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‘Denis & Katya’ Opens at Pittsburgh Opera’s Bitz Opera Factory

Stark Subject, a Disturbing Look at Internet Voyeurism in Our Digital Society

By George B. Parous

Denis & Katya is a chamber opera with a cast of two singers and two titular characters – but this one-act drama is by no means a Romeo et Juliette, Tristan und Isolde or Pelléas et Mélisande. There is very little that connects this contemporary theater for the imagination to opera as it is usually perceived. Using speech, vocals and a variety of stage effects, the drama tells the true story of the last three days in the lives of two Russian teenagers, Katya Vlasova and Denis Muravyov. In November 2016, the “run-away” pair used Periscope, the now defunct live-streaming website, to broadcast themselves drinking, smoking, shooting a television and throwing it out the window of the cabin where they had barricaded themselves, while their online audience grew and goaded them on. They were an internet sensation until gunfire was exchanged with local police and “Special Forces.” A murder in their small Russian town quickly relegated them to local history, but by 2019 they were an opera premiering in far-off Philadelphia.    

Composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman are the creators of the compact work, which runs for little more than an hour, and have structured it not in acts, but in parts, sections and interludes. Part One consists of a Prologue (spoken); Section 1 (talking heads); Interlude 1 (spoken); Section 2 (talking heads); Interlude 2 (spoken); Section 3 (talking heads); and Interlude 3 (audio video), while Part Two consists of a Journalist and Friend; a Baroque song and an Epilogue. It’s a bit complicated to read about, and it’s a bit complicated to watch and hear as well. But Denis & Katya was the winner of the Fedora Generali Prize for Opera 2019, and the winner of the Ivor Novello Award for Stage Works in 2020. Last evening the “studio audience” sized auditorium at the Bitz Opera Factory had few vacant seats for its first Pittsburgh performance.

Brandon Bell and Jazmine Olwalia

The performance is unique in many ways. There is no conductor. Amplification is used. The projections used to enhance the action are by far the most excellent seen in ages. There is no orchestra; four cellists alone provide the accompaniment. It’s mainly sung in English, but sometimes, as when the “Friend” is speaking, the language used is Russian. The “Friend” is one of six characters adapted from witnesses of the tragedy – the Friend, the Journalist, the Teacher, the Teenager, the Neighbor and the Medic. The six characters are enacted by two singers who speak for sizable interludes with no costume changes. They sing music that is monotonous in color, variety and texture until they are well near the end. The sections are divided by eye and ear-popping effects.

The performers are excellent. We’ve heard little of baritone Brandon Bell until last evening, and the impression he made was one that makes his name on future cast lists a welcome sight. He sings with much warmth and steadiness of tone, and with neatly phrased, clear diction. The score allows little in the way of a sustained sampling of his range, but the little that did was promising. His voice seems to be a large one, not one in need of any amplification, so, again, we’ll look forward to hearing much more of him in the 2023-24 lineup. Jazmine Olwalia was a more familiar face and voice, but this work allows for the most extended hearing of her to date. The score gives the mezzo-soprano no more in the way of varied music than it does the baritone, but she, too, sang with a warm and steady tone that flashed out brilliantly in spots near the close. She, too, made the projected English texts rather unnecessary.

The instrumentalists – four cellists from the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra – showed strength and stamina in the difficult music they had to play. They are placed on four corners of the stage, with the principal, Kathleen Melucci, front left; Paula Tuttle, back left; Joseph Bishkoff, Jr., front right, and Katya Janpoladyan, back right.

There is much more to the true story – and the composition heard last evening – than can possibly be covered here. There is an excellent study guide, a synopsis, full production details – and tickets – at the Pittsburgh Opera website.

The Artistic Team for Denis & Katya –

Original Production, Ted Huffman; Revival Stage Director, Haley Stamats; Head of Music/Musical Preparation, Glenn Lewis; Scenery & Original Lighting Design, Andrew Lieberman; Costume Design, Millie Hiibel; Lighting Design, Todd Nonn; Projections Design, Pierre Martin; Sound Design, Robert Kaplowitz; Stage Manager, Hannah Nathan; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak

Photography – David Bachman

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