilling to see first-hand that this monument is being taken care of so well – and by people who respect it and love working for it,’ says Berang

The entirety of the Acropolis is a Unesco world heritage site, which ensures strict procedures must be in place to guarantee the protection of all the structures on-site. Organisers must abide by rules such as allowing the marble to “breathe” between songs and sets or controlling the size of equipment coming in and out of the venue. But much of the hardship on an organisational side – as Berang Emamian Dezfoli, who produced British comedian John Cleese’s 2019 show, observes – comes before the event has even taken place.

“Though the unpredictability of the Athenian weather is a bit of a pain” he laughs. “We experienced this half an hour before doors opened on the John Cleese show – it’s open-air so it’s particularly vulnerable to rainfall. We had a bit of a moment waiting to see if the show could go on.”

There are ‘too many precautions in place to list’, according to the organisers, though there are a few that may seem unusual in comparison to a traditional venue. There are no drinks or refreshments allowed on the site, limitations on the personal items the audience can bring into the arena are in place, there is a list of acceptable metals that can be in the Acropolis and no high-heels to ensure the stone is preserved and left undamaged.

For Cooper, an artist used to the traditional acoustic setting of a club and their single-source sound systems, a decibel limit to protect the fragile ruins of the theatre is an unusual concept: “We’ve had to set up these smaller speakers and we’ve dotted them around the central stage.”

From its vantage point on the southern slope of the Acropolis, it looks over the entirety of Athens. ‘There’s the ‘wall’ of an audience too,’ recalls Dezfoli, the steep stone steps directed in such a way that every audience member has a clear and equal view over proceedings. ‘It’s something to behold whether you’re standing on stage and facing it or you are part of it. Combined with the energy of the historical surroundings it makes it one of the most special venues in the world.’

Cooper will be playing the first ever techno show at the space, a mixed-media offering that will include both music and projected visuals onto the theatre. He credits his exploration of classical genres in convincing the traditionalists at the Acropolis to let him play there: “I do a lot of ambient and post-classical work with pianists and elements that I guess are more palatable from a classical perspective, so I’m sure that helped sneak the bass drums in.”

Cooper has a multitude of experience working with cultural landmarks. Most recently in 2020, he took part in Belfast’s AVA 2020 live stream that saw him decorating the walls of Carlisle Church in the city centre, likewise in 2017 collaborating with Zaha Hadid Architects to create a show on the grounds of Karlsruhe Palace in Germany

“I work with many projectors to use each space itself as the canvas so that the architecture and beauty and history of the space becomes as much a part of the show as my music and visual collaborations. I’m aiming to make a spectacle of the Acropolis.”

Tickets are still available for Max Cooper Live at the Acropolis on the 6th July 2021 here

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