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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March 2005, 13:11 GMT
Fury over Bolshoi composer clones

By Anna Kocharova
BBC Russian Service, Moscow

Cloned composers
Rosenthal's 'children' are cloned classical composers living in Moscow (photo by Damir Yuspov, Bolshoi)
Moscow's troubled Bolshoi Theatre has premiered the first opera it has commissioned for 30 years.

Children of Rosenthal, composed by Leonid Desyatnikov and staged by Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius, has already caused much controversy and triggered a political debate.

Some deputies of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, want it banned.

Members of the youth movement Walking Together, who support President Vladimir Putin, have been staging daily pickets in front of the Bolshoi and burning books by the opera libretto's author.

They brand conceptualist writer Vladimir Sorokin a "pornographer".

But is the opera itself in any way pornographic?

Mozart's poisoning

Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, cloned by a German Jewish genetic scientist Alex Rosenthal, lives in present-day Moscow surrounded by loving elder brothers - the clones of Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Mussorgsky and Wagner - the latter, played by a woman.

Margarita Mamsirova as Wagner
Margarita Mamsirova plays cloned Wagner (photo by Damir Yusupov, Bolshoi)
Mozart falls in love with a prostitute. In an apparent reference to the real Mozart's death legend, her furious pimp puts rat poison into vodka during the engagement party, killing all the siblings.

However, Mozart survives and regains consciousness in hospital.

These plots featuring the world's major composers have angered some State Duma deputies.

"They are dealing way too liberally with things that are sacred for Russians, with composers we are used to looking at from a completely different perspective, with those whom we consider to be the core of our classical culture," says Aleksandr Tyagunov, deputy head of the Duma's committee on culture.

But apart from featuring a prostitute as one of the characters and a single usage of the word "blin" - a mild and childish substitute for a Russian swear word - there is nothing even remotely pornographic.

Controversial writer

As many observers point out, prostitutes make regular appearances in classical operas - such as the main character in La Traviata, an opera the deputies do not object to.

Nor do they object to the tangle of incestuous relations in Richard Wagner's Nibelungen.

Mr Tyagunov admits there would be no scandal if the libretto was written by someone other than Mr Sorokin.

The writer is one of the most controversial figures in Russian literature, his works filled with graphic scenes of defecation, unconventional sex and violence.

Photo from Mr Sorokin's official web site
Mr Sorokin denies accusations of pornography (photo from Mr Sorokin's official web site)
In his famous early book Blue Bacon Fat, he even describes the stalls of the Bolshoi flooded with faeces.

But he flatly rejects accusations that he writes pornography.

"There is a huge difference between pornographers and fiction writers. A pornographer helps people to get an erection, while a writer wants to give the reader aesthetic pleasure," Mr Sorokin told BBCRussian.com in a 2002 interview.

The Bolshoi's chief conductor Aleksandr Vedernikov says that Mr Sorokin's involvement in this opera is a great asset for the theatre.

"Who was a librettist in the 20th Century? Usually these were people who failed to achieve anything in literature.

"When a famous writer writes a libretto, first of all we get a piece of high-quality literature, and that's its main value."

Theatre in transition

The Bolshoi theatre underwent a serious crisis in the 1990s, with the traditionalists in charge preventing experimentation and sticking to the decades-old agenda.

Picket in front of the Bolshoi
Pro-Putin youth activists are pushing to have the opera banned
Once the country's main opera and ballet venue, it was left in the shadow of its St Petersburg rival, the Mariinsky Theatre, also known as the Kirov.

The newly-appointed chief conductor, Mr Vedernikov, and the leader of the ballet team, Aleksandr Ratmansky, have launched a radical reform of the repertoire, but with mixed results.

Last year's London tour was booed by the audience and received a very poor press. But this made the management only more determined in their quest to create a new Bolshoi.

The controversy over Children of Rosenthal has largely prevented discussion of the opera's musical qualities.

But experts agree that Mr Desyatnikov's elegant and harmonious score should appeal even to those who find contemporary music snobbish and incomprehensible.

A storm of applause at the end of Tuesday's dress rehearsal only proved the point.

But a small group of people remained unimpressed. Duma deputies left the theatre in a grim mood, saying they would continue pressing for a ban.

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