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' For me it's simple. If I don’t give satisfaction, then it’s your right to decide to remove me. I must tell you that this effectively obstructs any attempts to influence me'
Radical Urin admits his fear of failing at the Bolshoi
9 DEC 15
The imminent release of Bolshoi Babylon, a new British film doc about the tense aftermath of the Bolshoi Ballet acid attack on Sergei Filin - which I’ve reviewed in The Spectator this week - coincides with a huge Q&A with Bolshoi chief Vladimir Urin in connection with his nomination for a major theatre award in Russia this week.
While the film reveals Urin’s personal mistrust of Filin and mostly homes in on the intense atmosphere and destructive rivalries among the dancers which climaxed in the acid attack on Filin, this Q&A for the newspapers who run the Teatral Star Theatre-Goer awards opens up much interesting detail on the mountainous scale of Urin’s cleansing operation.
Urin justifiably describes his responsibility and problems at the Bolshoi as being unique. As regards the Bolshoi Ballet situation, he makes two telling comments at the start of the Q&A; he singles out Nikolai Tsiskaridze as a troublemaker whose dismissal just before he arrived was a welcome thing, and he affirms his appreciation of his predecessor as general director, Anatoly Iksanov.
He itemises the attitudes he hates: among the performers and employees of the Bolshoi, the attitude that it’s a ‘comfortable hotel’ for life, rather than an art house; and the corrupt free-for-all surrounding the box office. He states that he refuses to accept any influence on his decision-making from the Culture Ministry or the Presidential administration - his interlocutor tells of witnessing the constant phonecalls to his predecessor from high-ups wanting to dictate repertoire and casting.
Most radically, Urin insists that he wants the Bolshoi Theatre and by extension the Russian cultural world to accept that artistic decisions will not be the favours of the theatre directors (hence, it's implied, open to political or other non-artistic manipulation), but only the realm of the creative people invited to stage a production. As director he will take final responsibility but more for the process of getting the right people in the first place than in challenging or amending their artistic decisions.
This, he says, is the most important and difficult principle for the Bolshoi (and its Kremlin masters) to take on board. When one thinks back to the 2013 row over the Cranko Onegin, in which the visiting stagers from Stuttgart relegated Svetlana Zakharova to the second cast and she walked out of the production - and the then general director Iksanov was widely said to have been fired in part because of that lèse-majesté - it becomes clearer how boldly Urin's principle challenges old assumptions. It is the same international convention that Sergei Filin has come under heavy fire for, attempting like Alexei Ratmansky before him to prevent the Russian nationalists and traditionalists from blocking what they see as 'outside' priorities over the in-house politics.
Upfront with his fears
Urin is surprisingly upfront with his fears that for all his gigantic efforts to clean up the problems it just may not work. He allows a vulnerability to come through, even a sense of helplessness, which is curious, considering that the genial and capable Urin gives every impression in his interviews of weighing his words with care.
It’s no surprise really but the questioning by the journalists does look strikingly incurious. There’s no follow-up, for instance, after Urin’s hostile comment on Tsiskaridze to ask what he thinks of him being installed so prominently as head of the Vaganova Ballet Academy and Russian press speculation that Tsiskaridze is preparing to succeed Urin as the Bolshoi chief when his contract expires in 2018.
There are also no questions about the artistic arguments going on around the Bolshoi Ballet’s future choreographic direction - in which Urin vaguely promised Filin would be involved - nor his reasons for choosing Makhar Vaziev to succeed Filin as ballet director.
But there’s plenty else. Here’s my translation.
'The director's chair isn’t a cushy seat - you never stop ploughing'
On Monday, December 7 the ceremony will be held for Teatral’s Star Theatre-Goer awards. One of the nominations for the audience award is the director of the Bolshoi Theatre, Vladimir Urin, who recently attended the traditional awards briefing for Teatral and the Novye Izvestia newspaper. The newspapers’ guest spoke to journalists about how he is quelling the conflicts among the company and the methods he is using against the ticket mafias, what he has succeeded in achieving in the Bolshoi Theatre in the past two years in the job, and what remains still to do.
