Director with a pure heart

[b][i]New premiere of Puccino’s Turandot — his last, incomplete masterpiece — interpreted by National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre Director Mikhail Pandzhavidze, marking anniversary in grand style[/b][/i]When a creative person serves not personal interest but a higher purpose, they don’t act with awards or recognition in mind, but for the joy of delighting others and benefitting their country. One such is Mikhail Pandzhavidze, responsible for staging many wonderful shows since he joined Belarus’ Bolshoi Theatre in 2010. Hard work never goes unnoticed, resulting in two major awards: the National Theatrical Award for Verdi’s Nabucco and the special Award of the President of the Republic of Belarus ‘For Spiritual Revival’ — for staging Grey Legend, by Dmitry Smolsky.
New premiere of Puccino’s Turandot — his last, incomplete masterpiece — interpreted by National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre Director Mikhail Pandzhavidze, marking anniversary in grand style

When a creative person serves not personal interest but a higher purpose, they don’t act with awards or recognition in mind, but for the joy of delighting others and benefitting their country. One such is Mikhail Pandzhavidze, responsible for staging many wonderful shows since he joined Belarus’ Bolshoi Theatre in 2010. Hard work never goes unnoticed, resulting in two major awards: the National Theatrical Award for Verdi’s Nabucco and the special Award of the President of the Republic of Belarus ‘For Spiritual Revival’ — for staging Grey Legend, by Dmitry Smolsky.
Before coming to Minsk, he worked at various other theatres across Russia, staging the opera Love of the Poet at the Tatar State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre (named after Musa Jalil); it was the first time that the theatre was nominated for the Gold Mask National Theatrical Award of Russia. His work there also earned him the G. Tukay Award of Tatarstan and the Tantana award for the play Jalil, by Nazib Zhiganov.
Mr. Pandzhavidze is, of course, always happy to receive awards, since they evince success. He worked with pleasure in Kazan and is happy to now find a worthy niche in Belarus. In just three years, he has strengthened the image of our Bolshoi Theatre, which celebrated its 80th anniversary this year. As a leading theatre across the CIS and Europe, it has toured over 30 countries, bringing joy to audiences far and wide. Belarusian actors are known and loved, having performed in Lithuania, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Poland, Estonia, Spain, the UK, France and elsewhere this season alone.
Among the most significant creative projects of the Bolshoi Theatre are those involving Director General Vladimir Gridyushko: the Big New Year’s Ball, Evenings of the Bolshoi Theatre at the Radziwill Castle; and the Minsk International Christmas Opera Forum. How spectacular and magnificent was the anniversary concert, at which gathered stars of Belarusian opera and ballet; the audience was utterly captivated.
According to Art Director Alexander Kostyuchenko, Mr. Pandzhavidze is transformed to another plane when all his hard work comes together, creating a masterpiece. It’s hard to disagree. In creating a play, he gives us his soul. The emotions aroused by the Bolshoi’s opera and ballet performances transport us to a higher level of feeling; lucky are those who have had their breath taken away by such a performance. Mr. Pandzhavidze’s Turandot chorus is so powerful that shivers travel up and down your spine. Puccini’s tremendous chorus in this work has such psychological impact that we quite forget that we are watching a performance. Each member has their own distinct identity within that rousing crowd, inspiring a personal response from the audience. The gestures and expressions of each member resound, down to the natural carelessness on the children’s faces. You cannot but ponder the destinies of these ‘little’ people.
Mikhail is a director with charisma, a leader in his profession and a wealth of talent, supported by an excellent crew of actors, musicians and technicians. Audiences laugh and cry when his curtain rises, showing their feelings readily. None leave the Bolshoi’s performances indifferent, which is his one true aim.
Standing before me, Mr. Pandzhavidze is open and sincere, clearly without vanity in his appearance and driven by an inner desire to give all of himself to his work. In discussing the theatre, his face lights up. He shows me some video clips of his Barber of Seville and it’s obvious that every detail gives him pleasure, almost in a child-like fashion.
I’ve seen most of Mr. Pandzhavidze’s performances in Minsk and know that some will continue to be staged for many years to come: Grey Legend, Nabucco and Tosca among them. I often urge friends to see his works, as his style is unique: vividly alive, intense and personal, unveiling each man’s true nature — for good or bad. Perhaps his greatest skill is his ability to uncloak the soul — not only of the protagonist on stage but our own soul. Performances resonate with authenticity, allowing us to suspend all ‘disbelief’ and see the action as a mirror for our own lives, inspiring us to contemplate our own actions and motivations. We see the rhythm of modern life, with its universal concerns.

For many people, your Turandot was a great event. Was it difficult to work on the play? Are you satisfied with the result? What difficulties arose during rehearsals?
As is natural with such a large production, there were difficulties. There are a lot of people to manage, the music is difficult and the singing parts are demanding. However, this is all familiar. In a past interview, I noted that the most difficult thing is to convince people that the only way forward is my way. Here, I had to convince them that Puccini’s unfinished work deserved my ending.

