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Valery Gergiyev: Sometimes people think they are holding a magic wand

September 21, 2015, 8:00 UTC+3
Artistic and general director of the State Academic Mariinsky Theater in TASS special project Top Officials
6 pages in this article
© TASS/Ruslan Shamukov

In TASS special project Top Officials, artistic and general director of the State Academic Mariinsky Theater Valery Gergiyev speaks about rivalry with Bolshoi Theater, his love for football and attitude towards Crimea and Ukraine.

About tight timetables, sound mind, rivalry with Moscow’s Bolshoi and Viktor Chernomyrdin’s millions

 I’ve taken a look at your timetable…

— My lifetime’s timetable? It has remained practically unchanged over the past 35 years. Possibly, it’s still tighter now. I spend much time on the road, touring cities and countries.

 That’s my point. Don’t you ever feel like making a stop and looking back?

— I work with several music companies – in St. Petersburg, London, Munich and some other places. Mine is a conductor’s job. I have large orchestras to guide. That’s an excellent way of changing activities. And of taking an outsider’s look at what you are doing.

The audience that has gathered to hear a famous orchestra under a famous conductor is entitled to getting the maximum pleasure

 When you wake up in the suite of yet another hotel, do you recall at once where you went to sleep the day before?

— I do hope that I am still of sound mind and disposing memory… If you wish I can recall in the proper order the cities and countries I toured over the past few months. Mind you, the list is going to be a long one: Russia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Britain, Germany, Monaco, Japan, Sweden, China, Italy and Switzerland… In the middle of September, Rotterdam hosted my 20th jubilee festival, this time devoted to Sergey Rakhmaninov. More than 12,000 listeners visited my concerts… Wherever we may be playing we perform at 100-percent capacity. That’s a must. The audience that has gathered to hear a famous orchestra under a famous conductor is entitled to getting the maximum pleasure. For that we must always move forward.

Even the 1990s were fruitful and successful for us. Instinctively I tried to turn the theater into an equivalent of the Vatican, a miniature state with its own Constitution in order to be immune from external risks. We do remember the no easy time the country was living through and the turmoil in the economy, and not only in the economy.

 Does that mean you proclaimed yourself the Mariinsky Theater’s Pope?

— That’s a figure of speech. Of course, I could not build a fortress wall around the theater. The square is open all around. The theater has twelve entrances. You can use any of them top get in… It was my strong wish the theater had a chance to live by its own rules, and I demanded obedience to the internal, corporate rules. Whenever some abused the code of conduct or fell out of step, I instantly froze relations with that person. I needed close associates whom I would be able to rely on. Some tried to use the Mariinsky Theater as a springboard, to perform on its stage several times for the sole purpose of clinching a second-rate contract in Dusseldorf, Vienna or London. I never used force to keep people, but I severed all further contacts with them. All of my thoughts were not about defectors, but about those who preferred to stay, about preserving the company, about survival. We managed. The 2000s were a little bit easier. Now I’ve had to confront new challenges. But I am certain that we will cope with them with honor and dignity.

 What makes you so dead certain?

— That’s what I am telling you. We gained much strength in the previous hectic years. Apparently, I am not bad as a crisis manager. We wouldn’t have been worth a dime, had we allowed external factors to upset the theater’s work.

True, it is far easier not to give concerts in dozens of cities across Russia every year, not to roam the world, to take my time at the country home near Leningrad, to rehearse, mediate, reflect on the future of civilization and spend time with my kids…

Today's Mariinsky Theater is deservedly considered as a legal successor of the Kirov Theater and its traditions

 You called the city Leningrad. Was it a slip of the tongue?

— The city’s name is part of my life. I graduated from the Leningrad Conservatoire, as a student I went to recitals to the Leningrad Philharmonic Society’s hall, and my job was at the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theater named after Kirov… I believe that somewhere deep inside Leningrad there always remained St. Petersburg, just as in today’s St. Petersburg there still remains a great deal of Leningrad. I am not in the position to judge if it is good or bad. It depends on the angle you are looking from. In the autumn of 1962 the great Stravinsky arrived in his native city after spending half a century away from home. Asked what was it he liked about Leningrad the most, Stravinsky was remarkably brief and meaningful: “St. Petersburg.” That city has no reason to be ashamed of any period of its history. Today's Mariinsky Theater is deservedly considered as a legal successor of the Kirov Theater and its traditions. Suffice it to recall that in the Soviet era the term Kirov Ballet was a synonym of perfection.

 Yet it never rose above Bolshoi.

— Either theater invariably retained its unique, incomparable style. When Galina Ulanova left for Bolshoi, her decision was just another fact in the great ballerina’s biography, but it by no means caused the St. Petersburg’s school of ballet to collapse. Later, many other performers repeatedly changed theaters. Svetlana Zakharova moved to Moscow to be instantly engaged in lead roles. Ulyana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva preferred to stay and I don’t think they’ve lost anything. Naturally, rivalry between these two schools is a reality. It’s a fact of history, but there is no point in making a fuss about that. The leading opera and ballet performers from the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters always appeared on each other’s stages and no one has ever regarded that as an act of treason. One may recall Fyodor Shalyapin, who during one week managed to sing consecutively in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the meantime, there was nothing like today’s high-speed Sapsan express trains connecting the two cities. Only ordinary rail services.

 And much earlier, in the Russian Empire, the royal companies were doing pretty well.

— That is true. But twenty years ago both Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies were on the brink of survival. As soon as the opportunity offered itself, I contacted Russia’s Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in person. I was asking him to support the two giant theaters to save Russian opera and ballet. The situation was critical. I am not exaggerating it. It does Chernomyrdin credit that he turned an attentive ear to us and realized what measures should be taken first thing.

