June 20, 2019
O19, the third edition of Opera Philadelphia’s annual season-opening festival, launches on September 18 with the world premiere of Denis & Katya at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. A nominee for the Fedora Generali Prize for Opera, this immersive new multimedia chamber opera is the work of composer Philip Venables and librettist-director Ted Huffman, the duo behind the award-winning Royal Opera House commission 4.48 Psychosis. Their inspiration was the true story of two 15-year-old runaways who became social media sensations when they livestreamed an armed stand-off with Russian Special Forces that culminated in their own deaths. Commissioned and produced in collaboration with Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier, Denis & Katya marks the latest in a string of important new works first brought to life at Opera Philadelphia, which continues to prove itself “one of American opera’s success stories” (New York Times). Click here to see a short trailer for Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere production of Denis & Katya.
It was in November 2016 that, as the BBC News reported, “Two Russian teens die[d] after firing at police in live web drama.” After running away from home, 15-year-olds Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova livestreamed their final hours on multiple social media platforms, creating a real-time voyeuristic spectacle and leaving behind a trail of devastating footage of their drinking, smoking, cuddling, and crying as they prepared to die. On the chilling livestream, Katya said, “We have zero options.” To re-create their harrowing last days, the new opera interweaves verbatim text, original video footage, social media messaging, and stylized dramatization, breaking the fourth wall in order to examine the vast public response to their story and what this response says about us as a society. As the libretto puts it:
“It’s a constant theater.
It makes you numb.
You can’t help them.
You get used to not helping.
You get used to watching.”
Librettist and director Ted Huffman’s work “conjures dark magic with utmost skill” (Financial Times). He explains:
“I came across the story of Denis and Katya – as many others did – through a Facebook news item, a promoted link: two angelic faces over a lurid headline comparing them to Romeo and Juliet. The story had been chosen for me by an algorithm. I clicked. I forwarded the link to Phil and we started to chat about them, not only about their story but why we had been drawn into it, how it was that the internet cycle of news had brought them to us – these two, chosen from among what must have been thousands of tragic deaths and suicides that day, that week, that month, in the world.
“There is something undeniably theatrical about [Denis and Katya’s] last days. They chose to put themselves on camera. It felt like they were reaching out for some kind of connection on the internet, and I think opera is all about connection. Naturally, the next question is, whose perspective is the storytelling coming from, and it was really interesting to me to try to incorporate multiple perspectives. I think this idea that a community can tell a story is very powerful.”
Philip Venables, “one of the finest composers around” (The Guardian), adds:
“The making of this piece is another form of the kind of ‘watching’ and the kind of exhibitionism or voyeurism that the piece itself is talking about. The piece is going to be a really good mix of theater and opera, a really good mix of drama and reality, of fact and fiction.”
Denis & Katya marks the composer’s second collaboration with Huffman, who previously directed the sold-out world premiere production of Venables’s opera 4.48 Psychosis, a Royal Opera House commission, at London’s Lyric Hammersmith. Based on the final play by Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis was hailed as “a masterpiece” (Opera News) and “a new brand of opera” (The Times of London). Besides scoring nominations for Olivier and South Bank Sky Arts Awards, it went on to win the 2016 UK Theatre Award for Opera, the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Large-Scale Composition, and the 2017 British Composer Award for Stage Work. Earlier this year, after its U.S. premiere at New York’s Prototype Festival, the New Yorker declared Venables “an arrestingly original musical personality” and “a composer of considerable refinement.”
Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere production of Denis & Katya is scored for four cellos and features a double cast, all of whose members take on multiple roles. The first cast pairs American baritone Theo Hoffman, a 2016 Grand Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions who is known for his “solid, burnished baritone” (Opera News), with German-American mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller, who combines “exceptional presence and stage savvy, a gloriously ripe, distinctive mezzo-soprano, and the Junoesque beauty of a European movie star” (Parterre). The second cast comprises British baritone Johnny Herford, whose creation of the leading role in the Royal Opera House’s world premiere production of Philip Glass’s The Trial scored him a Welsh Theatre Award nomination, and Australian mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds, who is “surely a star in the making” (BachTrack). Now making her Komische Oper Berlin debut in the title role of L’enfant et les sortilèges, Edmonds was one of the six original cast members in the world premiere production of 4.48 Psychosis. She, Hoffman, and Herford are all making company debuts in Denis & Katya, while Miller returns to Opera Philadelphia after appearances last year in recital at the O18 festival and as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Working alongside Venables and Huffman is co-creator and dramaturge Ksenia Ravvina, a Russian-born theater director and writer whose interdisciplinary approach embraces visual art, music, and performing arts. The winner of an International Dostoyevsky Chamber Festival Best Director Award, Ravvina is active in the Frankfurt theater scene and is currently developing projects in collaboration with Berlin’s Radialsystem V. Emily Senturia, the assistant conductor for O18’s world premiere production of Sky on Swings, serves as the music director of Denis & Katya. One of six participants in the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors, she recently made mainstage conducting debuts at Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera. Denis & Katya’s scenic and lighting design is by Princess Grace USA Fabergé Theater Award-winner Andrew Lieberman, whose work has been seen at New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, English National Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Festival d’Aix en Provence, and the Royal Shakespeare Company; costume design is by Opera Philadelphia Costume Director Millie Hiibel, a two-time Barrymore Award nominee. The production also features video design by Pierre Martin, whose work graced the world premiere production of 4.48 Psychosis, and sound design by Tony and Obie Award-winner Rob Kaplowitz.
About Opera Philadelphia
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. Described as “the very model of a modern opera company” (Washington Post), Opera Philadelphia was the only American finalist for the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company. For more information, visit operaphila.org.
To download high-resolution photos, click here.
Opera Philadelphia presents world premiere of Denis & Katya at O19
Music by Philip Venables
Libretto by Ted Huffman
Sep 18, 21m, 21, 22, 23, 25, 28 & 29
Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Philadelphia
Co-commissioned and co-produced with Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier
Cast 1 (Sep 18, 21m, 22, 25, 29):
Theo Hoffman, baritone*
Siena Licht Miller, mezzo-soprano
Cast 2 (Sep 21, 23, 28):
Johnny Herford, baritone*
Emily Edmonds, mezzo-soprano*
Director: Ted Huffman*
Co-creator and dramaturge: Ksenia Ravvina*
Music director: Emily Senturia*
Scenic and lighting design: Andrew Lieberman
Costume design: Millie Hiibel*
Sound design: Rob Kaplowitz
Video design: Pierre Martin*
*Opera Philadelphia debut
Major support for Denis & Katya has been provided by the William Penn Foundation.
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© 21C Media Group, June 2019