(By Dr Shahid Qureshi – Astana – Kazakhstan): –
Being in Astana and not visiting Astana Opera House is like an incomplete visit to Kazakhstan. Although I have been to the Astana Opera House few times with Giles Frasier of The Guardian and Jonathan Fryer of SOAS, University of London. This time Nick Fielding of The Sunday Times and I went to see the opera House for the press tour. Aigerim Seisembayeva officer from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Kazakhstan took us to the Opera House.
Astana Opera House press officer Assel Nakupova greeted us at the security point. She told us that ‘there will be Opera show tomorrow’. Taking this opportunity, I requested if Nick and I could attend the show but no tickets were available. She said: ‘I will speak to my director’. Later on we were told that: we could attend the show tomorrow 7 pm start.
Nick and I arrived on time and it was packed with some expat Kazaks as well as who came to Kazakhstan form all corners of the world including China. Kazakhstan National TV requested an interview about the Opera House and the show which I agreed to do. It will be translated in Kazka language before broadcast.
The State Opera and Ballet Theatre “Astana Opera” was founded in 2013 on the initiative of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev.
A close-knit international team of architects, builders and specialists from 33 countries worked on the opera house’s exterior and interior. The main architect is Renato Archetti. Nursultan Nazarbayev has actively participated in the project at all stages, including its practical implementation. The ideas and suggestions of the Leader of the Nation were applied in the building process. The opera house construction took about three years.
Situated on the left bank of the river Ishim, the Astana Opera is striking in its splendor. In its architectural excellence, it is on par with world famous opera houses, such as the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Teatro Real in Madrid, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, etc.
The opera house is located on a plot of almost 9 hectares. The building itself is 64 thousand square metres. The main stage area, which consists of 4 sections, occupies about 3 thousand square meters. The Astana Opera is impressive not only in its scale, but also in its architectural refinement. It is constructed on the basis of the best classical architectural traditions, Kazakh national motifs are accentuated in the opera house’s architecture. Sculptural compositions Kobyz Player and Girl with Zhetygen by M. Mansurov and T. Ermekov, respectively, decorate the main entrance.
A pediment crowned with a Quadriga with the Saka Queen Tomiris (author – Kanat Nurbaturov) is supported by an external nave of slender columns. In the main foyer, the floor, walls, decorative panels and twisted marble staircases are decorated with Sicilian marble. The lobby, auditoriums and the main stage are designed in the style of Classicism. The opera house’s main hall is designed for 1250 seats.
There are 2 side stage pockets and backstage area near the central stage. The preliminary set assembly is carried out in the large backstage space. The stage dimensions make it possible to simultaneously place several ready-made sets. Machinery based on the latest theatrical technologies of the XXI century makes it possible to prepare for theatrical performances (opera, ballet, concert, etc.) up to three sets at the same time, not including the one already placed on the stage. With the help of a hoist the scenery moves from one platform to another, which allows for quick and easy scenic changes.
The orchestra pit is designed for 120 musicians and, if necessary, can be used to expand the stage.
The rooms for the orchestra are located around the orchestra pit. Rehearsal halls that require higher ceilings are conveniently located on other floors. The musicians have eight additional small rehearsal rooms (30 sq.m each). In order for the musicians to use them before the performances, these rooms are located in close proximity to the dressing rooms. There are 13 dressing rooms (35 square meters each with 9 compartments for musical instruments) for various orchestral groups that are located at the orchestra pit level. In addition, there are two dressing rooms for directors and assistants, a dressing room for an accompanist and a conductor.
There is also a large rehearsal hall (about 200 sq.m.) for the choir, it is designed for 100 people and is connected to the stage by stairs and elevators, which reduces the time spent on changing costumes during performances. In the immediate vicinity of the two small choir rehearsal rooms there are additional dressing rooms.
There is a rehearsal hall for the ballet company the size of the stage, with daylight. In addition, there are 9 nine-seat dressing rooms and 2 rehearsal halls for soloists, a dressing room for the principal dancers and choreographers. A network of vertical and horizontal aisles easily connects these rooms with the stage. There is also a massage room, a physiotherapy room, and a first-aid post. In total there are more than 60 dressing rooms in the opera house. 8 VIP dressing rooms are located near the stage exits. There are also 8 individual dressing rooms for soloists.
The Chamber Hall seats 250 audience members. It is designed to hold chamber music concerts, performances by ensembles, choral collectives, a small symphony orchestra, etc. Leading experts from Italy worked on acoustics; as a result, unique sound characteristics were achieved in all audience halls of the opera house. The acoustics of both halls are among the best in the world. The Astana Opera House is attractive for any singer who dreams of singing on a stage with good acoustics – the singers’ voices sound voluminous and colorful here, easily reaching any point of the auditorium.
The technical equipment of the Astana Opera is on par with world’s leading opera houses, sometimes even surpassing them. All the opera house’s auxiliary premises (stage, backstage, various workshops, and numerous rehearsal rooms) and everything that sets in motion and makes effective the theatrical mechanism meets world standards.
Today, everything is aimed at ensuring that the opera house’s creative content does not concede to its beauty. The Astana Opera features classical opera masterpieces, and ballet productions by world-class masters delight the audience.
On June 21, 2013, M. Tulebaev’s great creation Birzhan-Sara inaugurated first theatrical season. The world premiere of the opera house was held in autumn of the same year, G. Verdi’s opera Attila directed by the legendary Pierre Luigi Pizzi was presented to the entire world community. General and Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Principal Guest Conductor of the Astana Opera Maestro Valery Gergiev was conducting.
