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© Ismene Brown 1992-2019


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E-tickets and Mrs Urin at the Bolshoi

"The best talents get quickly booked up. Currently my thoughts are in 2017. In fact I’m very concerned that I’m not thinking about 2018 right now"

10 OCT 14     The wife of Bolshoi general director Vladimir Urin has addressed critics of her appointment to work alongside her husband at the flagship theatre in a detailed interview about her job. Irina Chernomurova’s recent appointment by her husband to run Bolshoi strategic planning has raised comments after Urin fired the previous director of opera planning Mikhail Fikhtengolts a year ago and dissolved his department.

Now Mrs Chernomurova has moved over from the Stanislavsky Theatre, which her husband led for 18 years, to effectively revive the job Fikhtengolts had. Speaking this week to the Moscow daily Izvestia, she denies accusations of nepotism and explains how her task will be to help the Bolshoi Opera come closer to the methods of other international opera houses, not least in order to secure talented producers and staging experts from around the world.

She says that the stagione system that tends to be used in the West - in which operas and ballets are done in blocks, readily supervised by creative staff during a defined period - is the norm under which top directors and performers plan their schedules, but the Bolshoi prefers the repertory system, in which a number of productions are in constant rotation. (This is to ensure that tourists and business people from the regions can be fairly confident of catching a popular classic at any time of the season.)

She also discusses the perception of superiority of musical quality at the Mariinsky.

The interview reveals much interesting information about the logistics of opera planning, and of the quality problems within the opera company that Urin has said need fixing. Mrs Chernomurova’s internationalist outlook appears to indicate that Urin’s recent public insistence on a more nationalist approach at the Bolshoi may rather have been mood-music for politicians to hear, while in fact Urin continues his predecessor’s broad line in updating working assumptions laid down in the Soviet era.

Here is a translation of the interview.

‘Vladimir Urin and I will try not to wreck the Bolshoi’

Izvestia, October 7, 2014, 19:39, by Yaroslav Timofeev

When Irina Chernomurova was recruited to the Bolshoi Theatre, led by her husband Vladimir Urin, the section entrusted to her was renamed the Department of Strategic Planning and Special Projects. Izvestia asked Chernomurova to talk about the Bolshoi’s new strategies.

IZVESTIA: When your predecessor Mikhail Fikhtengolts’s contract was not renewed, the theatre management had no intention to replace him. Does that mean the job was not actually that vital for the theatre?

CHERNOMUROVA: I believe Vladimir Georgievich [her husband] did not appoint a strategic planning head until recently because he was considering what the nature of such a department should be, and what it should be called. But whatever the job is titled, there have always been people who helped to direct repertoire and formulate the artistic vision and style of theatres alongside the artistic leaders themselves. They’ve studied the new trends and tracked the careers of directors and artists in the professional world, and sometimes they’re involved in planning. In this way they support the artistic directors and producers whose daily administrative and often bureaucratic work doesn’t leave them all the time they’d like to reflect, analyse trends and the professional world.

Anatoly Efros, Georgi Tovstonogov, Oleg Efremov had people like this alongside them. This was the kind of role Pavel Markov took in the Moscow Arts Theatre and Boris Asafiev in the Mariinsky Theatre. We’ve long had people like this working in the literary world - in France and Germany they can be found working in dramaturgy departments.

In fact, the Bolshoi Theatre itself once had a strong dramaturgy department. I’ve been teaching lyric theatre management for 25 years, and I spent a long time studying the management systems in the Bolshoi. What was being done here in the early 2000s was most interesting. At that time Anatoly Iksanov commissioned a special inquiry from the Mackenzie management consultancy company, after which a new producing department and a strategic planning department were instigated. I always liked the idea of these departments, and I discussed them with my students. In any case, a research-led body, which the directorate consults and can oppose him too, seems to me essential in any theatre.

What sort of inquiry did Iksanov ask to be done?

It was an analysis of the financial and organizational practice of the theatre. Something like an independent audit.

Was the structure of management altered as a result of it?

As far as I remember, yes. But very few people talked about it, because the Bolshoi Theatre, like any other theatre, was not minded to expose its secrets. In the 1990s we were all trying to master market conditions and we took a great deal on board from foreign experience, including from the Americans. There was complete belief that everything was better over there. Personally I felt more cautious about it. Having been in America, I found, for example, that we all had the same things, but we just gave it a different name. Naturally one must learn, but you shouldn’t go overboard.

