Culture & Traditions

Ohrid: Summer Cultural Hotspot

Ohrid is a Macedonian gem. Not only is it one of our most ancient towns, but it also has a richest cultural heritage, both ecclesiastical and civic. However, Ohrid would be just a skeleton of ancient civilizations and a tourist ephemeron if it were not for its top cultural event, the Ohrid Summer festival that takes place every year from 12 July to 20 August. In 2010 the Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary. This year the festival will open with the Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy performed by the Spanish theatre group La Fura dels Baus from Barcelona.

A historic venue

The Ohrid Summer (Ohridsko leto) festival was established in 1961. Then, the Macedonian prima-donna Ana Lipsa Tofovic held its inaugural concert on 4 August. Performing works of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Gluck, she and her accompanist Ladislav Perldic discovered the remarkable acoustics of the St. Sophia Cathedral. This 11th-century church of a unique architecture and with original frescos is one of the most precious Ohrid monuments. The idea to use it as a musical venue was enthusiastically supported by Ohrid citizens and musicians.

As Milka Eftimova, the most famous Macedonian soprano, Martina Arroyo, soprano from the USA, Vladimir Ruzgak, Croatian baritone, and many others held their concerts in the church during the early years of the festival, a firm connection between the mythical church of St. Sophia and vocal music was established.  Later, the cathedral welcomed chamber performers, such as the world famous Golden Gate and Julliard quartets, and the Slovenian octet.

In 1964 Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” became the first theatre play to be performed at the cathedral.  Three years later St. Sophia for the first time became the setting for a ballet: it was “The Ohrid Legend” by Stevan Hristic; and in 1971 the first opera, “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell, was staged there.

Musical program

Ohrid Summer established its reputation by hosting the most renowned artists in the zenith of their careers. Such were the concerts of the Russian violinist Leonid Kogan and French cellist Andre Navarra. Their connection with the festival was more intimate than that of a usual guest star performer:  they also offered master classes and participated in the seminars of the supplementary programs.

During the 1970s and 1980s which were also the best decades in the Yugoslav history, the festival’s popularity peaked. The list of the great masters performing at the festival included Gidon Kremer, Salvatore Accardo, Aldo Ciccolini, Ivo Pogorelic and Viktor Tretyakov. In accordance with the general principles of the Yugoslav foreign policy, artists from both sides of the Iron Curtain were welcome in Ohrid. Virtuosi di Roma and the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Munich chamber orchestra and Vienna Children’s Choir performed alongside Madrigal Choir from Bucharest and Glinka String Quartet from Leningrad.

Theatre program

After the festival established its reputation in the musical field, its organizers decided to expand into another prestigious field of art – the theatre. The initiative came from Macedonian directors who had discovered the beauty and adaptability for the theatre of the Ohrid public spaces.  In drama,, as in music, the development of the festival was enormous. Whereas initially only Macedonian theatres presented their best plays from the regular repertoire, within a few years Ohrid Summer became a meeting place for companies from all over Yugoslavia and their performances included a number of premiers. Gradually the theatre program became a really prestigious international event. Modern and contemporary as well as classical texts have been staged at St. Sophia, Dolni Saraj and Saraishte. The grandest ambient spectacles were staged at the ancient sites of Plaoshnik, St. Naum and in the legendary Samoilo fortress.

Organization of the festival

As Ohrid Summer grew and matured the organizers fixed regular dates for the festival. Since 1974 it always starts on 12 July and lasts until 20 August. Another important year in the Festival’s history is 1994 when it became a member of the European Festival Association. The inclusion of the Ohrid Summer into the European family of festivals proved that it meets the highest organizational as well as artistic criteria and gave its organizers many new possibilities for networking and cooperation that strategically strengthened its programs.

The President of the Republic of Macedonia is the patron of the festival that is financed primarily by the Ministry of Culture. In the past years as the program became more expensive, a co-financing model of sponsorship called Club of the Friends of the Festival was established. Many successful companies and business persons are members of this Club.

The newest and grandest venue

In the year 2000, one archeological achievement gave an incredible impetus to the festival. Ohrid’s antique theatre was fully excavated, restored and conserved. This ancient theatre used for gladiator fights in Roman times looked as if it were created for the open-air cultural spectacles two millennia later. It was reopened in 2001 with a stunning drama project of the Macedonian director Ivan Popovski, who had established a tremendous career on Russian classical stages. In the framework of the celebrations of the two millennia of Christianity, his play “Macedoine” devoted to the Macedonian nation was a historical and aesthetical mosaic with a unique artistic vision. The over 3000-seats theatre was full. The residents of the streets surrounding streets got a unique business opportunity in the field of culture. They rented their terraces and balconies as exclusive boxes.

In the recent years the amphitheatre has been reserved for the gala opening of the festival on 12 July, which falls on one of  Macedonia’s most celebrated saints’ days, St. Peter’s. This unique venue has accommodated performances by the stars of Russian opera and ballet, the famous Spanish tenor Jose Carreras and a show of Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest film composers of the 20th century.

Ohrid Summer in names and numbers

During the five decades of its history many international artists have performed at the festival: Zubin Mehta, Jose Carreras, Ennio Morricone, Elena Obraztsova, Katia Ricciarelli, Jessye Norman, Maxim Vengerov, Mstislav Rostropovich.

The annals of the Festival contain records of major musical achievements by Macedonian composers, such as: “John Chrysostom’s Liturgy” by Atanas Badev, oratorios “Protector of the People” and “Klimentu” by Vlastimir Nikoloski, opera “Czar Samuel” by Kiril Makedonski, oratorios “Ilinden” by Mihailo Nikolovski and “Ohrid” by Dimitri Buzaroski, and “Macedonian Tale” ballet by Gligor Smokvarski.

Roughly 50 theatre companies have performed approximately 300 plays, adaptations, and monodramas on more than 15 stages in Ohrid. The most popular author of Ohrid Summers is Shakespeare, with 18 staged titles. Next come the local Macedonian authors, such as Goran Stefanovski and Jordan Plevnes. The festival has also hosted the performances of the most important classical dramas by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Plato, as well as the alluring comedies by Moliere and Goldoni, and the works of modern classics, such as Brecht and Beckett.

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