Did they accept it?
Had they any choice? If they had rejected the idea, I would have abandoned the project. I’ve been planning Turandot since 2008, wanting to stage it in Volgograd; sadly, it lacked our facilities. The Kazan theatre where, this year, I staged Turandot, unfortunately is the inferior to ours.

Are you pleased that our theatre boasts such high technologies?
Why shouldn’t it? I keep up with the times.

Opera is sometimes called ‘an institution of morality’. Do you agree?
In general, art is driven by morality rather than show business. Opera is also educational, like other forms of art. Whatever the theme, it teaches us something, as do drama and operetta.

People commonly believe that directors have more influence over opera staging than the original composers, or the singers. What’s your view?
Theatre life shouldn’t revolve around singers, since soloists, by nature, are individualists. The theatre is a joint structure. It is impossible to decide whether lyrics or melody are most important in a song or which hand is more important: right or left. The conductor is vital to an orchestra in the same way that the director guides a theatre production, even when music is involved. Opera is more than music on stage. Acting, costumes, sets, lighting and direction are also important, or the over all effectiveness of the staging can be compromised. To be most effective, each production must involve the director, conductor and art director as a unified triad. Naturally, the ballet-master is also vital, but the director co-ordinates all aspects, placing themself at the centre.

So, your co-authors are the stage designer, lighting designer and costume designer, each with their own professional subtleties, which you can shape and guide. Did GITIS University, one of the most prestigious in Russia, prepare you adequately?
I was lucky to gain good training at GITIS. I had the opportunity to work with lighting for a long time at our educational theatre, and I also built scenery. It was very good experience and we were taught to work effectively.

What do you most remember from your student years?
There are so many stories that I can hardly choose! I remember the hostel where I lived with my wife and daughter. I could talk forever about the plays we performed and my teachers, as they were top-class. It was 1990, a time of change, and I was only 21. I had to work in different places, playing the violin in the underground and, even, creating a string orchestra. There were four of us and our story would make a great novel or film. I love to recall those times.

How did you arrive in Ashkhabad?
I was born there. My parents moved from Tbilisi to Ashkhabad in 1948, when there was a terrible earthquake. The city was almost wiped from the face of the Earth. Various experts travelled there to rebuild the city. My father, Alexander Sergeevich, arrived there as a child, while my mother, Tamara Fiodorovna, came to Ashkhabad after graduating, to work at the opera theatre. She met my father when they both were working in an orchestra. You might say that I was born in the orchestra pit.
Our house was near the theatre, on the same side of the road. My mother didn’t spend long on maternity leave; as there was nobody to watch me, she brought me to rehearsals. Music entered my life early; my childhood seemed filled only with the theatre, music and violin, so it was natural for me to think of this profession, although I was also good at sports. At 14, I was already working part-time at the theatre (serving an apprenticeship) while studying at college. I played second and first violins and even rose to the rank of leader of an orchestra. Both my grandmothers — on my mother’s side Russian and my father’s Georgian — were born in Tbilisi. They lived in neighbouring streets but did not know each other, never meeting until their children, my parents, met in Central Asia. My brother and I were born there.
My mother’s father is from Smolensk and was a military conductor. In 1941, he went missing and, in 1944, one of his comrade-in-arms told us that Fiodor Markov had died during an attack.

Did you ever meet the coryphaeus of opera direction, Boris Pokrovsky?
Yes; he conducted my diploma defence. At that time, he was a very important figure — distinguished and interesting. Who among us does not know of his achievements?

I’ve heard that the Mariinsky Theatre’s conductor, Valery Gergiev, is rather a dictator. Have you ever faced a similar phenomenon, and what is your attitude towards dictatorship?
Dictatorship at such a level is good. I know Mr. Gergiev and hope to do so for some time. I don’t assess him as a dictator. Rather, he has charisma and is the central figure of the theatre, as you’d expect. He is a great person: pleasant and civilised. Some will always gossip but such words tend to come from those who feel inferior. The larger your group is, the stronger a dictatorship should be, or there will be chaos. Dictatorship should not be confused with rudeness.

Is opera so different from usual stage drama?
No: it’s the same. Only the genres are different, like varying religious denominations. If you don’t appreciate the importance of true acting on the opera stage, you’ll be confined to using terrible clichйs and conventions, with over-dramatic howling and banality.
Stanislavsky said that when a director transforms opera into musical drama, drama and music cease to exist.
He said many things in his lifetime and, above all, liked to experiment.

What are the characteristics of a good actor-singer?
They are the same as those for a good actor who is not a singer. I would emphasise one thing: being a good singer does not prevent you from being a good actor. Having ability for music does not hamper acting talent.

Do your actors pay attention to you?
I can get what I need from them so they must listen to me. You should ask them if you want to know more.

One of my colleagues called you a ‘titan’ on seeing your Tosca. Art Director Alexander Kostyuchenko calls you a ‘goldfish’ caught by the theatre. Is it nice to hear that?
Of course; however, I don’t consider myself to be a titan. Only my efforts are titanic; especially for Turandot recently. The goldfish fulfils only three wishes, unless placed in a hot pan! The same may have happened to me!