TEATRAL: You arrived at the Bolshoi Theatre at a tough time when the company was being shaken by one scandal after another. In little more than two years this wave has subsided. How have you managed it? Have you used some sort of special method? Did you get the collective together and tell them, ‘Comrades, enough, we must all live together’?
URIN: I think it would be wrong to say that I arrived and then it all changed. If we assess it by today’s state of affairs, I may say that a great deal had been done by my predecessor, Anatoly Iksanov. One of the troublemakers had already left the theatre - I have in mind Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who publicly opposed the theatre leadership, and in particular the artistic director of the ballet. He made no attempt to conceal it and stated it quite publicly.
The first thing I realised on arriving at the Bolshoi was that a dialogue had to be opened with the employees, through the prerequisite of signing up to a collective labour contract. We set up a bilateral commission to do the preparatory work for an agreement. I must tell you that I never found any great sense of resistance in the company against the management. The leadership was simply viewed as a force whose one aim was to limit the workers’ interests.
How soon were you able to change the position?
Every Monday for six months we spent three or four hours debating the collective agreement, every paragraph, every comma. But the actual business wasn’t just the paper we drew up. It was actually about the dialogue within which we agreed the rules of the game.
Now, as I look back on it, I’d say it wasn’t just the fact that we signed this collective agreement - which in itself was in legal terms critically important so as to resolve any disagreements - but rather more the fact that we came to an agreement. That we explained all our various positions to each other.
The leadership tried to listen to what the problems and complaints were among the company. And from our side, we strictly defined our management position in the areas that it was essential to resolve. Today, looking back at two years ago when this agreement was signed, I realise that it was this dialogue that was so helpful, since there hasn’t been one serious conflict since then.
Can you spell out what was most at stake - jobs and earnings?
Yes. Those are the two major issues, the organisation of working time and naturally the money question. And also one other very important item which emerged not from the workers’ working group but from the performers’ working group - something that would affect all sorts of public institutions with artistic matters to resolve. Which was the question of the performers' work allocation being put under collective control. And on this particular issue the theatre leadership stated quite definitively that it would never happen. Otherwise a theatre’s life would be run on totally different lines.
Decisions are for stagers, not managers
You decided to load up the work of the majority of the collective, didn't you? Really the main Bolshoi company was always either on tour or in other theatres, in other countries and so on. Have you managed to bring people round to this?
As regards all the main performing groups, whether that’s the corps de ballet, the chorus or the orchestra, they’re working like you wouldn’t believe. They’re now saying, ‘If only we had less work.’ The employment issue is much more the issue of the soloists having work to do.
What was key wasn't the amount of work they got, it was establishing the rules of how the work was given out. Previously a lot of it was being decided in the admin offices - things that by definition ought to be the province of the stagers of a production or the artistic leaders of the company. Once these rules were laid down, and we put them into practice in the theatre’s working life, everything started falling into place.
I'll say again: it isn't the officers who decide everything, the ballet or opera managers. There are certain decisions that only the people who are staging a production can make. We're trying to embed this principle. Can I say it’s working out ideally? Of course not. This is the Bolshoi Theatre with all its attendant circumstances. But as soon as any sort of conflict comes up, we now sit down and discuss it.
And will this new state of affairs raise a new Plisetskaya?
Why wouldn't it? What it is is that we are entrusting the most important right - the right to decide how a production turns out - to those who are its ‘parents’, as it were, the people who understand the production’s ideas and intentions.
In principle, the show might not work out for either the director or the choreographer. There’s absolutely nothing strange about that. So, something doesn't work out… well, it’s a pity. But sometimes it’ll be the opposite! You can have the example of a show which had a very complicated start, in arguments between Kirill Serebrennikov and Yuri Possokhov, with a change of music which had originally been composed by one composer, then it was decided to give it to another. And up to the very final rehearsals when they were already putting the production on stage, everyone was disagreeing, what, how, where. But what emerged, in my view, was an interesting production, A Hero of Our Time. In general it’s impossible to predict ‘from what rubbish poems may grow’. When it comes down to it, it’s something about chemistry…
As general director is it you who shouldd decide which stagers to invite?
