Never mind the Bolshoi

The Helikon, an opera company that breaks all the rules, is now 20 years old. Shaun Walker in Moscow celebrates its rise

It all started one grey rainy evening in April 1990, just as the Soviet Union was starting to disintegrate, in a small theatre round the corner from the infamous headquarters of the KGB. Dmitry Bertman, a 22-year-old who had just graduated from theatre school, gathered four of his classmates together and staged a makeshift performance of Mavra, an operetta by Igor Stravinsky that lasts not half an hour.

In the audience there were barely 100 people, mostly friends and acquaintances of the performers. It was the debut performance of what would become one of Russia's leading opera houses: the Helikon.

This week, the same four singers took to the stage in Moscow to perform the same opera. One of them was a tenor back in 1990 but now sings baritone (although for this anniversary performance he stretched his vocal chords and sang the tenor part). Another has left Russia for Germany, and a third abandoned opera to pursue a career in pop music. But all returned to the Helikon on Thursday night, exactly two decades later, to reprise those first roles in an emotionally-charged, although admittedly musically-dubious, performance.

Stepping on to the stage before the concert, Mr Bertman – now 42 and still the Helikon's director – recalled the troupe's humble beginnings. "They were difficult times; times when you were scared to walk on the street and when there was nothing in the shops," he said. "But they were also times of optimism and patriotism for the new Russia. We decided to set up a theatre."

The story of the Helikon is very much the story of the new Russia over the past two decades. Conceived as the Soviet Union was collapsing, back in 1990, the company struggled through its first decade on a shoestring budget, bringing new and innovative productions to a Russian audience. In recent years, its plans to expand and renovate its theatre have been blighted by under-funding and corruption.

That first performance by the group of friends – without funding or salaries – inspired them to continue putting on operas, and by 1993, a small choir had joined Mr Bertman and co. The Helikon Opera began to be talked about in Moscow's cultural circles. Performances were given a makeshift outdoor stage, and involved singers popping up among the audience, dancing on stage, and even driving into the courtyard in a car, singing out of the windows. There followed a La Traviata that was sung entirely on a bed. The only set directions were that the sheets changed colour each act.

It was a very different world to the conservative fare offered up by the Bolshoi, less than a mile away, which throughout the 1990s featured classic but staid productions of popular favourites. In more than two centuries of opera in Russia, since the Bolshoi Theatre was set up by Catherine the Great in 1776, there had been nothing like the Helikon.

However, by the end of 1993, with precarious financial position taking a toll, it looked as though the curtain had fallen for the final time on the Helikon (or at least, it would have done if the Helikon's stage had one – the theatre they had moved into by now was tiny, cramped and lacked both a backstage and a curtain). But the Moscow municipal government came to the rescue, providing much-needed funding for the theatre.

In 1996 the company put on Giuseppe Verdi's Aida for the first time. A bombastic, showpiece opera that is usually performed with a huge cast, it was an intriguing choice for a small theatre. Staged when Boris Yeltsin's Russia was bogged down in a bloody and ill-fated war in Chechnya, Mr Bertman turned the opera into a pensive take on the nature of war. Singers appeared wearing camouflage, and images of war were played on video screens mounted on the stage. "Everyone came expecting dancing elephants, and instead got something about Chechnya," recalls Mr Bertman with a wry smile.

Then came the 1998 default. The company couldn't afford to pay its stars, and life was hard for them, as for everyone else in the Russian capital. "They were awful, awful times," the director said. "But we lived through it and got stronger." By the end of the decade, the company had made a name for itself. "People began to come to see us not because they knew the opera we were performing, but because they knew the company."

This meant Mr Bertman could start doing what he had always wanted to do – put on twentieth-century operas for a Moscow public that had largely been starved of modern opera.

One of these was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the scandalous opera written by Dmitry Shostakovich in 1934. It tells the story of the cruelty and crushing boredom of life in the Russian provinces, ostensibly during Tsarist times, although many parallels could be drawn with the Stalin regime of the day. Featuring a rape scene and frequent on-stage violence, culminating in the heroine's suicide, it was hardly the sort of uplifting fare that the new proletarian musicians were expected to provide in Stalin's Russia, and when the dictator himself attended a performance, he stormed out in a rage, and the opera was never produced in its original form in Russia again.

Until, that is, the Helikon put on the opera in 2000 in a version that suggested the references to the terror of Stalinist Russia were still sharply relevant in post-Communist Moscow.

In the Helikon's rendering, which will be performed next week as part of the anniversary celebrations, the violent and repulsive father figure in the opera is represented as a sharply suited oligarch, attended at every moment by a bevy of mini-skirted secretaries ready to fulfil his every whim. The arrest-happy police wear modern Russian police uniforms, and the wedding guests dance to music played by a tacky pop duo. Shostakovich's biting satire of the Soviet period is retained, but like much of the Helikon's output, the opera also works as a vicious take on the problems of modern Russia.

The Helikon has come a long way since that night in 1990. Today, dozens of migrant workers scurry about a construction site in central Moscow, where, by the end of next year, its new, 550-seat home will stand. The Helikon's dream of a venue worthy of its stature should finally be realised. And as a glance at the repertoire for the 20th birthday shows, few opera houses in the world can put on quite so many modern operas in such a short space of time.

As for Mr Bertman, who now regularly travels the globe to direct at the some of the world's most prestigious opera houses, he has no doubt where he will be 20 years from now. "The Helikon is my life," he grins. "I'm never leaving."

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence