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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Youthful Opera Disdains Bolshoi




Amid the elegant marble columns and fountains of Moscow's newest theater, hundreds of opera lovers tuck into champagne and caviar and speak glowingly about the performance of "Boris Godunov" they have been watching.


The news may be full of gloom and doom about the collapsing economy, but the message from Moscow's opera houses, theaters and concert halls is, at least for now, a defiant "business as usual."


And nowhere is that message boomed out more sonorously than from the glittering new home of the Novaya Opera company, which opened its doors this autumn after a renovation that took eight years and cost about $35 million.


Director Yevgeny Kolobov's version of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" typically played to a packed house.


As usual in Moscow, spectators ranged from pensioners clutching special discount tickets that cost just five rubles to the well-heeled nouveau riche.


"We are trying to keep ticket prices at pre-crisis levels. We have a duty to provide spiritual nourishment to people, especially in times like this," said director Sergei Lysenko.


For the outside world, the Bolshoi Theater still symbolizes high-brow Russian culture but to Muscovites the torch - in opera, at least - has long since passed to theaters like Novaya Opera and Helikon Opera, both founded in the early 1990s.


"From our very inception we have stood against the concept of culture being dictated by administrators. It is not just by chance that we are as old as democratic Russia," said Lysenko.


Novaya Opera and the Helikon ooze youthful energy and enjoy challenging dusty old ideas of how opera should be performed.


"There is still this notion that Carmen has to wear a long Spanish dress and have a red rose in her mouth," said the Helikon's press officer Tatyana Shekhtman.


The theater's own steamy version of Georges Bizet's famous opera caused a stir in Moscow theatrical circles with its bold eroticism and allusions to drug trafficking.


"The most important thing is freedom of expression. There is no one, fixed way of interpreting great works," said Shekhtman.


The younger theaters are scornful of the Bolshoi, whose Byzantine system of ticket allocation, artificially high prices and staid productions have long deterred many opera fans. "Tourists go to the Bolshoi for the building, the name, but they come to us for the music," said Lysenko.


Both the Helikon and Novaya Opera are funded by the Moscow city government, and back in the early 1990s the Novaya even toyed with the idea of calling itself the Luzhkov theater in a nod of gratitude toward Mayor Yury Luzhkov.


"This is the first operatic theatre to be built in Russia for 200 years," Lysenko said proudly during an interview at the opulent new building in central Moscow's Hermitage Gardens.


The Helikon, whose main hall seats only 220 people, has an intimacy completely lacking in more conventional opera houses. Novaya Opera, which seats 650, also has a friendly, informal atmosphere.


The tiny but popular Helikon, whose iconoclastic artistic director Dmitry Bertman is only 31, is planning trips to France, Austria, Finland and North and South America during the next two seasons. The Helikon has earned a reputation for unorthodox stagings.


"We want to get away from the tradition of keeping the audience and the performers rigidly apart," said Shekhtman.


In its production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" the orchestra sits on the stage while the singers perform down amid the audience. In the 40-minute "Coffee Cantata" by J.S. Bach, performed in the smaller of its two halls, spectators are limited to 25 people. They sit at tables and are served coffee during the performance.