Actually, it’s a very painful business, what to put on, who to do it, and so one. Right now I can say that we have got two seasons with the premieres now fixed. The 2016-17 season is completely set and we're even already preparing some of it right now, during this current season. The 2017-18 season is practically ready, though there are still a few open issues, but I think in the coming months we’ll have them resolved.
Who is involved in the discussions?
First of all the theatre’s musical director [Tukhan Sokhiev], the ballet’s artistic director [Sergei Filin] and the head of the planning department [Irina Chernomurova]. These are the people who in discussing the repertoire are also naturally discussing the production people. When we’re in discussion we consider all the pros and cons of this or that project. Of course, the final decision is mine, but really this isn’t so much a decision as taking responsibility for it.
And certainly the formulation of the Bolshoi Theatre’s repertoire is what influences the state of the company itself. With the ballet company that's more or less taken for granted since it’s continually being repopulated with young dancers (mostly from the Bolshoi Academy), but as regards the opera company, I think some adjustments are needed to the structure.
But this is a long process over the next few years. There were 54 people permanently employed in the Bolshoi’s opera company - much less than in any other lyric theatre in Moscow. It’s obvious in this particular case that in a theatre with more than 200 performances going on on two stages, that rate was being managed in the past with a lot of guest artists. Which is why there needs to be an adjustment, an increase in the resident company. But as I’ve already said, this is the work of several years. Talent doesn’t grow on trees.
It is down to you to communicate impartial information to the performers. And I remember that in one interview you said that you always have individual conversations with people. So how does this work?
I have to deal with those situations where there’s conflict. But the principle is that we do everything possible to prevent conflict arising. Let’s say, it’s announced that such-and-such production is going to be staged, and the staging team is announced, and we offer the chance to everyone with the right type of voice for the role (tenor, lyric tenor, dramatic tenor, lyric soprano, dramatic soprano, baritone, bass etc) to come for an audition with the repetiteur-stager or director. You’d have a similar situation in ballet. The choreographer-stager has the right to choose the performers from the company’s dancers.
But then, if there were a conflict after their decision about some issue or other, then we’ll gather in my office, discuss it, talk it through. But I want to stress that I am not a specialist, I’m not a musician, I am simply a man who loves lyric theatre and knows it - I believe - to a high enough professional level to be qualified as a manager. But I repeat, I’m not an expert. I try to bring any discussion with a creative artist together with the people who made the decision and who are the professionals in this area of work.
So you keep yourself at a remove, to a great extent. You don’t accept, you don’t reject… But still, presumably, you answer for the success of a production?
Overall, I answer for everything, but then, it is a chain. Getting the right conductor, the right director, in the final analysis, the team and the conditions that we give them. If they ask for this or that performer or creative, it’s our obligation to try to do everything possible to get these artists into the casting process. And I answer for that, I do.
So they’ll say, ‘We want Anna Netrebko.’ It means I get in touch with Netrebko and then I say, ‘Unfortunately Netrebko says she can’t because the show’s in two years and her nearest available date is in three years.’
So, no, I don’t stay at a remove. I keep a distance only from questions answering for the creative result - that is from the standpoint not of the result but of the process. One of the problems in the Bolshoi Theatre has been that there were many people taking decisions who shouldn’t, from their professional status, have been taking those decisions. It was important to correct that system.
Urin's 'sense of freedom' in his job
Now we’ve got some kind of hysteria affecting our society - is it what's blowing through the theatre world? Or do you think it’s a syndrome of the time?
Well, I think you already answered that. It’s the syndrome of our times. A polarisation of viewpoints that seems to inflame people’s opinions - those are my enemies, these are my friends! And we're seeing this in absolutely every area of our life today. But let me say again, the person who must answer for everything in a theatre is that theatre’s leader. And I’ve never in my life shrunk from my responsibility.
Furthermore, I’m now at an age and of a level of experience when I could simply walk away from this job tomorrow. I’ve said this many times, to the press too. And it is this sense of freedom by which I can take certain decisions - wrong or right - that I consider are necessary.
