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Operetta in Kyiv
Soon after Bohdan Strutynsky had become the head of the Kyiv Operetta Theater, he made a breakthrough in the show business of Kyiv. His theater came into the focus of media attention and his theater performances attract large audiences.
Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor, recently paid a visit to the Operetta Theater in Kyiv and talked to its director.
On my way to the director’s office, I passed through the world of discordant sounds, stage props and glamour. The office struck me by its contrast with the world that I had just seen — it was a quiet and respectable place. The director who doubles as the artistic director of the theater (whose official name is Kyiv National Academic Theater of Operetta) was wearing a dark sweater rather than a formal dress as I half expected he would be.
The way he talked and his general appearance suggested that he was a man who valued his time. And there was an air of modesty about him.
For his staging efforts he had been awarded prizes and honorifics. He not only runs the theater as its director — he produces and directs shows.
His innovations were appreciated and his directing style was described as “daringly innovative” and even “somewhat extravagant”.
He took his company on tours abroad and the performances were both critical and popular success.
My first question seemed to take him off-guard.
— Mr Strutynsky, do you sometimes, when off duty, hum tunes?
— That’s an unexpected beginning of an interview! Well, sometimes I do. The tunes are usually those that come from the shows which are currently being rehearsed. But sometimes they are tunes from the catalogue of the popular Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy.
— Does that mean that your musical interests include things which are not operatic at all?
— I’ve been fighting with stereotypes as to what operetta is all about for quite some time. Stereotypes can be a good thing to a certain extent if we are talking about traditions, but often enough serotypes hinder development by their bias. Operetta, or “musical comedy” of the soviet times created unfortunate stereotypes which continue to exist.
— Unfortunate, you say?
— I could use a much stronger word too. Operetta degraded to a cheap, unpretentious show with primitive music. The general public came to regard operetta as a third-class entertainment. But we managed to do away with such stereotypes. As a matter of fact, operetta is arguably the most difficult among the performing arts since it unites instrumental music, choir singing and vocal lead singing, acting and choreography, decorative painting and all the most recent advances in staging performances. As a performing art, operetta requires the highest possible standards. Some of the operettas of the past are not staged simply because they require the opera level of singing and the theaters do not have singers good enough for that.
My theater should by rights be called “a music theater” rather than operetta. There are so many things you can see on our stage packed into one show: musical, opera, drama, ballet, all fused into one.
Incidentally, we are preparing a show that will combine the latest achievements in stage scenery and props with the elements of classical performing art seen through the eyes of today.
— Do you mind telling a story, at least briefly, of your coming to direct the operetta theater in the capital of Ukraine?
— I hail from a village in the Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna in the west of Ukraine. No one in my family had ever had anything to do with theater or music. My mother did some artistic embroidery and her works were even shown at exhibitions abroad. My father was in agriculture cooperative work.
I did feel that my calling was theater and music and I went to study at an art and culture school. I met a lot of interesting people, I got encouraged to go on but I dropped out to go to the city of Rivne and enroll at the Institute of Culture there. After two years of studies there, I happened to come to Kyiv as a member of amateur student group that performed at a humor show. I got noticed by a talent scout and was offered to move to Kyiv and study at the Karpenko-Kary University of Theater, Cinema and Television. I accepted the offer. Among my teachers were Les Tanyuk and Andriy Zholdak, the well-known figures in Ukrainian theater and culture. Even before the graduation I got a proposal to give trainings in fencing there.
It was only once that as a student I went to see a show at the operetta theater in Kyiv. It was real bad. During the performance, friends I was with said they could not stand it any longer and that they were leaving to “have some beer.” I joined them even though I do not drink alcohol.
Upon the graduation, I directed commercials, then shows held at Maydan, the central square of Kyiv, during the celebrations of the Day of Independence and Days of Kyiv. I also went abroad to continue my training. And I kept receiving invitations to be director of the operetta theater. And I kept turning the invitations down. And then, one day I asked myself — Why not? Try to bring the theater to the present-day world standards. I left my work at the Kurbas Center and at Karpenko-Kary University and at the Conservatory where I conducted classes in theater directing.
As director of the operetta theater, I worked fourteen hours a day to give the theater a new image. And six months later the attitude to the theater began to change.
I had to deal with many problems, one of which was debts of which the theater had a lot. I invited young performers and actors. I did my best to change the atmosphere in the theatre, to make people love rather than despise what they were doing. And I think I managed to do that.
— What about traditions? Did you discard them too?
— There were some traditions which were worth retaining. In the soviet times, the Kyiv operetta was among the best in the country. The Kyiv operetta performers were regularly invited to Moscow to take part in the official gala concerts. Choreography was good. Shows based on the national Ukrainian music theater were always on the theater’s repertoire. Ukrainian composers, playwrights and poets, among them Lysenko, Koshytsya, Sadov-sky, Ryabov, Filipenko, Poklad, Zankovetska, Vyshnya, Tychyna and many others, wrote music and plays and librettos for the operetta. There is enough to last for a long time. Such things should not be discarded.