Your Nabuссo has been called a forerunner of psychological opera theatre.
I think this applies more to Tosca, since Nabucco lacks many relationships, without which it’s difficult to explore motivations. It’s an opera-fresco: an opera-parable, where there’s little space for actors’ psychological exploration.

And where would you like to try such exploration?
Oh, everywhere. For example, Grey Legend is psychological theatre, combined with drama and music. Although it has many crowd scenes, it’s an actor’s play, with the potential for psychological exploration. First, we learnt to work with large sets, using machinery, to create a modern opera. Then, we focused on the relations between characters, without any additional effects, relying on the acting to carry the performance.
My Aida is a gift to ‘traditional’ opera: a tribute to the memory of Chemodurov. Meanwhile, my Barber of Seville is full of comedy and tricks; delivery is everything, as in conventional Italian comedia dell’arte (masked, with the actors wearing set costumes to denote their role). Italian opera combines the beauty of Italian music with romanticism and comedia dell’arte. It’s timeless in its simplicity, hardly needing scenery or inventive costumes.
Turandot combines psychological theatre with chorus work: not a stationary, old-fashioned chorus, but a vocal ensemble filled with individual personalities. I’ve used Stanislavsky’s method of analysis for the Turandot chorus, allowing them to shape their own characters, rather than directing them down to the last step. Of course, sometimes I have to direct them to move to a certain part of the stage but the most important thing is for them to behave naturally in Turandot. It’s a rare thing but important and lies at the heart of future opera. I’m no innovator; some of my colleagues also do this. Some are successful; some are not.

Do you think that opera goes through fashions?
Opera has always been fashionable, as it includes all art forms. Moreover, we each find what we seek. I cannot speak from a sociological point of view but perhaps we are tired of materialism and spiritual impoverishment. It’s time now to nurture our souls. It’s like a pendulum moving towards Renaissance periodically.

Is the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre praised by critics at home and abroad?
If Russian criticism is foreign, then we are rated highly. Moscow and St. Petersburg offer criticism differing from our own. Some of our opening nights, including mine, have been welcomed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while criticised by local experts. Of course, if you go to a performance seeking to find fault, you’ll certainly do so. Biased criticism is hardly worthwhile and I tend to disregard critics who have no relevant background. Just because you know how to swim does not mean you can swim.

Do you think that criticism ever influences the progress of the arts?
No, despite aspiring to be a public mouthpiece, critics tend to be subjective in their opinions. A fable by Sergey Mikhalkov explains perfectly: called ‘A Cock? Cock-a-doodle-doo! It Isn’t New!’

A jingle for a goat? And a collar for a horse? Where is democracy? Where is equality? Goose brood; it’s no brood, but caste! I cannot be silent! That’s enough! That’s Enough! Basta! An enthusiastic hubbub appears among the crows, who say, “How bravely he speaks! How independent is he! What criticism! It is a pity only that the voice is tiny!” It is not surprising that the voice is tiny, Belonging to a presumptuous dairy Piglet, Who, in a farmyard, tested its ardour! I would like to tell all young demagogues: Read this fable to your teachers!

The Vienna State Opera theatre supposedly reserves one or two rows for journalists and critics. It’s a tradition arriving here. Is it important for you to have the press view your plays?
In the light of what I’ve said, yes, it is important. It would be better for them to come without bearing malice. Tatiana Mushinskaya wrote a good article on the subject. I treat journalism with huge respect, as I like this profession very much. However, I judge on merit and believe that journalists should be like knights: without fear or reproach. Otherwise, journalists are like the foremost ancient profession, selling themselves to the highest buyer.

You seem to respect traditional approaches, including spectacle, with great public appeal. What motivates you these days?
Thinking of Aida, it represents opera as in the times of our grandmothers. It’s a wonderful echo of the past, however grand the performance. As Jerome Jerome said of the little porcelain dog (considered to be a model of petty-bourgeois taste yet remaining an endearing curiosity), it will remain a symbol of its time. Many criticise me for my interpretation of Aida but I reply that tastes differ…

Do you mean that everything is subjective?
No: not everything. If this were true, there would be no point in art education. An appreciation of the arts can be had through training; learn the basics and then you can refine your mastery and feel qualified to comment with an informed opinion. We can never have all the answers, but we can have our own subjective views. However, only that which can be explained can be viewed objectively, and the power of the arts is beyond human explanation.

People may think you are mad…
There’s no need to explain. Don Quixote was also misunderstood. It is difficult to be Don Quixote but we shouldn’t be afraid of seeming ridiculous. The most difficult profession in the world is that of being a ‘fool’. It’s a skill to be able to arouse people’s deeper consideration through such antics.

Which play is most enduring in the Bolshoi repertoire?
Cio-Cio San: it’s difficult to say why.

Is it easy for you to put performances aside?
None has ever closed early but if this happened, I’d cope. I can always watch recordings of old performances if I’m feeling nostalgic.

As Director, which of your duties is most difficult and most easy?
There are three places where people serve: the army, church and theatre. I like to serve, but not to be a servant.

How often do you feel happy?
I’m happy now, as my daughter was born recently. We’ve called her Alexandra.


Interviewed by Valentina Zhdanovich
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