For Greek-Australian conductor and composer, George Ellis, there aren’t too many accomplishments that come close to plying his trade at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games – and it’s not hard to understand why as he retells his story on the Ouzo Talk podcast.
With over 112,000 spectators from all over the world packed into Stadium Australia together with some 12,000 performers and 10,000 athletes – not to mention the billions watching from home – the date of 15 September 2000 is seared into the mind of Ellis with good reason. But the moment might never have come to pass were it not for his skill-set, and his Greek heritage.
Ellis – a product of Greek migrants from Alexandria with roots in Smyrna and Constantinople – was the man tasked with leading the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Millennium Choir in what was at the time by far one of the most watched events in history.
“When SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) was looking for a conductor to conduct at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, they wanted somebody who had a working knowledge of the Greek language,” recalls Ellis.
“The Olympic Hymn was written by Greeks and they wrote this piece of music in Greek. So in every Olympic Opening Ceremony, this piece has been performed – more often in Greek than any other language. Sydney wanted to do it in Greek.
“When the call came out to find somebody who had professional orchestral and choral conducting experience and could also speak Greek, SOCOG said; ‘how are we going to find somebody like that?’”
SOCOG would find their man in Ellis.
It would be an appointment that would lead the Sydney-native on a journey of personal discovery, toward a deeper appreciation of his cultural heritage, as well as the Greek language – all as part of his mission to produce not just a memorable, but meaningful performance at the Games.
“The opening lyrics of the Olympic Hymn are; Αρχαίο πνεύμα αθάνατο (archaion pneuma athanato) – ‘ancient spirit immortal’. I know those words, but I took them to my mother and I said, ‘ok, I’ve got a working knowledge of this but you’re an expert. Take me through this – help me understand, I want to drink these lyrics, this text.
“Even just the words Αρχαίο Πνεύμα αθάνατο – I don’t know how I can tell you what the sound of that means. English is a beautiful language when we say ‘ancient spirit immortal’ – that’s fine, they’re lovely words, but when you hear it in Greek, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve got Greek blood or whether they’re just objectively beautiful – it does something to me, just like music does.
“When you listen to music that really moves you emotionally – like even tears running down your face, it’s not too far different to listening to or experiencing the sound of the Greek language. They’re both very, very poetic (and) both very musical. The language is musical and the music is poetic.
“To be here in Sydney in 2000, a little over 100 years after the first modern Olympics – there I was as part of that, but from the Greek angle.
“The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is made up predominantly of Australians, the Millennium Choir – predominantly Greeks. These two bodies working together – symphony orchestra which is really western-based, and Greek words with a choir which is Greek-based – and I’m both of those things. I’ve got the western culture because I was born in a western country but the heritage? It’s Greek.
“We wanted it to be the most magical experience, and on the day, I remember, we started the music – the orchestra started first and I brought in the choir and all I saw was 200 faces, full of expression, brightness, singing their hearts out.
“That’s all to say how fortunate I am that I’ve got these Greek roots. I love Greek culture – I mean I love it over there when I’m in Greece, but I love it over here because it’s not really where the Greek culture is from, but in our lives – in my life – it’s part of the fabric now. It’s just such a beautiful thing.”
Ellis has since gone on to produce a prolific amount of incredible work across a variety of styles and genres, including with his very own George Ellis Orchestra, made up of young and vibrant musicians.
Australians will have the opportunity to see Ellis in action over the coming months as he fuses the music of The Beatles, Elton John, Queen, Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie with classical music.
Ellis will also help celebrate the life of Greece’s most loved composer, Mikis Theodorakis as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney concerts, when he takes the national Greek Festival stage with Dimitris Bassis . The concert presents some of Theodorakis’ most famous works, including The Ballad of the Dead Brother and Zorba. Tickets are now available here.
Friday 6th May – Melbourne Recital Centre
Saturday 7th May – Perth Concert Hall
Sunday 15th May – City Recital Hall, Sydney
Friday 20th May – Adelaide Town Hall
Friday 27th May – Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Images copyright Bourdo Photography