In a plain-speaking interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the Bolshoi Theatre’s General Director, Vladimir Urin, talked about the impending challenges for not only his theatre but theatres the world over. The full interview in English is available on the Melmoth blog.
When asked about the best-case scenario for the Bolshoi reopening its doors, he said,
I very much hope that we will resume operations in the new season. That is the best-case scenario. Considering the way this situation is developing, I am almost sure that no performances will be possible until the end of June; perhaps not even until the end of July.
And the worst-case scenario?
I don’t want to get into it, because it’s scary even to predict what would happen if we don’t open in September. It could go as far as the destruction of the theatre. Not the building, of course.
Rescheduling after the opening of the theatre isn’t a case of starting from when the pause button was pressed, or simply beginning with the production that was originally slated for the opening day.
It’s impossible because, for one thing, the process of releasing these productions to the public is already launched. The one-act ballets are basically done. The first rehearsals of The Master and Margarita have already taken place, and most of the costumes and sets are finished, and a lot of money has been spent on the new production of Don Giovanni, so this is why we must go ahead with these productions.
The question is: what is our priority? The new productions, which were supposed to premiere next season, or the ones we haven’t yet had the chance to show? The answer depends on the availability of the production teams and the guest artists. For example, Ildar Abdrazakov was going to perform in Don Giovanni, so we need to know his availability for the next season. But we will only be able to announce any new dates on day X – the day the restrictions associated with the epidemic are lifted.
The epidemic has not only affected Russia – all of our colleagues around the world are, without exception, in the same boat. Their plans are just as unclear. For example, the Metropolitan Opera isn’t just closed – the company has been disbanded. The orchestra, the choir, and the technicians are out on the street. All their contracts have been cancelled. Only the people maintaining the building are left.
Touring is an important aspect of the Bolshoi’s programming – the opera company tours regularly and half of the huge ballet corps are almost continuously away from Moscow.
Our opera tour to Toulouse and Paris hasn’t gone ahead – that was in March. On the 31 May, our ballet company was supposed to fly to Washington and Chicago, but that tour has been cancelled as well, and now our November tour to Japan is also up in the air. The Japanese have cancelled the Olympics, and it’s unclear how the situation is going to unfold. Naturally, the French and the Americans are constantly in touch with us, checking if the cancelled tours can be rescheduled, and what the new dates would be. But who can predict that right now?
The tours we plan as a matter of course may now be cancelled simply due to a lack of funds. I’m not ruling out that coronavirus may bring around major changes to ticket prices and the salary rates that have been established in the global theatre market. I am almost certain that theatres around the world will be unable to match the 2019 salaries.
I think that Moscow will also experience a corresponding readjustment of prices. We must understand that after the theatres reopen, it’s unlikely that people will be able to afford the old ticket prices.
At the Bolshoi, it’s not only the theatre stage that is vast, but also the number of people employed there.
There are 3,400 people. The March salaries were paid out in full, since the theatre operated for almost the entire month – performances ran until the 15th, and rehearsals finished on the 25th. The salaries for April, May and June will depend on funds provided by the government.
Singers and musicians can practice at home, but dancers can’t jeté around their living rooms. Many companies are doing Zoom or YouTube classes together, but not the Bolshoi.
Everyone keeps in shape the best they can, on their own. I can’t imagine how this could even be done from a technical standpoint: there are 250 dancers in the company!
So if the dancers have no class until the beginning of the next season, that will mean up to six months without them having rigorous training.
I think it will take at least a month [for them to get back in shape], but do you honestly think that people will rush to buy tickets as soon as they go on sale? It will take time for the audiences to return to the theatre, both for financial and psychological reasons. I believe that this epidemic will fundamentally change the relationship between the theatre and the audience.
The Bolshoi, like many others theatres, are offering videos of its productions without a subscription.
It is an extremely complicated matter because it has to do with the rights to productions. We give the companies who film these productions access to the rights for a certain amount of time. Because of the quarantine, we’ve had to reach out to these companies and get their permission to show the productions for free on our platform. They agreed, out of solidarity.
Under normal circumstances, outside of an epidemic, theatres are mainly driven by a desire to capture the production. Many theatres have a season, where a production disappears after a few performances. Recording and broadcasting is a way to keep a record of it. We’re a repertoire-based theatre, and we try to make sure that our productions run for many consecutive years, so why would we want to broadcast them? In our current situation, free broadcasts are, of course, a humanitarian gesture. Because, as I’ve said before, we have an enormous challenge ahead of us in getting audiences back into the theatre when we reopen.
According to research, when a theatre announces a new production, the interest in its core repertoire rises by approximately 30-35%. Regular and frequent premieres maintain the audience’s interest in the theatre as a whole. The challenge is to balance the classical repertoire that keeps the company in shape, and which the Russian school of ballet is based on, with new things that are out in the world today. If you get the audiences accustomed to this, then every new premiere will excite interest.
So the Bolshoi will reopen with many new premieres?
At the very least, we will try.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.