The Bolshoi’s General Director, Vladimir Urin, spoke with Kommersant about the challenges facing the Bolshoi during COVID-19 pandemic and the plans for the future.
What is the General Director of a closed theatre doing now?
Still working, in spite of everything, because the Ministry of Culture and the government are continuing to release new documents relating to the current situation. Initially, they announced one deadline for self-isolation, and they have now introduced another one. Conclusions must be drawn…
You must be considering a few possible outcomes. What are the best- and the worst-case scenarios?
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 certain that no performances are possible until the end of June; perhaps, even the end of July.
Then what is the worst-case scenario?
I don’t want to get into it, because it’s scary to even make a prediction of 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.
Under normal circumstances, April and May is when theatres announce their programs for the coming season. What were you going to surprise us with?
We’ve formed plans, not just for the coming season but for three seasons ahead, but at the moment I couldn’t even tell you when the current season’s premieres are to take place. Three of these have, essentially, been disrupted. Five, if you count the Chamber stage. The program was comprised of a series of one-act ballets, the ballet “The Master and Margarita” and Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni”. Rehearsals were scheduled to commence on the 22nd of April, but I am almost 100% sure that they won’t.
Perhaps you could wipe the slate clean and move on to new productions?
It’s impossible because, for one thing, the process of releasing these productions to the public has already been launched. The one-act ballets are, basically, done. The first set of “The Master and Margarita” rehearsals have run, and most of the costumes and sets are finished. A lot of money has been spent on the “Don Giovanni” decorations. This is why we will still have to run these productions. The question is: what should we make our priority? The new productions, which were supposed to premiere next season, or the ones we haven’t had the chance to run yet? The answer will depend on the availability of the production teams and the guest artists. For instance, Ildar Abdrazakov was going to perform “Don Giovanni”, and we must now determine his availability for the next season. We will only be able to announce any new dates on day X – the day the restriction associated with the epidemic are lifted.
Since [these productions] are going to run anyway, could you tell us what we can expect in the bright future?
Once again, I repeat: I don’t want to announce something that may not happen. The epidemic has not only affected Russia – all of our colleagues around the world are, without exception, in the same situation as us. At this stage, their plans are just as unclear. To give you an example, Metropolitan Opera isn’t just closed – the company has been dispersed. The orchestra, the choir, and the production crews are out on the street. All contracts have been annulled. The people servicing the building are the only ones left.
What about the joint Bolshoi and Met projects?
Only a week ago I received a letter from the General Director of the Metropolitan, Peter Gelb. He writes: “Dear Vladimir, sorry, I don’t know what your plans are but, unfortunately, we won’t be able to performed our joint “Aida” on the date originally planned. I don’t mind if you run the production first.”
Weren’t “Salome” and “Lohengrin” also in the works?
Yes, but we were planning to perform “Salome” and “Lohengrin” first, and pass them on to the Met. They were supposed to run “Aida” first.
Does this mean that all three operas will now premiere at the Bolshoi?
“Salome” and “Lohengrin” will premiere first – hopefully in February 2021. “Aida” will, possibly, follow later. But, I repeat, this is a discussion for after the epidemic is over.
Do you coordinate your plans and efforts with directors of other theatres around the world?
Of course, and not just with the directors, but with the agents and the producers as well – everyone. As of right now, our opera tour to Toulouse and Paris hasn’t gone ahead – that’s it for March [plans]. On the 31st of 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 over there. Naturally, the French and the Americans are constantly in touch, checking if the cancelled tours can be rescheduled, and what the new dates would be. But who can predict that now?
Considering the staggering financial losses, will the impresari have enough money to organise the tours when the borders reopen?
That’s exactly the right question. The tours we used to 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 salary rates that have been established on the global theatre market. I am almost certain that theatres around the world will be unable to match the 2019 salaries.
Will the Bolshoi, too, be forced to lower the price of tickets?
We’re not ruling that option out. 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.
And the Bolshoi is already refunding tickets.
Around 70-80% of are tickets are purchased online. There is no issue there: people will be refunded the cost of their ticket to their credit cards within a month from the original date of the cancelled performance. Those who purchase tickets online don’t even need to request a refund. The physical tickets purchased from the box office are a different matter: the box office is currently physically closed. These tickets will be refunded after the quarantine is lifted.