But there is actually a rule that does allow for the dismissal of a director at 24 hours’ notice without explanation.
I’ll say again: I’ve only once in my life applied for a job. Just once. After graduation I was called up into the army. After the army I got home to my mother and had to find work. I was very scrawny, you could hardly see me if I stood sideways on! And Mama just looked at me and said, ‘Come on, stay with me a bit. Later, wherever you go, you go.’ And I went to ask for a job at the Youth Theatre in Kirov. I discovered that Alexei Borodin had arrived there. We didn’t know each other. I went up to him and said, ‘I want to work with you.’ Alexei Borodin said, ‘You know, we could hire you as company manager. You want it?’ ‘I do,’ I said. And this was the one time when I asked for a job.
Later I was called up by the Theatre Union to take a job in the Children's Theatre office. Then Mikhail Ulyanov invited me to be his deputy. Then he made me his first deputy. Then, when my work period was up at the Children’s Theatre I was approached by Dmitri Bryantsev, Alexander Titel and Vladimir Arefyev, who asked me to join the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre.
And now it’s the Bolshoi that invited me. I’ve never asked for any of it. I think that’s how it ought to be. If one's in a situation that unfolded like this, then why would they sack me at 24 hours’ notice? OK, let them sack me. What’s the problem? I’ll find myself some sort of job.
Doesn’t that show a bit of - to coin a bit of youth slang - ‘attitude’ towards the theatre?
No. I come to work at 10 am and go around 10-11 pm, and I have no days off. I did get that at the Stanislavsky Music Theatre - for the past 4-5 years I could afford to take a Saturday or Sunday off. Here I don’t get that possibility. There is such a mountain of issues and problems that one must be busy from morn till night. This is not ‘attitude’, you mean like some kind of nonchalance about my job. It could be nonchalance if you start from some idea that I’m supposed to be sitting in a nice cushy seat. But the director’s seat isn’t a nice cushy seat; today you have to plough and plough. And I am upset when something doesn’t work out, and I’m very happy when it does.
You’ve now planned the next two years of repertoire. That’s the schedule into the distant future. Yet in our country when one doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring, doesn’t this crisis afflict all your plans?
No. We are ready for big cuts, but it is not possible to reduce the number of premieres. If we don’t put on new shows, if there isn’t new blood, if there isn’t constant work going on, it's over! There’s no theatre, it’s just a museum. You see, nowadays in the Bolshoi Theatre there's one way of looking at it that the repertoire wouldn't grow and there wouldn't be many premieres, which could bubble along quietly for the next 10-15 years. There’s always people who will come just to see the chandeliers - either foreigners or people visiting Moscow. But then the question would be, what sort of audience would you end up with?
But the fact that you’ve been given a 10 percent cut in your budget - this presumably also has an effect?
First of all, the cut’s not now but was in 2015. There’s no decrease in the budget in 2016. Second, it doesn’t show because we’re cleverer about it. There was 450million rubles [£4.2million] left at the end of the year from unspent income. And this year we absolutely must have a safety cushion. Of course if there is a further cut in spending in future, this will bring on a reduction of our staff, which is already fraught with social conflicts inside the theatre and out.
Tackling the opera problems
Apparently, you once said that ‘a serious crisis is when it's very hard to find a tenor’.
Today, when you're mounting this or that production, you’re worrying about who can sing the role from our own people or should it be a guest. And nature tends to produce certain types of voice at certain times. Right now everywhere there’s a problem with tenors, and that’s the whole Italian repertoire you’re talking about. There’s also a serious problem with basses - there’s something we’ve never had in Russia.
Which is why, looking at the state of the opera company, we are trying to bring a stagione system into the repertoire system. You know, it’s so important to make sure you get the best performance level not just from the premiere block of a new production but from its further appearances in the repertoire. It’s a bad idea to just splurge everything on the first showing.
But isn’t the Bolshoi Theatre’s new music director Tugan Sokhiev handling this?
