Magnificence Meets Modernity: Bolshoi Rebirth Has Traditionalists Up in Arms

By Susanne Beyer and

Part 3: Risky Innovation

Photo Gallery: The Reopening of the Bolshoi Theater Photos
AP

In the past, it was grateful guests who came to the Bolshoi to marvel at the dancers. They were happy to be able to score tickets just few times in their lives. Today, the audiences consist mainly of tourists, for whom visiting the Bolshoi is just another item to check off their list of must-see places. Soon, the die-hard theater fans will also be coming arriving and comparing its productions to those of theaters in Paris. But they will have a hard time coming out on top with just "Swan Lake," the Bolshoi's trademark production in the past.

Experiments are both wanted and controversial in all European theaters, but innovation goes against the grain of Russia's artistic self-image. For too long, the arts were dominated by Socialist realism, in which experiments were seen as "decadent" and "Western." Tradition was in demand, and that meant Russian opera and classical ballet.

But that will now change at the Bolshoi. "Theater is not a museum," General Director Iksanov says, "but a living being." He is announcing changes, but even when the Bolshoi staged a few modern productions in years past, Moscow's papers were quick to run cover stories with the heading: "Scandal!"

In 2006, the young Russian opera director Dmitry Chernyakov directed Peter Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin," which is based on the famous verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. It was first performed at the Bolshoi in 1881 and has been a favorite ever since.

The opera is considered part of the canon of Russia's artworks. But Chernyakov brought a modernized version of "Onegin" to the Bolshoi's temporary stage that didn't include a key scene: the duel. An "Onegin" without a duel? It was unheard of.

The Prima Donna Assoluta

One person was particularly outraged: Galina Vishnevskaya. A world-famous soprano, she had been the prima donna assoluta at the Bolshoi for 22 years, from 1952 to 1974. She is also the widow of Mstislav Rostropovich, who is considered one of the most important cellists of all time.

When Vishnevskaya saw the new "Onegin," she left the theater in a rage and wrote an open letter, stating that she would never set foot in the Bolshoi again.

Today, Vishnevskaya runs an opera school that wealthy patrons built for her a few years ago in the neoclassical style. The singer, now 84, is sitting in a leather armchair in one of the practice rooms. In the old photos behind her, she looks like a young Liz Taylor. She still keeps her hair black today, and she has a friendly look in her pale eyes.

She is full of interesting stories about her early years at the Bolshoi: about how pleased she was when Stalin died in 1953 and she would no longer have to sing in front of him; about how she met Rostropovich and married him four days later; about how the couple befriended Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and let him take refuge in their dacha for five years, though not without the knowledge of the authorities; how, in the early 1970s, they had had enough of repression and went to the West; and how they returned in 1990 and were received by cheering crowds at the Bolshoi.

When asked why she -- after being both a state-supported artist and a dissident -- is opposed to opera being produced in a more modern way, she replies: "I don't see why it is necessary to mess with the work of a genius. Tchaikovsky knew what he was doing, and so did Pushkin." She refuses to budge about her negative view of the production, and there is no point in discussing it further.

Vishnevskaya has had her own experiences with art, and it becomes apparent when she teaches. One of her female students walks into the room. She wants to practice the aria sung by the character Olga in "Eugene Onegin." She opens her score and begins to sing. The diva closes her eyes and starts singing herself at a certain point. She transforms herself into Olga and, in doing so, she reveals that categories like Socialist Realism or modernity mean nothing to her. For Vishnevskaya, art cannot be co-opted. She distrusts today's modernizers today for the same reason she distrusted the communists who sought to use art for their own purposes. For Vishnevskaya, traditionalism means defending the sanctity of the arts.

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