The Russians are coming
Opera may never be the same if an entirely new concept from Moscow takes off.
With our time-poor lifestyles and fractured listening habits, perhaps it is time today to have a rethink of that most venerable of art forms, opera. Maybe all those arcane legendary stories, park-and-bark arias, and clunky acting spread across two long hours, simply have no place in the modern world. If so, one of Russia’s leading opera companies, Novaya Opera, may have a perfect solution. Their approach, which Australian audiences will see for the first time when the Moscow company visits in April, is to eliminate opera plots altogether and compress favourite moments from Puccini, Verdi, Bizet and Mozart into one fast-moving, seamless theatrical presentation.
OperaMania is the name Novaya Opera calls its innovative semi-staged show, and manic it promises to be, in speed, timing and flow of action. Ten solo singers and four dancers from the Russian Imperial Ballet will appear on stage, and an orchestra of 44 musicians behind them, making 60 artists all up on stage. With lightning quick costume changes for each scene, the show will zip through two to five minute excerpts from over a dozen composers.
There has been nothing quite like it in opera. “The thing that excites me is that this is a unique way of presenting opera,” Anthony Steel says. The director of five Adelaide Festivals and three Sydney Festivals brims with enthusiasm as he describes how he helped set up OperaMania’s first Australian tour.
“All those I’ve spoken with about it have got the point immediately,” he says. “All have said this a wonderful way of introducing people to opera. It seems absolutely ideal to me. Some audiences are a little uncertain about sitting through a full-length opera by one composer, so here’s their opportunity. Opera buffs will love it too, not least because, as far as I’m aware, this is the first time a Russian opera company will have visited Australia.”
Steel once brought out half a dozen soloists from the Bolshoi Opera, for Brisbane’s World Expo 88. “But this was far short of having an entire company,” he says. He rates Novaya Opera as one of the very best: “It is a really high quality company, amongst the top four in Russia. They do fascinating things, they have an absolutely wonderful set of singers, and their production values are terrific. They’ve taken this show to many European countries with great success.”
Steel’s connection with Novaya Opera came about because he speaks Russian and happened to meet the company’s tour producer, Gennady Polluck (aka Poleshchuk) on two occasions. “He builds apartment blocks around Moscow and is an amateur in the arts; but he’s exceptionally knowledgeable,” says Steel. This connection in turn led to Steel becoming Novaya Opera’s ‘Australian secretary’ – “that’s what I call myself,” he chuckles.
The brainchild of Valery Raku, Novaya Opera’s resident stage director, OperaMania is a cleverly executed concept, Steel believes: “Raku has made this program up very carefully. One can tell he has put enormous thought into it.”
Raku himself sums up what OperaMania is all about: “This program, made up of an uninterrupted series of excerpts carefully chosen to move between comedy, tragedy and lyricism, is performed by singers and dancers in full costume, against a background of colourful lighting and moving images that illustrate the character of the music, and to the accompaniment of the orchestra. The items are short and flow without pause from one to the next in a fast-moving production that offers a kaleidoscope of many of the best-known and most-loved pieces from opera, ballet and symphonic music and reflects their depth and diversity.”
The production’s speed can be judged from two medleys in each half. The first, comprising Chopin waltzes, Liszt’s Liebestraüme and Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, lasts a mere two minutes. In the second half, a ‘Mozart medley’ consists of movements from his Piano Concerto No. 21, Symphony No. 40, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. It all takes less than three minutes. “It’s an extraordinary list of music, a veritable whirlwind,” says Steel.
Novaya Opera, located a few minutes’ walk from Moscow’s Red Square, dwarfs what we are used to in this country. It is a nearly 800-strong organisation with a roster of 80 soloists, four resident conductors, two orchestras, and a permanent touring arm. Founded in 1991, it just pips the smaller, more experimental Helikon Opera as Moscow’s newest opera company, and it is known for its superlative productions of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, and for the originality of its staging. It also does many concert versions of operas and has created a unique genre of its own – semi-staged composer tribute shows.
Could this be a prelude to bigger things, when we see a Russian company bring a fully staged opera production to Australia? Steel is optimistic: “If OperaMania is a great success, we might see that. Yes, it would be wonderful; but it has to be one step at a time.”
Adelaide Festival Theatre
Thursday, April 4 and Friday, April 5