I am absolutely sure that our music director Tugan Sokhiev will become a real leader. He came to the theatre at the age of only 37. A position like this one is, let’s be honest, premature. However he is wholly dedicated to his work here. This summer his contract ended wth the German Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. What he still had is his work with the Grand Theatre of Toulouse. So he’ll have far more time for his work here.
You've probably heard what Dmitri Bertman said [director of Helikon Opera], that ever since his childhood the Bolshoi Theatre was a time of names - Atlantov, Pirogov, Obraztsova and so on. Can you do anything to rectify the current situation? Perhaps by offering young soloists mature roles?
Come on, let's look more closely at that situation. I’ve said over and over how when I was a student - and this was 1966-71 - I was studying at the time in Leningrad in the theatre institute, and spent each weekend in Moscow. Every time you had so much choice you didn’t know what to choose! Oleg Efremov’s Sovremmenik which used to be on Mayakovsky Square, the Satiric Theatre where Valentin Pluchek put on remarkable productions (Andrei Mironov, Anatoly Papanov were at their peak). And I haven’t even mentioned the Taganka, the Anatoly Efros plays, the Andrei Goncharov stagings. While at the Bolshoi you had Boris Pokrovsky, Yuri Grigorovich. Ie, there were artistic leaders, and the performers were embedded in their theatre. Tours were out-of-the-ordinary events, and almost no one went anywhere as an individual, everyone was here. So of course it was a constellation! You could go to a performance and see five or six stars at once.
Today the music theatre world is entirely different. Our artists are free agents. A singer can be finishing at conservatoire and if they’ve got a good voice, they’re being bought up by agents when they’re still only budding talents. And they get invited to the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Opera, the Bavarian Opera.
These are the best theatres in the world. You can’t hold people back. Their desire is to make an international career, as Anna Netrebko and Hibla Gerzmava have done. And you simply can’t blame them for that. What we have to do is try to create an interesting life for performers at the Bolshoi theatre, so that they feel creatively satisfied, so they themselves want to work with these directors, these conductors and choreographers.
Defeating the ticket Mafia
As well as artistic questions there are also administrative ones. A problem identified by the Bolshoi’s directors for over a decade is this - can you defeat the ticket Mafia?
For a start let’s acknowledge that this is a world problem, the ticket Mafia. Only they do it in a more civilized way elsewhere. If you go to the Vienna Opera, you’ll find these types standing around in uniforms, with special pockets, and inside these pockets are tickets for all the performances. These are supposedly 'official' chaps. And they don’t inflate the ticket price more than 15-20 percent.
Well, as far as we are concerned, what we do in the arts world is the normal thing - that is, people should pay what we sell the ticket for. Right, so let's see what the main things are. Really, we must agree that there are certain limits to what the director can and can’t do.
Firstly, we have had to clarify that none of those mafia types were working in the theatre itself, find out who is handing out these tickets for percentages, and who is taking them back if the touts haven’t sold them. To begin with, we had to block the channel for returning tickets. We've now made this into a very tough process. It is now necessary to produce a specific statement from a specific person with a passport etc. I.e. you don’t have the right to just turn up and give back a ticket. Even though, unfortunately, under the law protecting consumer rights, we do have to take the ticket back if the person insists.
The second part of the problem was to try to clarify the system of ticket sales. After all, what was actually happening? On the day of advance sales there is a queue which is split into two: those eligible for concessions, who have rights to tickets through their workplace, and the main queue. So at 10 in the morning, around 15 minutes before the box office opens, you see some very nice cars turn up in the square. These smart fellows get out of them and go up to the queue and start putting people into it who they brought with them in their cars. They go up to certain people who’ve been standing in for them in the queue. So their people have been in the queue for 3 or 4 hours from 6 or 7 in the morning. And then 10 or 15 guys suddenly get into the queue.
