Russia's Love Of Opera

In the bitter cold of Russia in winter, with the economy in ruins and even basic supplies hard to come by, you might believe all is despair. But walk the streets of Moscow at night and listen carefully. Communism is history and the arts are flourishing. Opera is booming in the Russian capitol. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman reports.

It would be so easy conclude that all is lost in Russia. But that would be a mistake.

Yes, this is one of the coldest Russian winters in memory, and food and fuel are in short supply. As the thermometer has plunged, so too has the Russian ruble, hitting new lows each week. The collapse of the economy last summer is now simply called 'the crisis' and it shows no sign of ending.

But while the country and the economy lurch from one day to the next, the arts are flourishing.

If you want to see the new Moscow, just drop by the Helikon Opera. Dmitry Bertman is the artistic director. He's the boy wonder of Russian opera, a director whose star is rising here and in the West. All of 31 years old, he was just 23 when he founded Helikon back in 1990.

There are so many choices now. In opera, it used be simple: the staid old Bolshoi or the smaller Stanislavsky. Now, on a typical night there are half a dozen companies serving up opera, including the seven-year-old Novaya or "New" Opera. The Novaya's new home is a $35 million gift from the mayor of Moscow, who sees the classical arts as way to put his city back on the map.

But the most of audacious of all is the Helikon.

Says Bertman, "Performance cannot be boring - this is a love story, and very important. Opera, I think she's a woman. And public, I think, man. And opera must love public, and public must love opera. And this is problem: to make this love."

Dmitry Bertman

If you think Russia is a place where everything's gone wrong, where life is miserable, where there is no vibrant cultural life, think again.

Ray Stultz can set you straight. By day, Stults is a businessman. By night, he is the opera critic for the local English language daily, The Moscow Times.

"It's an extremely lively culture, with 60 theaters, six opera companies, art galleries, 25 orchestras," he says. "It's an amazing cultural life - very, very lively cultural life that goes on in spite of everything."

Were she alive today, Countess Elizabetha Shahovskya Gelobova Striashneyva would almost certainly approve. She was one of the great art patrons of 19th century Moscow. In the very ballroom of her palace, where Tchaikovsky and Debussy once performed, Helikon has created a tiny opera house. It has just 250 seats, and every one of them is full every night.

On a recent night, there was a production of Carmen in which te women don't make cigarettes, they smoke them. It was an energetic, raunchy Carmen set in a Moscow alley... The political masters of the Politburo would turn in their graves if they saw this. And that, of course, is the point.

This is a new generation and a new voice. There is hardly a gray hair to be found in this company. Soprano Marina Karpechenko is just 30.

Does she think something like Helikon could have happened in Moscow 20 years ago? Her answer is definitive. "No. Twenty years ago, of course not! No," she says.

Why not? "Because of the government and of the communists," replies Karpechenko.

These new freedoms come at a price. The average salary in this company is $50 a month, below the poverty line even by Russian standards.

It's no easier for the audience. Stults says, "For the average person here it's not cheap. But people will spend their money on this sort of thing. People will spend their money on the arts. The economics of things here are very hard to figure out."

The crisis that has rocked the Russian economy looms here. The Moscow government has fewer rubles to hand around, salaries are dwindling and new productions are threatened.

But Moscow "is a sacred place" to Marina Karpechenko. "I love to live here," she says. "But sometimes I think it will be very good if I could have a husband who can work in America or in Europe for maybe one, two years, and sometimes to come here. But," she says with a laugh, "it's only dreams."

Dmitry Bertman says he wouldn't leave. "If I had no theater, this theater, Helikon, maybe I will think about this. I can't think about this. But you know, behind me [are] 260 people. It's impossible, and they believe [in] me... we must feel together bad and good. This is our love story."

There is a twist at the end of the Helikon's Carmen. In the original she is stabbed by the man she seduced and then spurned. But here, convention is ignored, and it's his jealous girlfriend who kills Carmen.

Off stage and on, it is a love story about creating something new. It is defiantly not about recreating the old.

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