Bolshoi seeks white knight for the opera

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The Independent Online
THE RUSSIAN government and the United Nations are launching an international appeal for money to restore the Bolshoi Theatre, which is on the verge of falling down.

Chandeliers have yet to drop on the heads of the opera- loving public in Moscow but the 19th-century wooden foundations are rotting and pipes recently burst in the administrative offices, spraying scalding water on to the desks of managers.

News of the fund-raising drive came earlier this week after the first meeting of a new Russian-Unesco organising committee. The campaign will be launched at a charity performance in May but those interested can now visit the Bolshoi's Internet website on

"The Bolshoi Theatre is not only our national heritage but the heritage of the whole world," said Valentina Matviyenko, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Russia's social policy. Russia might be having difficulty paying wages and pensions, but the significance of the Bolshoi was such that funding would be found, she said. Any additional contributions from abroad would be welcome.

On a par with the wonders of Prague and Venice it may be, but the 173- year-old Bolshoi is in a very sorry state. Damp is rising from an underground river and the original wooden foundations are disintegrating. Not only that, but the building has not been rewired since the 1940s.

"There is no danger to the public, otherwise we would have closed the theatre," said the administrative director, Vladimir Kokonin. However, in his next breath, he admitted that a "fountain" of hot water had overwhelmed his desk when the pipes burst a few days ago.

The Bolshoi management intends to keep the familiar outward appearance of the pink-stucco theatre, changing only "dated symbols" such as the Stalin-era stage curtains with their hammer and sickle designs. However, in many invisible ways, the structure will be strengthened and modern facilities provided. Experts have been consulted to ensure that whatever alterations are made the acoustics do not suffer. The estimated cost of the 10-year project is $350m (pounds 218m).

Already, with the help of Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, an alternative stage has been built, so that the troupe of the Bolshoi can remain in the public eye during the renovation.

Despite the economic crisis, Ms Matviyenko said the federal government had found $45mto start work on the main building and this month Russian firms would be invited to tender for jobs.

The Bolshoi may be crumbling physically but spiritually, it is in better health than for years under its new artistic director, the former dancer Vladimir Vasilyev. New ballets for Christmas and the new year have been previewed. And February will see the opening of Oprichnik, Tchaikovsky's rarely performed opera about the secret police under Ivan the Terrible, which would have been politically incorrect in Communist times.

Mr Vaslilyev, who criticised the way the Bolshoi used to sit on its laurels when it held a monopoly, would be the first to admit that his theatre has benefited from some healthy competition.

Just up the road is the Novaya Opera (New Opera) of Vladimir Kolobov, who spent years working in a disused cinema until Mayor Luzhkov built him a splendid new opera house. And there are also several opera studios that help to make Moscow, in the dead of economic winter, a musical boom-town.