Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Yekatrinburg, Russia

This is the third in a series of three blogs about my autumn trip to Vienna, Budapest and Yekatrinburg, Russia.

This was my fourth time to the city of Yekatrinburg and has it changed! I have not been to Russia in eight years, and seeing it again was an experience in itself. It would take many pages to describe the changes. I will just say it is now much like any other place in Europe in regards to technology, but still retains its Russian soul (for better and worse). But this is about my experiences at the Svedlovsk State Academic Theater of Musical Comedy, a major state theater in the third largest city in the Russian Republic.

I was one of 10 international judges at the Second Vladimir Kurochkin International Competition of Young Artists of Operetta and Musicals. The other judges were from Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

The competitors, age 21 to 35, were professional performers from theaters all over Russia. They entered in one of three categories: Musical Theater, Operetta, Musical Theater Dance.

It was our job, as judges, to watch a first round of competition, where each of the contestants performed two pieces. Operetta was performed with live piano; musical theater with recorded accompaniment and dance with recorded music. We were asked to rate the performances on a scale of 0 to 25, and to judge overall performances; not just voices. Everything counted - presentation, choice of material, dancing, acting, singing etc.

We then had to eliminate about one-third of the contestants. Those remaining moved to a second round, where they again performed two pieces. Some had one new piece and repeated one from the first round; others had two new pieces. In this round the operetta contestants performed their selections with full orchestra. (Ah -- the glories of state funded theaters!)

The entire contest took place in the theater, with full tech -- lighting, sound, costumes (which the performers brought with them), etc. Each contestant received one rehearsal of each piece.

After this round we again rated the performers on the scale of 0 to 25. Following the tabulation, we discussed who should receive the grand prize; plus first, second and third prizes in each category, as well as honorable mentions.

Then all performers were invited to perform in the final Gala Concert. The judging was completed on Monday evening and the concert was on Wednesday evening.

The prizewinners knew they would receive a prize, but did not know what it would be -- maybe honorable mention, maybe grand prize. At the Gala Concert, members of the theater also performed, as well as several of the judges. There were other prizes awarded that did not come from the judges. The audience got to vote for an "Audience Favorite" and the family of Vladimir Kurochkin, the actor and director for whom the contest is named, was awarded a prize.

The entrance fee was 500 rubles. The prizes were pretty substantial -- $5,000 (yes, dollars) for the grand prize, $1,500 for each first prize, $1,000 for each second prize and $500 for each third prize. Honorable mentions received certificates. The special prizes got trophies.

In addition to the contest, the theater held a concurrent meeting of musical theater professors from 15 universities, who shared workshops and master classes on the teaching of musical theater. They also attended some of the competition rounds and the final Gala Concert.

I was able to attend several master classes in addition to the judging. The theater was not running their season yet; it started on October 3. It would have been interesting to see their new musical based on the life of Catherine the Great, but I had to get back for the opening of Side by Side by Sondheim at my theater, Light Opera Works.

I have never served on a jury before and it was a great experience. It was fascinating to hear the judges' widely divergent opinions of the performers, and wonderful to meet musical theater professionals from other nations. I have many fond memories of my week in Yekatrinburg.


I was honored to be invited by one of Hungary's premiere actors and filmmakers, Robert Koltai, to attend a special invited performance of the musical “Sose halunk meg” which translates to " We Never Die".

The musical, which plays in the repertory of Jozsef Attila Szinhaz (Attila Jozsef Theatre) is based on Robert Koltai's 1994 hit film of the same name. Here is a link to the review of the movie:

This musical is a current favorite in Budapest with more than 50 performances last season and many more performances scheduled for the coming year.

The story, also written by Koltai, is based on the life of his own real Uncle Gyuszi, a small time salesman, hustler, gambler and womanizer who leads his teenage nephew on a coming-of-age adventure in communist Hungary in the 1960's.

Mr. Koltai worked with composer Dés László and lyricist Nemes István to turn this popular movie into a stage musical with Koltai himself as Uncle Gyuszi.

I found the show to be delightful and moving. A true love story between a nephew and his uncle and between the uncle and life. Of course, the performance was in Hungarian, but the humanity of the story transcended the language barrier. The music is catchy - ranging from 1960's pop, to gypsy folk, to contemporary jazz and more. I find myself popping the CD in my car player as I drive around Chicago -caught up in its infectious good feeling - even though I do not know a word of Hungarian.

The production's scenery is a minimal unit set that functions for many locations. The 1960's are evoked with the period costumes. An added bonus is the parade of Hungarian stage legends playing a number of compelling characters that the pair encounter on their journey.

The only drawback to the production was the use of recorded music. The theater in which it is performed is traditionally a drama theater and does not usually produce musicals - so there is no place for live musicians. But that aside, if you are traveling to Budapest - Check out “Sose halunk meg”

Vienna, Budapest and Yekatrinburg, Russia

This past summer I was invited to be an International Judge at the Second Vladimir Kurochkin International Competition of Young Artists of Operetta and Musicals in Yetatrinburg, Russia. The contest took place from September 25th to October 1, 2008.

When I learned that I could fly direct from Vienna to Yekatrinburg, I decided to finally visit Vienna. I have been involved with Light Opera Works for almost 30 years and had never been to Vienna. It was time.

In Vienna I was able to stay with my friend Suzanne Kerry and her family. She is an American who has made her living as an actress and singer in Vienna for many years. Through her contacts she was able to get me tickets to The Merry Widow at the Volksoper and to “Rebecca”, a new musical by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay that is literally “burning up” Vienna. (You may remember the Hitchcock film based on the same novel.)

After seeing The Merry Widow performed at the most famous venue for operetta in the world, I believe that Light Opera Works can hold its head high and take great pride in the quality of our work here in Chicago. It is true that the musicians and vocalists at the Volkoper have a special affinity for the works of the composers that brought Vienna such renown in the 19th and early 20th century. But in many aspects of the production of operetta, including: scenery, costumes, staging, choreography, and the work of our singing actors and orchestra, I can honestly say that Chicago artists are as good as, if not better than their Viennese counterparts.

We cannot match a state supported operation like the Volksoper in terms of facilities, rehearsal space, number of performances etc. But in terms of what the audience sees on the stage when they attend a performance, Chicago can hold its head high.