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Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre

A scene from Nosferatu
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On Friday, before a largely invited audience at the sedate if slightly shabby Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, deep in the Urals in the far east of Russia, a remarkable premiere was offered by a largely Greek creative team. Nosferatu, a three act piece constructed jointly by the venue’s young artistic director Teodor Currentzis, the Greek conceptual artist Jannis Kounellis, the composer Dmitry Kourliandski, the librettist Dimitris Yalamas and the director and choreographer Teodoros Tersopoulos, is a terrifying evocation of the worst nightmares of the 21st century told using tropes of classical Greek theatre. There is a cast of around 160, including orchestra, chorus and dancers.

This production, which has one more performance this week as part of the city’s annual Diaghilev Festival and then won’t be seen until it goes to Moscow’s Bolshoi next spring, is the opera house announcing its intention to shake off its cloying traditional image (its subtitle of the Tchaikovsky theatre was added in 1956 in honour of the composer born a 300 kilometres from here) and declare itself for the avant-garde.
It is a very bold step for the general manager, 42-year-old Marc De Mauny, who studied with Athens born Currentzis at the St Petersburg Conservatory and was brought east by him in 2011. In the war, when the city was a centre for arms manufacture and of the gulag system and known as Molotov, the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) was evacuated here for four years and created a dance school, with Perm subsequently becoming one of Russia’s three major ballet companies after the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.

But De Mauny’s 850 seat theatre, he says, has been stymied by a dispiriting repertoire of badly rehearsed operas and ballets people no longer want to see. Three years ago a previous governor of the region was persuaded that culture was the road to revival for Perm and created a series of programmes accordingly; the theatre’s contemporisation is the only a survivor of the policy, but it is keenly supported now by the local government and its subvention from Moscow.

The theatre is 90% funded by the district of Perm, but most of that goes to the upkeep of the 1870s building and keeping it lit for more than 300 nights a year. Ticket prices are kept low, seats here are cheaper than for the cinema, with an average 85% houses. The extraordinary production – part opera, part installation art – has cost £400,000 to mount, a sum which is unthinkable from De Mauny’s budget. It has been made possible by the Stella Art Foundation, created 11 years ago by the enlightened wife of a gas businessman, Stella Kesaeva, whose mission is to bring Russian contemporary art from the underground. She was persuaded because of the presence in the team of the artist Kounellis, an early hero of hers whose minimalist backdrop gives the stark atmosphere to the opera.

Sponsorship was almost unknown in this part of Russia before De Mauny’s arrival, and even now he says a minimum of 30% of a theatre’s turnover should be devoted to creating the art and maintaining its quality; he can assign just 10% so far – that is despite increasing the sponsorship by ten times to the value of £1 a year. He has, however, hired its first ever development director, formerly on the staff of the IT company which was one of the first sponsors for the programme that he found.

The biggest adventure, however, is the creation of a brand new £160m theatre, paid for largely by the state, to be added to the old one. It is designed by Sir David Chipperfield with a stage a third bigger than the original and 1200 seats and is due to open in September 2016.

De Mauny’s brief has also been to increase international awareness of Perm and its theatre, a tough challenge for a city so far away it is in a different time zone even from Moscow. He is doing it through co-productions with companies in France, Germany and Britain so far – English National Opera’s presentation of Peter Sellars’s The Indian Queen to be seen in London next spring is a Perm co-production.

In this country sponsorship traditionally is what allows arts companies to be experimental while supporting the repertoire. In the Urals where subsidy accounts for most of the income, it is impossible to be experimental without the new blood of sponsorship. “What makes the avant-garde possible in Russia?” Kesaeva asks rhetorically. “organisations like mine do”.

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