Both wings must flap equally

Mikhail Fikhtengolts also took responsibility for casting singers. Is this part of your responsibility too?

No, there is now within the Bolshoi Theatre establishment the post of assistant to the music director. The casting is primarily down to the musical director and the directors of productions. Plus there is also an assistant with casting. This is a complex job. Half the theatres of the world who use the stagione system long ago concluded that there needs to be a specific casting director who is tracking all the voices around the globe. I can suggest, I can share the load, but no more.

Will you be dividing your time evently between opera and ballet?

Yes, of course. In Russia, a lyric theatre is a two-headed eagle, and both wings must flap equally strongly, or the bird can’t sustain its altitude. From the first the department has had that firmly in mind from the perspective of planning ahead.

Will you have the right to influence the artistic director of the ballet?

Vladimir Georgievich has always liked working as a team. As I understand it, within the Bolshoi I am given the right to become part of the team. This will be a creative conversation, a to and fro about the theatre’s basic issues. I may recommend, but I won’t force my conclusions - I don’t like doing this, in general. I prefer dialogue, working together and living together, rather than strong-arming. Though the staff might say that when I am sure about the necessity of something, I can be very stubborn. But only strictly within the frame of my own competence.

What are you working on right now?

I am participating in the detailing of the opera company’s plans for next season, I’m preparing to bring forward proposals for the 2016-17 season. I’m seeking theatre designers for several productions. I’m working on a programme for Maya Plisetskaya’s jubilee. I am setting up a programme for the the next DanceInversion contemporary dance festival which will be going on at the Bolshoi and Stanislavsky theatres, a proposal of the general director. I’m helping with the work on the Baroque: the journey programme.

All the same I’ve not yet been fully occupied, as I still had two big finishing projects for the Stanislavsky Theatre - the new John Neumeier ballet Tatiana and the festival project Five Evenings of American Ballet (which has just concluded). I’ve still been on contract at the Stanislavsky Theatre.

So how have you defined the mission of your department?

The forward planning is top priority today for everyone, from the general director down. We need to mark out the path, to clear a way for the ship to proceed. We want not just to put something down, assume it’s enough to say “I want this kind of thing done”, but actually to make interesting artistic projects. To do this you have to seek out talents and they are generally both hard to find and get quickly booked up.

And expensively too.

This isn’t the worst of it. In the 1990s, it was awful to think about the sums required to invite the best actors and directors, but today that’s not the main issue. Getting them into the schedule is the hardest part. In the Stanislavsky I was always the type of person to sound the alarm, “Too late!”  I’ve always had a feeling that I must be living in a different time, a different year. Currently my thoughts are in 2017. In fact I’m very concerned that I’m not thinking about 2018 right now.

Many singers of international reputation say, "I'd love to sing at the Bolshoi, if there were a five-year plan.” Are you going to be able to achieve this?

No. But even other theatres don’t plan five years ahead. Everywhere, including in the Bolshoi, there will be preliminary plans. There is also a preliminary booking of an artist, which can be revoked. You understand, opera and ballet are a highly complicated puzzle that it’s not possible to set in detail five years before a premiere - the earliest would be two.

Do you think the Bolshoi Theatre meets world standards in long-term planning?

In planning new productions, yes, absolutely. All theatres publish their plans on their websites, so I’m up to date with things and I can talk with complete responsibility. But with working with singers, we do need to catch up with the West. You see, the stagione system is complicated for us to operate. In Russia generally it would be unthinkable to work on a pure stagione system, because of our geographical conditions.

To get from Stuttgart to Brussels takes an hour, but here just to get from the airport to the theatre can take three hours. So relying on our own company has become a natural and really essential condition of the Russian theatre.

Reviving glory

Now at the Bolshoi we’re working to strengthen the opera company with bright new talents. Until the mid 1990s, when our stars started to leave, as well as a large part of our younger talent (bypassing the Bolshoi), this had been a great company and the reputation of our artists resounded around the world. Now the work of the opera, which I hope will regenerate all that stellar glory, will be taking on board elements of the stagione system: we will invite guest artists for certain rare roles, masters of the art, who can help raise the overall level of the vocal ensemble.

