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Access all arias: contemporary Russian opera finds its voice

Access all arias: contemporary Russian opera finds its voice

With a wave of new works in production, Russian contemporary opera is worth making a song about

28 March 2013
Text Anastasia Polozova
Image Maria Ionova-Gribina/Grinberg Agency

The auditorium is pitch black. Although the audience doesn’t yet know it, musicians from the orchestra are sitting silently among them. A fluorescent lamp tracks down from the ceiling. In a flash, it illuminates a silhouette of a car wreck covered by a cloth. What follows is a series of gentle, dreamlike movements reminiscent of a Japanese Butoh dance performance, paired with a plaintive melody. This is the opening of Marevo (Mirage in English), an experimental, one-act contemporary opera that was part of the Golden Mask Festival in Moscow.

The story is simple. There’s been a fatal car crash only minutes before. A family of four awake from their deathly slumber to narrate the events that led up to the accident, talking openly about love, trust, friendship and treachery. The plot may be straightforward but the script, rich with allusions to mythology, religion, metaphysics and film, inspires multiple interpretations. Ultimately, the question the opera poses is whether it is better to know your fate or whether indeed the sum of the series of events is absolutely unpredictable?

“Of all genres, opera seems to me to be the least interesting because of the deadweight of tradition that is so tightly attached to it”

Marevo was first performed in July 2012 at Artspace Arsenal in Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the Volga east of Moscow, before taking to the stage for a second time in the capital last month. It was the first opera from Provmyza, a Nizhny Novgorod-based art collective, and has since been nominated for this year’s Innovation award, Russia’s equivalent of the Turner Prize, in the visual art category. Before Mirage, the two members of Provmyza, Galina Myznikova and Sergey Provorov, had only ever worked with video art and film, a genre that has ensured them a regular slot at festivals around the world, from the Venice Biennale to the International Film Festival in Rotterdam.

For Provorov, despite the difficulties encountered, working in a new artistic sphere provided “the right degree of creative disturbance” and allowed him to reflect upon “the various limits of different kinds of art”. Whether intentional or not, Provmyza’s vast cinematic experience was noticeable to those in the audience. One spectator was reminded of a Lars Von Trier film while another described the opera as a mix of photography, cinema and theatre.

“Of all genres, opera seems to me to be the least interesting because of the deadweight of tradition that is more often than not so tightly attached to it,” says Kirill Shirokov one of the composers of the opera. “So it was the sheer force of contradiction that attracted me to the idea of being one of the composers for Marevo. For me this work is sort of an experiment in projecting abstract ideas connected to pure sound and clear structure on to a surface which seems unable to take them.”

In recent years, contemporary opera has grown in popularity in Russia. Critics are talking of a renaissance period for bold, experimental new works. This year will see the opening of Nosferatu, a contemporary opera composed by Dmitry Kurlyandsky and produced by Jannis Kounellis, the Greek artist who helped found Arte Povera. In 2012 alone, theatre director Vasily Barkhatov produced four new operas written by Russian composers, in collaboration with the Laboratory of Contemporary Opera, which was set up at the behest of the Ministry of Culture to encourage contemporary opera in Russia.

One of the works, Franziskus, by internationally acclaimed composer Sergei Nevsky, premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in September. Two months later, Boris Filanovsky put on Three Four, an opera based on the avant-garde poetry of Lev Rubenstein. The production was staged in the basement of Federation Tower, a yet to be completed skyscraper in Moscow, with projections on the concrete walls and an orchestra seated in a plastic greenhouse. And, due for completion by 2014, are a series of operas written by Vladimir Sorokin, a cult figure in Russian literature.

For contemporary opera in Russia, it seems there’s a lot to sing about.