Chernomyrdin replied in his own unique way: “Where do you think I should go to look for the ten million?”

I went to the white marble building of the Russian government overlooking the Moskva River together with Irina Arkhipova, the renowned mezzo-soprano, holder of People’s Artist of the USSR and Hero of Socialist Labour titles and no end of awards, represented the Moscow Bolshoi, and yours truly (in those days a relative young artistic director) the Mariinsky Theater. At first Chernomyrdin was talking exclusively to Arkhipova. Both were born in the South Urals. First they discussed their native places. Then Arkhipova gently steered the conversation to the Glinka contest of vocalists, which was in dire need for fifteen thousand dollars. Chernomyrdin, who got little bit sentimental after recalling his birthplace and younger days, easily agreed: “No problem. Surely, you’ll have the money,” and instantly issued instructions to his aides. Arkhipova, beside herself with joy, was already saying good-buy. The meeting with Chernomyrdin preceded a session of the Cabinet. During the fifteen minutes I had spent in Chernomyrdin’s office I did not say a word. Perfectly aware that we will be asked to bow out the next minute I dared violate the protocol and addressed Chernomyrdin with something like this: “Let me introduce myself. I am from the Mariinsky theater.” Chernomyrdin looked surprised: “Are you? I’d thought you are together with Irina… I reckon you must be having the same sort of problems?” I had to object: “No, my problems are worth much more than the fifteen thousand for the vocal context. Ten million this year are a matter of life and death…” A moment of dead silence followed. Then I went on: “It’s too bad we are so pressed for time, but we’ve got to remember that it was neither me nor you, Sir, who built the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theaters, and it is not us who are destined close them. Unless resolute steps are taken to rescue the national cultural shrines, far more efforts and funds will have to be spent some day to revive them.” Chernomyrdin replied in his own unique way: “Where do you think I should go to look for the ten million?” Then I dared drop a remark that did not sound politically correct at all: “The war in Grozny is probably devouring much more every single day. Or every single hour.” Let me remind you that our meeting was taking place at the beginning of 1995, when the first Chechen war was in its acute phase. Chernomyrdin surely did not like what I was telling him. He looked somewhat strained. Yet, he managed to keep his emotions at bay and asked: “Is something wrong with the buildings? Some repairs needed?”

“Repairs, yes,” I replied. “But the main problem is somewhat different. We may be doing a little bit better, but the state of affairs at the Bolshoi couldn’t be worse. Problems are many – from the organization of tours and ticket sales, the latter being in the hands of organized crime, to repertoire and the condition of performing companies. The great veterans are retiring on pension while talented youth prefer to leave for the West, where they get paid properly.

 What did Chernomyrdin say?

— The dialogue turned very emotional, to say the least.

 On both sides?

— It so happened… But at the key moment I uttered a phrase that turned the tide. I asked. “When did you go to the Mariinsky Theater last time?” Chernomyrdin, who at once got less formal, only smiled: “What kind of theaters are you talking about, man? So many chores around to attend! Do you think I have a spare minute to go out? I am a gas worker by profession. Toiling away is my hobby. Do you know the way our industry is run? You appoint a manager. The guy proves worthless. What do you do? Kick him out and appoint another one… No time to wait. But you’ve persuaded me. Next time I am in St. Petersburg, I promise to drop in. Now, go ahead. I am listening.” We returned to the table and spent another 40 minutes talking business. Chernomyrdin’s aides were taken to tasks for poorly briefing their boss before the meeting. I told him about meager salaries our top stars and musicians were being paid, the frozen waiting list for new housing and the appalling condition of technical infrastructures…

 Did Chernomyrdin come to your theater in the end?

— Honestly? We met several times at the Moscow Bolshoi, at various gala meetings and shows on the occasion of important dates. Also, we met several times in St. Petersburg, and also in Kiev, where he served as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. I was even invited to his dacha-type home in the countryside and introduced to his wife… Over years our relations became friendly, I would even say, cordial.

Chernomyrdin kept the promise he gave me in 1995 to allocate $10 million to support the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters

 And still, you did not answer my question.

— I presume that Chernomyrdin has not seen a single stage production at our theater, but he kept the promise he gave me in 1995 to allocate $10 million to support the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters. In those days it was an impressive financial infusion, indeed! As a result at that critical point we managed to retain our wonderful young talents – Netrebko, Borodina, Galuzin and Putilin, who made the opera company a whole lot stronger. Noticing talented vocalists at the right time is one of my strengths, believe me. The state of affairs in the ballet company was about the same.

In a word, Chernomyrdin’s personal intervention and his firmness played a positive role in the history of Russia’s modern musical theatre. At least, I will always remember that.

 You’ve always managed to find supporters and sponsors…

— Please, don’t think it’s so simple and easy for me. I believe it is important to explain at any cost to the two government ministries concerned – the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture why music lessons should be restored to the standard curriculum of secondary schools. Or possibly the ministries will have to be forced to do so under the pressure of public opinion. So far all of my attempts have failed...

What’s the point of ruining what was well established and worked perfectly well? We all attended singing classes in school. Each school had a choir. What was so wrong about that, may I ask? Breaking something apart and then putting the pieces together again seems to be our favorite pastime… We have now managed to create Russia’s grand national children’s choir. The boys and girls there are really wonderful, but that’s a drop in the ocean. It is surely not enough!

About home, father, dancing, football and office with secretaries in antechamber

About earnings, the Forbes list, White Nights, friendship, Putin, Gref and Tchaikovsky

About letters of support, Kekhman, Medinsky, Bashmet and persons of Caucasian nationality

On President Poroshenko’s present, Dmitry Khvorostovsky’s health, and a request from the Grand Duke of Luxembourg

On ‘colored aural sense’, the Champions League, the look from under the eyebrows, and occupational illnesses

 

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