I’ve always given credit to the Mariinsky Theatre, which made a habit of nurturing its own forces, and didn’t seek after the stagione model, and as a result it became one of the great opera companies of the world. If we look at it closely we can understand that actually there are problems there, which need solving. But they have done well, and their position is quite similar to my own - I like doing everything myself too.

The Stanislavsky Theatre also basically relied on its own resources, including that monumental production of War and Peace.

Yes, and in current times these are the goals that the Bolshoi Theatre is setting itself too. theatres with foreign ones, I feel more and more a sense of pride. In the world there are quite few theatres where there are strong opera and ballet companies under one roof. And then just reckon on the scale of the operation! The Bolshoi Theatre gives around 500 shows here a year, the Stanislavsky Theatre about 220, on just the one stage basically.

According to Gergiev, at the Mariinsky they anticipate 1,000 performances a year.

Yes? Well, but the Mariinsky has three large stages. The size of operations at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky is significant, and in these circumstances you can have an enormous number of performances. But I think there can be a danger of a kind of conveyor belt attitude. And this could lead on to a shrinking of repertoire, which neither soloists nor orchestra could put up with.

And yet, even Gergiev’s third concert in any one day may be higher-quality, in terms of orchestral playing, than at the Bolshoi Theatre.

It’s impossible to compare these things. Valery Gergiev has been head of that theatre since 1988. The orchestra is his most loved collective in the theatre. He personally handles the selection of musicians, he nurtures their working levels, the instruments. While at the Bolshoi, since the departure of the great conductor Alexander Lazarev there have been several changes of musical leader. Generally Russia lost most of its great conductors, and it was luck that Gergiev stayed in Petersburg. But, on the other hand, when Gergiev isn’t in the Mariinsky on the podium, I’ve heard a different orchestra. So a theatre needs to be gauged by its everyday work.

You mean, the orchestral playing at the Mariinsky and Bolshoi on a day-to-day level is no different in quality?

I don’t think there is any significant difference. It depends on who is on the podium.

No nepotism

When Urin left the Stanislavsky Theatre, he was given a touching farewell. How was it for you?

For me, too, farewell felt, in a way, like the sharpest pain. I’ve been there almost 18 years: I felt like a mother, having raised a child, giving it away in marriage. And mothers, as you know, almost never like the new spouse.

Were you not asked to choose your successor?

When I gave notice of my resignation, they did discuss it with me. I proposed two people from my department, but it all remained only at the level of discussion. Now there’s no one at all in my old job, and my department has been split up several ways. The department was formed gradually - at first we dealt with international links, then public relations. I also oversaw the press office, the marketing department, I brought sponsors in for projects. Now the international sector is directly accountable to the general director, the marketing is done by a special department - it’s headed from within the theatre, but the the press office and PR are in suspension at the moment.

Will you be choosing your co-workers here? And if so, will you be asking people from the Stanislavsky?

At the moment my department is only me. Now everything depends on how I myself do my department’s work - then I’ll know better what I need. If it seems my targets and objectives here would coincide with the job my colleagues were doing at the Stanislavsky, I may have discussions with them. Of course, once everything was worked out and specified, it would be great to get people in with me. But there I had a certain sort of work: the scheduling of tours, visas, discussions and invitations, press releases, contracts. I spent a lot of time on logistics, not on analysis. Here the job is different. I imagine this department being a centre of knowledge and research.

When couples are working in the same establishment, people inevitably start talking about nepotism. Are you worried about that sort of talk?

Vladimir Georgievich and I are not just husband and wife: we were classmates, we sat at the same desk, and we then worked together in the Theatre Union, then another 18 years we worked together at the Stanislavsky Theatre. All my life we’ve been discussing our work like business partners, and something this makes for terrible fights, collisions of opinion, of taste, of world-view - it’s not at all a peaceful family life. I work with him 24 hours a day. He often says, “Stop, that’s enough work”, but I can’t.

Just now my husband phoned me, and I said, “Yes, Vladimir Georgievich!” But I’m like that with him at home!  Because of our constant working together, A certain distance sometimes comes up between us. As regards people talking about us, well I’m not worried about that: there’s always been that in the theatre world. One must only judge by results. If a relationship harms business, it means it’s nepotism - and that’s bad. I allow myself to presume that the presence of my family at the Stanislavsky never brought any great damage. We will try not to wreck the Bolshoi either.

Mrs Urin answers her critics

Irina Chernomurova, Bolshoi director of forward planning