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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."