ZURICH — “We have a message from Kirill!”
On a recent Tuesday evening in one of the Zurich Opera’s rehearsal studios, choreographer Evgeny Kulagin called out, and a dozen singers and backstage technicians came running. They bounded in to watch the latest video sent by their director, Kirill Serebrennikov, a man few of them have ever met.
Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s leading stage and film directors, has been under house arrest in Moscow since August 2017 awaiting trial on corruption charges that are widely considered to be trumped up, a punishment for provocative work that stoked the ire of Russia’s ruling elite. He is accused of embezzling 133 million rubles, or about $2.3 million, in government funds allocated to a festival he ran. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
Despite his imprisonment, made even more challenging by Russia’s opaque and sometimes arbitrary judicial system, Serebrennikov is directing a production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” that is to open here Sunday. Through a relay process that can seem closer to international espionage than traditional theater-making — involving files swapped on USB sticks, a lawyer acting as a courier, and extraordinary patience — the Zurich Opera has found a way for the director to retain artistic control from captivity, 1,400 miles away.
In the company’s off-site rehearsal space that recent Tuesday, a semicircle of chairs was arranged around an iPad hooked up to a sound system. The members of the cast and crew took their seats as Kulagin, who has worked extensively with Serebrennikov and is credited as the production’s co-director, pressed play on the tablet. A pixelated image of Serebrennikov, wearing a black T-shirt, a trim beard and black-rimmed glasses, came to life on the small screen.
In the 40 minutes that followed, the director made observations both practical and philosophical, switching fluidly between Russian and English.
“If your body says nothing, then your body kills your voice,” he instructed singers he’d never seen or heard in person. “The audience needs to understand everything they see onstage without needing to read the titles.”
“Don’t lose the chance to show with what feeling you leave the stage,” he added, about an exit he was dissatisfied with. “Don’t be in a hurry.”
Directing opera is complex even under normal circumstances, and those of this “Così” are far more cloak-and-dagger. Using an online server, Kulagin sends a video file of each rehearsal to Dmitri Kharitonov, Serebrennikov’s lawyer in Moscow and one of the few people allowed direct contact with him. Kharitonov then copies the file to a USB stick and delivers it to Serebrennikov, who watches it and films his response. (Serebrennikov is barred from using the internet but is allowed to have a computer.)
Kharitonov returns later to retrieve the USB stick with the video message, uploads it and sends it to Kulagin in Zurich.
“Kirill jokes I am his directorial assistant, but I am just the mail — although it is not mail,” Kharitonov said, emphasizing the point because mail is barred under the conditions of the house arrest.
“Kirill lived with the hope every month that it would all be solved and he could go to Zurich and work on this opera,” he said. “Unfortunately this did not end.” Despite what the lawyer described as the “trauma” of not being able to participate in person, the work helped Serebrennikov “to endure these difficult months,” Kharitonov said.
He said he’d lost track of how many times he delivered flash drives to Serebrennikov, estimating it has been several times a week since rehearsals began Sept. 20.
“This is a complicated production,” said Beate Breidenbach, the dramaturge for “Così,” “and it would have been even without the whole backstage drama.”
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Mozart’s 1790 work is opera’s most famous instance of partner swapping. Under the guidance of a cynical philosopher, two young men test their girlfriends’ fidelity. The two women, coached by a worldly maid, overcome their moral scruples and ultimately betray their fiancés. The Zurich production is contemporary-dress, with a two-level set that includes a weight room and yoga studio; the protagonists get chat notifications and take selfies.
As Serebrennikov’s lengthy video message played, Rebeca Olvera, the soprano playing Despina, the maid, and Frédéric Antoun, the tenor singing one of the lovers, occasionally talked back to the screen in exasperation. Kulagin and Markus Wyler, a translator, often pressed pause to elaborate or explain. Michael Nagy, the baritone singing Don Alfonso, the philosopher, jotted notes.
“Sorry I took up so much time,” said Serebrennikov, signing off. “But we needed to go through the entire second act.”
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Serebrennikov was contracted for “Così” after Andreas Homoki, the Zurich Opera’s artistic director, saw and admired his 2016 production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In May 2017, Serebrennikov, who also designs his sets and costumes, came to Zurich to present his concept for the Mozart work. A few months later, he was placed under house arrest, but the company stuck with his vision.
“We chose this unusual path in order to support an artist in trouble,” Homoki said.
It would be a stretch to call Serebrennikov a dissident artist, but his plays and films have touched on sensitive topics in Russian society, including anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism and sexism. But he has emphatically demonstrated that he will not be silenced. Over the course of his confinement, Serebrennikov has been unusually prolific: In the past 14 months, he directed a ballet about Rudolf Nureyev for the Bolshoi in Moscow, and a film, “Summer,” about rock ‘n’ roll in the Soviet Union, that had its premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The Gogol Center, the avant-garde theater Serebrennikov leads, has also forged ahead.
The evening after Serebrennikov’s recent message arrived, Kulagin presided over an orchestra rehearsal in the opera house’s auditorium with the zeal of a ringmaster, leaping onstage to correct a singer’s gesture and help move props. When the music stopped, the cast and crew talked in a babble of languages: English, Russian, German and Swiss-German.
“It’s an extraordinary situation for us all,” said Cornelius Meister, the conductor. “But we all know that we have the opportunity to be part of something that people will talk about for years to come.”
Whether Serebrennikov will be able to work in a more traditional fashion is now in the hands of a Moscow court. He is set to stand trial starting Nov. 7. For the time being, Kulagin said, invitations for future work keep pouring in.
“He’s writing scenarios and doing sketches of models and sets,” he said. “But the most important thing right now is for him to be free.”