The first theatrical season featured premieres of the ballets Sleeping Beauty by P.I. Tchaikovsky staged by the world-renowned choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, Romeo and Juliet by S. Prokofiev, staged by the famous French choreographer Charles Jude, and an exciting modern production by the famous Russian choreographer Boris Eifman – Rodin.
The well-known Russian director Yuri Alexandrov staged the wonderful opera La Boheme by G. Puccini. A world classical masterpiece Spartacus staged by the legendary Yuri Grigorovich to the genius music of A. Khachaturyan took the discerning spectators’ breath away.
Kazakhstani masters of choreography T. Nurkaliev and G. Buribayeva presented P. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, where the 3D effects were first used at the Astana Opera. The opera house also introduced the original production of the famous Teatro alla Scala – Tosca by G. Puccini. The masterpiece was staged the famous director Luca Ronconi. One of five most performed operas in the world became a real celebration of Italian music for the audience. The tour of the famous Italian Teatro alla Scala ended the season. The artists’ brilliant performances run for five nights.
The second season featured five premieres – three ballet performances: Karagoz by G. Zhubanova, the Nutcracker by P. Tchaikovsky, the Fountain of Bakhchisarai by B. Asafiev and two operas by G. Verdi – La Traviata staged by H. Broghaus and Aida staged by the outstanding director F. Zeffirelli.
Along with the productions of the Astana Opera, guest companies’ performances, including the Abai Opera House, Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, creative teams from China, Z. Paliashvili Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theater, were featured for the viewers. Mariinsky Theatre visited the Astana Opera twice. A special event in the cultural life of the country was the tour of the world’s oldest opera house – Teatro di San Carlo.
Within the framework of the second theatrical season the opera company, chorus and symphony orchestra of the Astana Opera went on an international tour, which included 5 countries: USA (New York), Canada (Toronto), France (Paris), Belgium (Antwerp), the Netherlands (Rotterdam). All the performances have met with great success. The ballet company went on a separate tour in Italy. The dancers have demonstrated their skills at the Teatro Carlo Felice.
The repertoire novelties of the third theatrical season were the national opera Abai by A. Zhubanov and L. Khamidi, the ballet La Bayadère by L. Minkus, the opera Madama Butterfly by G. Puccini, and R. Petit’s ballet Notre Dame de Paris to the music by M. Jarre.
For the first time in the national opera art, six Kazakhstani vocalists performed all the main parts at the premiere of the foreign opera house in the opera La Boheme (Teatro Carlo Felice, Italy). A noteworthy event was the tour of the Astana Opera Symphony Orchestra, which took place with great success at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre. An outstanding contemporary maestro Valery Gergiev was conducting.
III Silk Road International Festival opened the fourth season of the Astana Opera. The residents and guests of the capital immediately fell in love with the Silk Road festival since its inception. It became the long-awaited celebration of the high-art. The festival program was rich with various events – opera and ballet performances, concerts in the Main and Chamber Halls with the participation of guest artists from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Korea, Japan, Germany and Italy. The culmination of the festival was the tour of the St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet. The artists of this truly unique author’s theatre presented the ballet Onegin. The modern interpretation of the textbook work of the Russian literary classic has not left anyone indifferent. The performance was attended by the Head of State N.A. Nazarbayev.
In the first half of the IV season an interesting creative project within the framework of one of the memorandums on cooperation with foreign theatres was carried out. On December 1, 2016, the Astana Opera hosted a large company of the Novosibirsk Theatre (soloists, chorus, orchestra), headed by its General Director, Vladimir Kekhman. The colleagues from Novosibirsk presented at the Astana Opera an opera-quest Turandot by G. Puccini, which caused genuine interest among fans of theatrical art.
Every year the opera house grows more confident: the mastery of the soloists and creative groups improves, international relations strengthen, and the opera, ballet and concert repertoire expands.
With all the diversity of the opera house’s creative life, the main event of the first half of the fourth season was the premiere of L. Minkus’ ballet Don Quixote, staged by the Artistic Director of the Astana Opera Ballet Company – People’s Artist of Russia, rector of the Kazakh National Academy of Choreography Altynai Asylmuratova. The classical ballet masterpiece caused incredible public interest and became a great gift for the viewers.
The beginning of 2017 was marked by another bright premiere. The first Kazakh national opera Kyz Zhibek by Y. Brussilovsky was staged by the famous theatre director Mikhail Pandzhavidze (Russia, Belarus). The author of the new musical edition, music director and conductor, Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan Abzal Mukhitdinov replaced the conversational dialogues with musical recitatives, and added several episodes using the music of famous Kazakh songs and kyus. Along with classical instruments, the audience has the opportunity to enjoy the sound of folk instruments – dombra, kyl-kobyz, shan-kobyz, zhetygen and kerney. Not only the stunningly beautiful sets and opulent costumes by Sofya Tasmagambetova and Pavel Dragunov, incredible 3D effects, but also the presence of live animals – camels and horses – onstage delight the viewers.
The Kazakhstani premiere of one of most popular productions of world repertoire – the dramatic ballet Manon staged by the famous British choreographer sir Kenneth MacMillan to the music of J. Massenet took place on April 28 and 29. The ballet tells the story of the tragic love of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier de Grieux, the heroine faces a difficult choice between wealth and love. The late choreographer’s widow Lady MacMillan entrusted the staging of the production at the Astana Opera to well-known ballet masters Karl Burnett and Patricia Ruanne. Music Director and Conductor – Arman Urazgaliev. Realistic-looking sets and costumes in the XVIII century style by Nicholas Georgiadis also add to the authenticity of the performance.
Thus, to date, the opera house repertoire features 11 ballets and 9 operas.
The State Opera and Ballet Theatre “Astana Opera” is a member of the Opera Europa organization. The company strives to make the Astana Opera brand known throughout the world.