— So you infuse your operetta shows with national coloring. What else foreign audiences are likely to appreciate in your shows?
— High standards of music and performance. Besides, our shows are of the kind that foreign audiences have never seen before. Every show has something special to offer — at one show, the actors leave the stage to mingle with the audience; at another show, all the women in the audience get flowers, at still another show, we get children involved in competitions.
— What about the language you perform in?
— Yes, the language barrier is always a problem. We provide simultaneous interpretation or show the text of the interpretation on a big screen. And that helps those who do not understand Ukrainian appreciate our shows.
We also stage concerts at which we perform numbers for which we get the right to perform from the copyright holders. For example, in our concert devoted to Strauss, we obtained the rights to perform certain numbers from the holders of the copyright in Vienna.
— Your show Welcome to Ukraine was staged at the time when Ukraine was hosting the Euro 2012 soccer championship. Your theater is located next door to the central stadium of Kyiv — did any of the soccer fans come to see your show?
— I don’t think so — but frankly, I did not expect any of them would. Welcome to Ukraine show took quite some time to be developed from disparate ideas. We wanted to introduce elements of singing and dancing borrowed from Ukrainian national traditions and mingle them with the story in which a French girl and a Ukrainian young man get acquainted and fall in love through the Internet. In addition to the live performers, we incorporated videos into the show. The music pieces range from the classical Ukrainian composers like Lysenko to the present-day pop tunes.
— You had quite an extensive innovation and repair job carried out in the theater — did the state pay for that?
— Thanks to our proximity to the stadium and to the Euro games, the city authorities decided we should look good in the eyes of European fans who would come to see soccer games, and we got the money for the exterior repairs, but the interiors were done at our expense.
— What are, in your opinion, the best five operetta theaters in the world?
— Volksoper in Vienna; the operetta theater in Budapest; the operetta theater in Sverdlovsk, Russia; operetta shows staged by the German company Arena — and the operetta theater in Kyiv.
— What about the general state of things in operetta in the Western Europe?
— It lived through a sort of a crisis — but we managed to find our niche. In our shows, in addition to Ukrainian music, we use music of such composers as Paul Abraham, Cole Porter, Jerry Herman and George Gershwin. At the concerts we stage, we often present Ukrainian folk songs — we do try to break stereotypes of what operetta should be about.
At one point we realized that there are dozens upon dozens of operettas that had never been performed in Ukraine — and we began staging them. We have set a branch of our theater which we called Mala stsena (Small Stage) where the audience sits at the tables sipping wine or coffee. There we stage high-class entertainment shows.
— What about the price for the tickets?
— In the soviet times and even later, the price was ridiculously low — so I raised it to seventy hryvnya (less than 10 US dollars). I thought it was affordable. And then I doubled the price — and we do not have any problems in selling out our shows.In the soviet times, cheap tickets and free shows depreciated the performing arts. Our audiences are not just those who have money for entertainment — all those who care for good performing art come to see our shows.
— Do you maintain any relations or contacts with any of the European operetta theaters?
— Yes, we do. Back in 2006, the Rumanian ambassador in Ukraine invited our performers to perform at diplomatic receptions and we got into contacts with the operetta theater Ion Dacian in Bucharest. In 2008, we went to Bucharest to take part in the performing arts festival Viata e frumoasa. Our tour of 2011 in Rumania was a great success and recently the performers from the operetta theater Ion Dacian came to Kyiv to perform at the stage of our theater.
In fact, we maintain contacts with several foreign operetta theaters — in Germany, Austria and Lithuania, to name just a few.
— Do you make good money during foreign tours?
— Not really — but we want to see the world and let the world see us. We want to promote Ukrainian culture in the world!
— Which of the recent shows at your theater you could single out as a particularly good one? Gypsy Baron (Gypsy Baron or The Romani by Johann Strauss the Younger. – ed.)? It has a lot of special effects — and even a live horse appears on the stage!
— Yes, it’s a good show but not at all exceptional for our theater. This show is performed in many operetta theaters of the world but usually not all of the original music score is performed. We use about seventy percent of the original music — no one has ever performed in Ukraine so much of the original. And we do put all we can into it — the energy, the skills, the inspiration!
A scene from the operetta Mister X.
A scene from the operetta A Banquet with Italians.
A scene from the operetta Za dvoma zaytsyamy (“Do not try to chase two hares at once — you’ll catch none”).
The Gypsy King is full of verve.
The director of the operetta theater in the lobby of his theater.
A scene from the show Tango of Life.
Bohdan Strutynsky, both metaphorically and literally, is on his high horse.
In a scene from the operetta Gypsy Baron the rain falling on the performers on the stage is very real, making them soaking wet.
A scene from the operetta Za dvoma zaytsyamy.