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Denis & Katya © Opera Philadelphia i
In 2016, after a three-day stand-off with Russian Special Forces, teenagers Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova live-streamed their last hours, leaving behind a trail of devastating video footage. Almost three years later, Opera Philadelphia and its co-commission partners Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier will bring their tragic story to the stage with Denis & Katya, a chamber opera by British composer Philip Venables and American librettist and stage director Ted Huffman. This World Premiere will use the power of opera to explore how stories are shaped and shared in our age of 24/7 digital connection.
“If we don't surrender, we die. But if we surrender, we will never see each other again.”
Philip Venables, described as “one of the finest composers around” by The Guardian, teams up with Olivier Award-nominated director Ted Huffman to create this world premiere chamber opera based on the November 2016 story of 15-year-old runaways Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova, who committed suicide after a three-day stand-off with Russian Special Forces. They live-streamed their last hours on several social media platforms, creating a spectacle of real-time voyeurism and leaving behind a trail of devastating video footage: drinking and smoking, cuddling and crying, preparing to die. On the chilling live stream, Katya, who was believed to have been dating Denis for around six months, stated, “We have zero options.”
Denis and Katya will weave together original video footage, social media messaging, and stylized dramatization to re-create the teens’ harrowing final days, but it also breaks the fourth wall to examine the vast public response to these events, what that reveals about our society, and what it means to make an opera out of it.
“I came across the story of Denis and Katya - as many others did - through a Facebook news item, a promoted link,” says Huffman, who will write the libretto and direct the site-specific work, a co-commission and co-production with Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier. “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.”
Denis had earlier shot Katya's mother in the leg after an argument. As police surrounded the house they were in, the teens posted images and messages like, “I loved you, but you do not notice how you destroyed my mind and life;” “Goodbye all, friends and family, and acquaintances;” and “Do not worry, I will go out in style.”
Venables, who writes music often concerned with violence, politics, and speech, first teamed with director Huffman on 4.48 Psychosis, a Royal Opera premiere acclaimed for its “extraordinarily accomplished and imaginative writing” (The Stage); “a score ranging guilelessly from motoric arrhythmia to wispy renaissance” (The Independent); and “a new brand of opera” (The Times) that is “powerful and laceratingly honest” (The Telegraph). The opera, based on the final play by Sarah Kane, first staged a year after she killed herself, won 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, and was nominated for an Olivier Award and Sky Arts South Bank Award. 4.48 Psychosis made its U.S. premiere in January 2019 at the Prototype Festival.
Theo Hoffman, a 2016 Grand Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, brings his “roaring baritone” (Opera News) to the role of Denis, with the “polished mezzo glow” of Siena Licht Miller creating the role of Katya.
“There is something undeniably theatrical about their last days,” Huffman says of Denis & Katya. “They chose to put themselves on camera. They created the spectacle, or at the least they created the content for spectacle. They were also scared fifteen-year-olds, surrounded by adults pointing assault weapons at them. Now they are clickbait. They are a means to making advertising money. Their photos, alive and dead, are, in the darker corners of the internet, a fetishized sexual commodity.”
By giving to this project, you will allow us to create and present this World Premiere opera, which will have eleven performances during Opera Philadelphia’s acclaimed Festival O. Now in its third year, this annual urban opera festival attracts opera audiences from throughout Philadelphia and around the world.
Your donation will also allow Opera Philadelphia to nurture and promote the work of emerging talent, which is at the core of the company’s artist-driven new works practice. Opera Philadelphia has a demonstrated track record in the development of new operatic works and has commissioned 8 new works since 2011. Denis & Katya will be Venables and Huffman’s first work creating an opera with a U.S. producer. The opera will feature two singers and the score calls for an ensemble of four cellos.
Every contribution makes a difference as we bring this fascinating new work to the stage. A few examples of costs associated with Denis & Katya are:
• € 7,500 will cover the cost of a rehearsal accompanist
• € 8,800 will cover accommodations for the singers while in Philadelphia
• € 13,200 will cover costumes
• € 22,000 will cover video design for this multi-media chamber opera
Composer Philip Venables and librettist and stage director Ted Huffman are rising young creative talents with great work and previous credits, and Opera Philadelphia seeks to empower them to further hone their talents and voices in opera composition through the subject project. The creative team also includes French projection designer Pierre Martin, and Russian dramaturg and co-creator, Ksenia Ravvina, who has traveled to the teens’ home region of Pskov to interview friends, families, and neighbors for additional firsthand knowledge of the story.
Music Theatre Wales