What Is Russia Thinking? A ‘Documentary Opera’ Tries to Answer.

Many things have been said about Russia since the country launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago. But getting a sense of what Russian citizens privately feel about their nation is hard: State news outlets are more strident than ever and independent ones have been closed down. Western reporters still working there are treated with suspicion or fear.

Unlikely as it might seem, a new “documentary opera” is attempting to cut through the noise to find something approaching the truth. Called “Russia: Today” — the title is a wry nod to the propaganda-spouting, Kremlin-funded media company, now known as RT — the piece, by the Russian-born, Hong Kong-based composer Eugene Birman, is assembled from hundreds of interviews with Russian citizens, people of Russian heritage and people who live in neighboring countries, conducted over the last few years. On Thursday, the piece receives a rare performance at Kings Place, a London concert hall, after an aborted attempt to premiere it in Moscow and a controversial first outing in Estonia, near the border with Russia.

A collage of recorded testimony, new music and chant inspired by Orthodox liturgical practice, “Russia: Today” tries to open a window into Russia’s psyche — exactly when many people outside are wondering what’s on its mind.

“I thought it would be a useful thing to give voice to people who are not typically in the Russian press, or aren’t reachable by Western journalists,” Birman said. “The idea is to let people’s words speak for themselves.”

Topical though “Russia: Today” seems, it dates from before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Yet the themes it explores — post-Soviet nostalgia, uncertainty about Russia’s place in the world, anxiety about escalating conflict — seem eerily prescient. At one point, we hear a woman describing Russia as “a huge broken freezer: ripe bananas and rotten tomatoes.” Someone else brusquely compares the country to a “fat kid at a birthday party who everyone makes fun of‌” — until “he explodes.”

Birman, second from right, in rehearsal with the singers who will perform “Russia: Today” at Kings Place, in London, on Thursday.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Yet there are notes of optimism too: Another voice suggests that, while Russia is “a mess” right now, there is “hope for change.”

The State of the War

  • Russia’s Heavy Losses: Weeks of failed attacks on the Ukrainian stronghold of Vuhledar have left two Russian brigades in tatters, renewing doubts about Moscow’s ability to maintain its offensive.
  • Bakhmut: With Russian forces closing in, Ukraine is barring aid workers and civilians from entering the besieged city, in what could be a prelude to a Ukrainian withdrawal.
  • Arms Supply: Ukraine and its Western allies are trying to solve a fundamental weakness in its war effort: Kyiv’s forces are firing artillery shells much faster than they are being produced.
  • Prisoners of War: Poorly trained Russian soldiers captured by Ukraine describe being used as cannon fodder by commanders throwing waves of bodies into an assault.

In 2017, when the dust was still settling on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Birman was invited on a European Union-funded program to encourage cultural dialogue between artists from Eastern and Western Europe. For that project, he staged a series of workshops in Riga, Latvia — a city with a large ethnic Russian population. Birman set up a sound booth inside an arts center there and invited anyone who stepped inside to anonymously record their thoughts on Russia’s past, present and future.

“There was a queue out the door,” Birman said. “One person spoke for, like, 30 minutes.”

To capture a wider range of perspectives, the production team also set up recording booths in Helsinki, Finland, and Vladivostok, Russia, in 2018 and 2019, collecting hundreds more pieces of testimony. These were transcribed and pieced together into a libretto by the writer Scott Diel, with whom Birman has collaborated on other verbatim projects. (Those include the 2013 cantata “Nostra Culpa,” which was based on a Twitter tussle between the Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the then-president of Estonia.)

Despite being billed as an opera, “Russia: Today” has no apparent plot; instead, the material is framed as an hourlong Orthodox memorial service, moving from opening prayers through lamentation to a kind of peace.

“There are many different layers to the piece, just as there are many different layers to Russia,” said Sergej Morozov, the director of “Russia: Today,” by phone. “From outside, we see this political, aggressive layer, but there are different layers hidden underneath.”

Birman himself left Russia with his family when he was six, in 1994, and grew up in San Francisco, before studying in Britain. As much as anything else, “Russia: Today” was an attempt to understand a country he often feels estranged from, he said. “I wanted to find what Russia is, because I didn’t have the answer myself.”

In the version that will be performed in London, five singers are clustered around microphones beneath a screen that shows stark images of the Russian landscape shot by the filmmaker Alexandra Karelina. Snow-swathed railroad tracks and apartment blocks blur into glowering fir forests; vivid green tundra gives way to gray frozen lakes.

We see no people, but we hear voices continually. Sometimes the interview recordings are played straight, or woven into cacophonous layers; other times, the words are declaimed verbatim by the performers, in Russian and English. At moments, Birman molds them into eerie, angular vocal lines. Coloring the score are the sounds of bells, whistling, birdlike cries and the growl of a low bass voice.

Birman’s original idea was to present stagings of the work in Moscow and London. Plans were well advanced until summer 2021, when the singers of a Russian vocal ensemble that had agreed to premiere the piece, took a closer look at the text and pulled out.

“The conductor just called me and said, ‘I’m so sorry, the singers don’t feel comfortable,’” said Tonya Wechsler, the show’s producer. “She said, ‘Look, one of them told me, ‘Do you not realize that it could be our last performance?’”

Birman guessed that it was the religious element of “Russia: Today,” as much as its political overtones, that spooked the Moscow singers, given President Vladimir V. Putin’s alignment with the Russian Orthodox Church. “I think it was the appropriation of sacred music,” he said. “They feared that this would be problematic for their careers and their safety.”

“Russia: Today” was premiered in Sept. 21 in Narva, Estonia, a city with a large ethnic Russian population.Credit…Anastasia Volkova

When another ensemble gave the first performance in September 2021 — in Narva, Estonia — some Russian-speaking audience members also made their displeasure felt.

“We had a post-show discussion and some of the people there said, ‘Oh, it’s all lies, we cannot believe people actually said this,’” Wechsler said.

Further attempts to get a live performance in Russia came to nothing. When a recording was screened in a Vladivostok movie theater a few weeks later, the venue requested that it be shown without subtitles, in case photos of the text found their way onto social media.

Given everything that’s happened since, could Birman see “Russia: Today” being performed in the country of his birth any time soon? He laughed. “Nobody’s going to touch this for as long as the current government is in,” he said.

Even if he could visit Russia without risking the military draft, it would be impossible to repeat the fieldwork he did just a few years ago, Birman added. “Who’s going to be willing to talk about Russia in this way at this point? Who’s going to say anything honest?”

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