Are you paying your staff? How many are there, by the way?
3,400 people. The March salaries were paid out in full, since the theatre operated almost for the entire duration of that month: performances ran until the 15th, and rehearsals finished on the 25th. The salaries for April, May and June will depend on the funds provided by the government.
How much is the Bolshoi losing every day it’s closed?
It’s a matter of simple calculations. Last year, we earned 2 billion 700 million roubles from ticket sales. Divide that by the number of working days… You get 9 million a day.
Will the theatre be forced to return the money invested into the cancelled productions to the government or the sponsors?
We hardly rely on sponsors when it comes to staging productions; we use sponsorship money to make up part of the budget for some productions. Usually, the money goes towards the crew and dancer salaries. Moreover, as I’ve already said, we don’t intend to cancel anything. The money we’ve spent on productions came from the government, the sponsors and the Bolshoi’s own earnings, so these production will run in any case.
Are your world-famous opera singers currently in Moscow or are they stuck overseas?
Thankfully, almost all of them are in Moscow. Igor Golovatenko, Elchin Azizov, Dinara Alieva, Anna Aglatova, Anna Nechaeva, Agunda Kulaeva – I could go on.
Opera singers can maintain their voice in self-isolation, but what about ballet dancers? Have any online classes been organised, like they have at Covent Garden, so that dancers feel that they are being looked after, that they’re still a company…
No. Everyone keeps in shape as 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!
Not to mention that they can’t jump, spin or practice en pointe at home.
Exactly! So what are those online classes for? Just for show? You contradict yourself.
But by the time the new season launches in September, the dancers would have spent almost six months without a daily class. How long do you think it would take them to get back in shape?
I think it will take at least a month, 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.
At the moment, theatres all over the world are actively promoting online broadcasts of their ballets. The Bolshoi has also launched an online season on their website, broadcasting recordings of the ballets and operas from its repertoire. Are you worried that people will get used to watching ballets at home and won’t want to come to the theatre?
I am absolutely convinced that those who overuse this medium, broadcasting performances practically after every premiere, are losing audiences. Broadcasts have their advantages, but they lack the most important thing – the emotion and the magic which transpires between the dancer and the audience during a live performance. So, no, I am not worried.
Who’s guilty of overusing [online broadcasts]? Covent Garden?
From my point of view, they are, to a certain degree.
But the Bolshoi also broadcasts through movie theatres?
Note that we don’t broadcasts premieres.
How so? Not long ago the premiere of “Giselle” was broadcast, as were “Etudes”, which were barely ready at the time.
Yes. And now we’re broadcasting the premiere of “Sadko”. But if you look at the Bolshoi’s repertoire and compare it to what’s being broadcast, you’ll see that it’s an exception rather than the rule. Going back to the dangers of broadcasting, there is definitely a risk there. I think that productions must be shared with a lot of care and consideration in order to maintain an interest in the work around the world without giving too much away, thereby substituting a live experience for the audience.
Why have theatres rushed to share the treasures from their vaults in the first place? Is there a strategy here, or is it purely a humanitarian mission?
There is no strategy. One must understand that it is, in fact, 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 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.
I didn’t mean the Bolshoi specifically. Everyone is doing online broadcasts right now.
Under normal circumstances, outside of an epidemic, they are driven, first and foremost, by a desire to capture the production. Many theatres follow the stagione system, when a production disappears from the playbill after a few performances. Recording and broadcasting a production 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 out current situation, free broadcasts are, of course, a humanitarian gesture. Because, as I’ve said before, we have a very challenging process ahead of us of getting audiences back into the theatre when we reopen.
What is the Bolshoi Theatre planning in this regard?
We will try and plan as many premieres as possible. If we organise one after the other, there is a good chance they will draw an audience.
But wouldn’t the public want “Spartacus” or “Sleeping Beauty”?
You’re right, the brand plays a big role here, but in reality things are a little different. 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. “Sleeping Beauty” is a different matter, not a financial one. The challenge is to balance the classical repertoire – that keeps the company in shape, and which the Russian school of ballet is base on – with new things that are out in the world today. If you get the audiences accustomed to [this balance], then every new premiere will excite interest.
Then the theatre’s strategy, when it come to attracting an audience, is to schedule as many premieres in the first months of the new season as possible?
At the very least, we will try.