Opera With a Twist of Beet

MT
Shooting Siberian rapids and whipping up the Altai on horseback: Neil McGowan sounds like a National Geographic adventurer, but he has made a successful career in Russia organizing these trips for others and sometimes doing them himself -- with a little opera on the side.

McGowan, 47, is a cheery Londoner and the managing director of The Russia Experience, a tour operator that owns the Trans-Siberian and The Beetroot Backpackers brands.

Having a bachelor's degree with honors in music from the University of London and a few operas already under his belt, McGowan was an offbeat choice to show tourists around Soviet Leningrad. But in the early 1980s, when the British government slashed funding for the arts, McGowan found himself having a hard time producing the operas he had been directing since the age of 19, and he needed work.

"In the good-ol'-bad-ol'-Soviet-ol' days, I got the job for fairly poor reasons," he said. "They [the tour agencies] were short of tour-leaders and they were desperate. ... All you had to do was attend a basic interview, and that was it. They were different times to now!"

After more than two decades working in the region, McGowan is no longer the choice of last resort but a seasoned professional. He has done three Tran-Siberian rail journeys from Moscow to Vladivostok and makes two or three shorter trips on the route every year to check up on contacts and ensure the quality of the route.

"I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Siberia," he said.

After three years working in Leningrad, McGowan was transferred to Boston to a marketing position with EF Educational Tours, a job he stayed with for two years before again moving into freelancing.


John Wendle / MT
Besides tourism, Neil McGowan produces operas, his original line of work.
McGowan spent the next decade in London, eventually setting up The Russia Experience, after some stops and starts.

"We focused on individual travel -- on mountaineering, kayaking, backpacking, but there weren't the numbers," McGowan said.

It was at this point that McGowan dubbed himself a "destination specialist" and focused his efforts on Beetroot Backpackers and Trans-Siberian.

The firm eventually opened a Moscow office in 1997 and in 2000 McGowan moved full-time to Russia's capital.

In the past seven years McGowan has seen his industry, and Russia as a whole, change repeatedly in response to new trends, and he has had to react.

"Moscow reinvents itself every two years," McGowan said. "You've got to go with the flow and ride the punches."

From extreme tours in Siberia, McGowan's firm began to run tour packages with a flair for fun in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Kiev and places in between.

The "flair" included hard-to-arrange tours of such places as Stalin's secret bunker; the "fun" meant group trips to Moscow's legendary discos.

"If one thing didn't work out, Neil would find another," said Yelena Zakhtser, who worked for McGowan as a tour guide for five years. "He always has something new and interesting."

Now, as interest in Moscow has fallen with rising prices, McGowan has again focused on expanding the rail and overland tours of Siberia while still running the city tours in European Russia.

Although he sees Siberia's increased user-friendliness as a long-term trend for Russia's tourist industry, there is little stability at present.

For all of the built-in unpredictability of his professional life, McGowan's involvement in opera has been stable.

"Opera is one of the things that keeps me here on a personal basis," he said of Moscow.

Since moving here in 2000, McGowan has created the Prozrachny Teatr troupe and staged eight shows including "Festival of the Female Voice," "Berlin Decadence," "Bastien and Bastienne" and a modified version of "The Impresario."

The Prozrachny Teatr troupe, a group made up of many of the understudies from the Bolshoi Theater and others, is soon to open Menotti's "The Medium."

Echoing Chekhov, McGowan said, "Tourism is my lawful wife, but opera is my mistress."