This system has been completely thought-through - it’s a business, and a very profitable one. It means we had to straighten out this situation of some people obtaining tickets and then organising ticket sales directly to the concessionaries. We now call in police, besides our own security, and our security people are coming in at 7 am. So you have the main queue assembling and at 7 am we hand out bracelets with numbers to the people in it. A person can go away and come back a bit later, for instance, at 11.30 or 12. This is how we’ve eliminated the lawless situation that had evolved, with scandals and even fist-fights. Even if a person is late, with his numbered bracelet he can go instantly to the box office. Furthermore we’re also giving bracelets to people who come to the queue later, up to 10 am. It is essential that people who turned up because they actually wanted to buy tickets are able to get the opportunity.
Well, the touts can also just come and stand in line.
Well then, they’ll just have to come and get into the queue from 7 am! They’d have to be paid more. You used to have 3 or 4 people at 7 o'clock, and then 60 people would pour into the queue arriving 15 minutes before the box office opened. And they might pay up 200 rubles [£2] per ticket. But if someone’s got to stand in a queue from 7am, he’s going to ask not for 200 rubles but 600. Well, who would stand in line for three hours or maybe even four or five, for 200 rubles? We’ve effectively knocked the economics out of their business.
We also had to reorganise sales to the concessionaries, those with rights to buy tickets outside of the queue. We’ve introduced a rule that if you are entitled to a ticket from outside the queue, you yourself must come to the theatre for that ticket. And we’ve started taking passport details and we’ve made those tickets a different colour. Usually we were getting around 70 of these concessionaries; as soon as we brought in the changes, there were only seven of them! Ie, we have sorted this particular situation.
And now we’re selling tickets online. Only from 5.30 on the day sales open, when the live queue is done with. But that’s a situation that at the moment I can’t do anything about. Anyone has an absolute right, if there are 30 or 40 tickets left, to buy all of them. And it could be a reseller who bought those 30 or 40 tickets. That’s an area where the theatre is no longer competent to intervene. As soon as they’ve obtained the tickets, they have the right to sell them on. From then on only the police can deal with them. They could get their hands on the dealers, because the speculators don’t pay any taxes on their overselling. But the police don’t want to get involved.
Phonecalls from the President's office
It’s well known that Russia is governed by telephone. Once one of Teatral’s reporters got an interview with your predecessor Anatoly Iksanov and spent an hour with him in his office. During that time he was phoned three times - from the Presidential administration, from the Federation Council, from the Speaker - all of them demanding that he pull some strings to ensure this or that person sang or danced. Do you have something similar to deal with?
Yes, right, those situations did occur. But when I agreed to the job here at the Bolshoi Theatre, I said at once that I'd not allow anyone to interfere with my work. And I must say I haven’t had any such phonecalls in my time here. If I don’t do a good job, then it’s your right to decide to remove me. I must tell you that this strongly curtails any attempts to influence me… There's a view going around that it’s best not to bother calling me as it would be useless. I’ve already said that neither the Culture Ministry nor the Presidential administration has the slightest influence on either repertoire or on who should do this or that job, nor on any other decision about matters within the Bolshoi Theatre.
Thank you, Vladimir Georgievich, for finding the time considering how busy you are to come to our office. Is there anything we haven’t asked you that today you are particularly concerned about?
What worries me now most? Perhaps it’s the present situation - contrary to everything else going on in society - of endeavouring to make the theatre into a place for all the creative people whom we employ, less like a comfortable hotel than a real, living home of art. I do really struggle with this particular issue.
Sometimes it looks to me as if it's not possible, things as they are seem to overthrow any good idea. At other times it seems that it might actually all work out.
It's because today money has become the cornerstone of everything. You'll often hear black called white, or sometimes grey. And vice versa. Is it possible, in spite of this, to try and create a real theatre? Given that a lot of criteria are biased one way or another. I don’t know if I can do it here. When it’s the Bolshoi Theatre that’s in your hands, then you’re carrying a load of quite another order.
And naturally the responsibility is also quite another order. The Bolshoi Theatre budget is actually specified within the country’s budget. We have possibilities here that no one else has! If there weren’t these possibilities, then you could shrug and say, sorry, can’t do anything. But when there is this specific potential, the hidden question’s always gnawing away at you: Can I do something or not? We’ll see…
Vladimir Urin faces the journalists (photo Anatoly Morkovkin/ Teatral)