The 2018 brutal beating and death of activist Zak Kostopoulos aka Zackie Oh in Athens brought homophobia in Greece into the spotlight. The opera film 'ORFEAS2021' examines a political struggle.
In 2018, 33-year-old Zak Kostopoulos, a Greek artist and political activist for HIV-positive people such as himself, was brutally beaten on a street in central Athens and died. Zak, who also went by his drag stage name Zackie Oh, has since become a symbol of the queer community's fight for recognition.
His/her picture is found on murals and street art all over the city with pride parades dedicated to his/her memory. Now, as a trial with those involved in his/her death takes place, a new political opera film "ORFEAS2021" was screened in Athens' Greek Film Archive January 19 and 26th. The post-modern work is the first queer opera in Greece and is dedicated to the memory of Zak/Zackie.
Reworking a myth
The 1607 opera "L'Orfeo" by composer Claudio Monteverdi is a tragedy based on a Greek myth in which a powerful leader, Orpheus, attempts to go to the underworld to bring back his love, Eurydice, who dies suddenly on their wedding day.
Set in a futuristic sci-fi world, "ORFEAS2021" is a dramatic reworking of Monteverdi's original. It's the brainchild of FYTA, the creative duo of Fil Ieropoulos and Foivos Dousos who began working together after meeting in Berlin a decade ago. The opera film re-imagines Orfeas as the first gay prime minister of Greece. He attempts to bring back his love, Euri, and gain recognition for queer people in Greek society.
The experimental work was meant to be staged at the Greek National Opera (GNO), but was transformed into a film after the 2020 pandemic lockdown canceled the performances. In the re-worked film version, singers tell the tale of Orfeas' struggle, while video segments feature queer performers making political statements. Greek society is referred to as a 'museum' in which only select national myths can be displayed. Spoiler alert: a gay love story is not one of them.
An opera set in Berghain
The opera commissioned FYTA at the end of 2017 to produce an opera of their choosing in whichever format they pleased. They had previously put on the queer arts festival, Sound Acts in Athens, making a name for themselves.
"When we announced we were working on a queer opera people were really annoyed. They told us you can't do queer opera" — some people said it was transgressive," explained Ieropoulos during an interview with DW "We were really laughing at this — opera is definitely the campest form of performance, with the exception maybe of ballet."
In 2009, a production of the opera "Rusalka" at the Greek National Opera featured a gay kiss that caused so much outrage, members of the orchestra boycotted the work — even printing flyers stating that the production was inappropriate. "So we knew this was our stage: a place where one kiss is not acceptable," explained Ieropoulos.
The early negative response made the duo want to be as provocative as possible. They set the opera in the Lab.Oratory, the underground gay sex club below Berlin's famous club Berghain. The opera libretto was centered on "transgression and drugs" and was to be "outrageous and funny" according to FYTA.
Giving a voice to Zak/Zackie
"And then they murdered Zackie, who was a collaborator and friend," Ieropoulos said. "As symbol, Zak was important for very many people, but there were only about 50 of us around him in the queer scene — we were like a family."
The setting of the opera changed and it became a politically charged work, with the character Euri representing Zak/Zackie. Unlike Euridice who is silent in Monteverdi's original, FYTA reworked the myth to give Euri a voice and the ultimate political choice in the context of the opera's plot.
"I guess what was important for Zak was that he/she had a drag persona but it was always a political persona," says Ieropoulos. "It was always about actually talking about Greek politics through drag."
Kostopoulos' death occurred in broad daylight on September 21, 2018. In video footage of the incident, the 33-year-old is seen trying to escape from a locked jewelry store while being kicked repeatedly. Police arrived and violently arrested a badly beaten Kostopoulos, who was bleeding on the sidewalk. People sitting at cafes quietly observed the violence as it unfolded. He/she was handcuffed in a way that resuscitation was not possible, according to media reports, and transferred to an ambulance with no pulse. He/she died shortly thereafter.
Being queer in Greece
The violence surrounding the death of Zak/Zackie caught international media attention, shedding light on the deeply ingrained homophobia in Greek culture. Human rights NGO Amnesty International called his/her death a murder and launched a global campaign — the organization pointed to homophobic bias in some of the early Greek media reports about the case. Currently, a trial is taking place in Athens whereby two civilians and four police officers could face up to 10 years in prison.
During the first days of the trial in 2021, Zak/Zackie's brother, Nikos Kostopoulos, stated in his testimony he felt the defendants did not believe Zak deserved to live due to his appearance. Zackie/Zak frequently wore flamboyant clothing and colors, wore makeup and had painted nails.
Although "ORFEAS2021" has been popular with many — it was the first film to be sold out during November's Thessaloniki International Film Festival — the work has been provoking homophobic reactions in the form of hate comments on social media, says Dousos.
"We know there's a lot of homophobia in Greece, we have experienced it as gay people, but what's interesting with this current wave is that in the past we would do our performances and the right wing didn't care." Now, he feels there is more visibility to queer identity and queer politics, which is "something that's happening within the mainstream field." As a result, says Dousos, homophobic factions have become more vocal. "Now there's a much stronger reaction."
FYTA plans to show the film in the queer film section of the Greek Film Festival in Berlin in April and have several screenings in the works, pandemic allowing.