For VTB Capital, Russia's Got Talent
By Ken Rapoza (Forbes online)
To many people, the Bolshoi Theater is the best thing about old Russia… and new.
Culturally speaking, it’s one of the country’s most prominent brands. It needs no introduction. So it wasn’t lost on four year old investment bank VTB Capital to tap that name recognition and use it as a way to promote the firm’s social responsibility, and Russia, to would-be clients abroad.
Three years ago, the Russian bank decided to fund a program for young opera artists similar to what the Metropolitan Opera in New York does with the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. They chose the Bolshoi’s opera program for its ease of travel: small stage, no props required; just a strong voice that can sing in four or five different operatic languages.
“We want to be ambassadors of Russian culture abroad,” Olga Podoinitsyna, a Member of the Board at VTB Capital told me at the glitzy New York Palace Hotel on April 18.
That night, three Russian singers in their early 20s, staying in New York on VTB Capital’s dime, performed at a private event in midtown for the first time. It would be VTB Capital’s second showing of young Bolshoi’s future opera singers. The first was earlier this year at a VTB Capital event in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.
And while the talent is for VTB Capital invitees only, Podoinitsyna sees it as a way to help the newly restored theater develop new talents throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States and inside Russia and help keep Bolshoi relevant for years to come.
“We developed the program, fund the auditions and the travel while Bolshoi chooses the performers and who gets to represent them abroad,” Podoinitsyna said.
Bolshoi nearly vanished from the Russian ballet and opera scene after a rich history.
It was closed for six years after weathering Soviet-era neglect, a late 90s economic crisis, and a resulting diminished star quality. During early Soviet times, political leaders used the theater to host meetings or to announce important events like the death of Vladimir Lenin, for instance. Long before that, the Bolshoi was stripped of its gold in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. The loss of the sound-reflecting decoration harmed the theater’s acoustics, which were further degraded by a decision to fill the floor beneath the orchestra with cement. Bolshoi Theater, in essence, was brought back from the dead last year after its biggest and most costly renovation in 150 years.
Renovations ran over 21 billion roubles, or around $680 million. Russia being Russia, the project came with a slew of accusations about embezzlement and fraud. Nevertheless, Bolshoi Theater opened to a packed house of elite politicians, businessmen, celebrities and some well-known opera singers on Oct. 28. It was followed by a host of criticism the day after. Some called Bolshoi’s step in the mid-2000s as too modern. Others longed for a more traditional approach to stage direction.
The country’s most recognized name in classical show business hasn’t sent a performer to New York since 2005. VTB Capital’s private mid-April showcasing of Bolshoi’s new opera talent was the theater company’s defacto first visit to the U.S. in seven years. It’s likely an official Bolshoi company will take an American stage at some point in the near future since reopening, but no official announcement of a tour has been made.
“We’ll consider sponsoring those Bolshoi abroad shows if they do them. For now, we are promoting Bolshoi in this way. It’s our way to show off to our international clients what we think is one of the best things about Russia,” Podoinitsyna said.
The theater that introduced Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” to the world back in 1877 is showing a modern Russian version of the ballet next month. “Jewels”, a ballet by the late Russian born New York City balletmaster George Balanchine is scheduled for May, with Mozart’s Die Zauberfloete (“The Magic Flute”) running this week.
If VTB Capital gets lucky, they might one day help Bolshoi fund and discover Russia’s next Anna Netrebko. The 40 year old singer started out at Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and is now Russia’s biggest opera star.