“Isolation is destructive for any cultural institution”

Irina Lychagina, assistant director and choreographer of the most celebrated recent production of the Opera and Ballet National Academic Theatre of Armenia, told Regional Post about the dangerous isolation the theater found itself in over years, and about the impressive potential it has to become not a symbolic but a true center of the country’s cultural life.

Interview: Karine Ghazaryan


You work at the prominent Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre where the latest staging of “Manon” was originally created. How did the opera arrive in Yerevan?

— We had two productions – a ballet and an opera, and in order not to confuse the audience we stopped the opera shows and played only the ballet for a while. So, the costumes and decorations would gain dust if we didn’t rent them to other theaters. In a conversation with Constantine Orbelian, our director Andrejs Žagars (read his interview on page NN – edt.) suggested that we bring “Manon” to Armenia. Maestro Orbelian picked the idea with great enthusiasm, he watched it in Moscow and decided that it was exactly the fresh and unusual staging Yerevan theater needed. They spoke to the Moscow theater where the idea was also approved. “Manon” premiered successfully in October. We had a very international group of Latvian, English-Swedish, Russian and other specialists.


Irina Lychagina-woman-choreographer


You have a quite impressive international experience. How was the work with Yerevan theater?

— To be honest, when we just arrived at the theater, it left somewhat archaic impression on us. Due to different reasons, not many performances had been produced and the theater hadn’t been touring for over 20 years which brought it to isolation and, kind of, wiped it off from the cultural map of Europe despite Armenian singers performing in leading theaters of the world: from Bolshoi to Metropolitan. This isolation is destructive for any cultural institution because when it stews in its own juice without any input or output it starts producing and multiplying the same things. That is why on our first days in Yerevan theater we had the feeling of “back in the USSR.” The opera world went through tremendous changes long ago: drama theaters could only dream of the technologies and approaches applied in modern opera!

Unfortunately, all these were not being practiced in Armenia, but at the same time Yerevan theater has developed a great selection of voices which allows staging nearly any opera, be it Wagner or Mozart or any other composer. Plus, the national character plays a key role: the singers are very emotional and hard-working, they invest all their energy in work. This year, the young performers won several international competitions and traveled to world theaters for work: singer Julietta Aleksanyan now cooperates with Dutch National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Mary Movsisyan and Hovhannes Andreasyan, who perform main parts in “Manon,” took part in a festival in Latvia, and so on. Already this international cooperation – short but intense experience-gaining, helped them to improve and develop professionally. Now, Armenian theater work on the “Magic Flute” where they work with color-projection techniques, which is also a new experience.


What would you name the biggest problem of the theater?

— You see, opera theater is like a factory: you may have one rehearsal in the morning and a completely other performance in the evening, every day. Unfortunately, it is difficult to organize in Yerevan theater as the orchestra cannot be booked twice a day, which affects the normal functioning of the theater a lot. Currently, Yerevan theater have five premieres planned, and this has been the maximum for the last 15-20 years. A regular opera theater should play minimum 18 performances a month, but here the maximum possible load is 12: the orchestra is simply too small.

On the other hand, the number of soloists is, in my opinion, too big. Our theater in Moscow is bigger but it has smaller number of full-time employed soloists. The administrative staff could be shortened as well. But all of these is impossible to implement without long negotiations with Ministry of Culture, so I think the theater should have freedom to be more flexible. But at the same time, the support of the government should be more tangible: the theater hasn’t been renovated for many years. I walked it all from basements to the roof, and it really needs some repair works.


Do you think the program, the repertoire needs to be updated?

— There should be an international program along with the national one because there are classical, must-have works that help artists to grow professionally. Then, one needs to prepare the audience and work on engaging people from the very young age. There are classical musical compositions which help to prepare children for watching opera: most famous ones are, for example, Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic tale Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The theater already have some preliminary agreements with an animation studio, and famous TV host Mko agreed to take part in it if there is future production of Peter and the Wolf. For now, there is a short concert version of Anush which is played in schools and is quite popular, but the experience which kids can have in theater watching a real-scale staging is completely different. Attracting listeners requires at least four-five years of work. Maestro Orbelian leads the theater for only two years, but I’m already optimistic about the future.


Irina Lychagina



Gayane ballet in Bolshoi theater certainly became an important event, and not only for Armenia. Do you think this indicates overall improvement in the quality of productions?

— International public, as well as many prominent ballet critics came to see the show. I personally invited some of them. And the reviews were very warm and welcoming by Moscow standards (some people were even a bit surprised). Several singers literally astonished the public. Of course, we should acknowledge that “Gayane” is a “museum” staging: it’s over 50 years old. But it certainly demonstrated the potential of Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet.


There are hot discussions after only a couple of performances of “Manon.” How do you personally like the results?

— I think “Manon” is a very modern and stylish European production which interests and touches the audience very much. Many people were crying after the first night. The Minister of culture, for example, later told us that she was particularly impressed. What we did in “Manon” is a tremendous experience for young performers of the theater, and the inspiration and desire for work is evident in them.

When I first attended an evening in Yerevan opera theater, I was amused by how empty the hall was. I wouldn’t say “Manon” was completely sold out, but they told me that in comparison with what had been before – it was unusually active: the hall was almost full. I have to pay tribute to Christopher Ocasek who worked out some magic with the orchestra. When a musician plays just five or six works for years, some skills are inevitably weakening. But French music like “Manon” requires a very specific style of playing. They themselves were very interested, and not only the sound but also the cooperation between singers and the orchestra has changed. Ocasek also conducted “Carmen”, substantially improving the performance.


Irina Lychagina


Is the staging different from the classical one?

— The events are transferred to Paris of 1968, the time of student protests, the time of freedom. Actors understand the context better therefore it is easier for them to transfer the emotions to the audience. At the same time, it is very different from Moscow version. For one, here we have simply tremendous work of chorus. During the big rehearsal back in spring, Andrejs Žagars told me he had forgotten about the soloists because it was too interesting to follow the chorus! By the way, the chorus left our last-day rehearsal on October 2 to go to a protest. Fortunately, I found the team in its full number the next morning.


And what are the general impressions of working in Armenia?

— I had a feeling of being home. Armenians are always hospitable but also have this fantastic readiness to work. We were very limited in our freedom to travel, but we managed to see some cultural and natural landmarks, and I would say Armenia is a place which combines minimalism with very rich content. It is difficult not to fall in love.