From house arrest, Russian director stages Germany opera

Kirill Serebrennikov is seen during the premiere of the movie "New Girlfriend" at Gogol Center in Moscow on Oct. 4, 2014. (Shutterstock image)
Updated 08 March 2019

From house arrest, Russian director stages Germany opera

  • Kirill Serebrennikov new work deals with the anti-immigrant populism that flared amid Europe’s refugee crisis
  • A critic of Russian arts censorship, Serebrennikov has been placed under house arrest on fraud charges

HAMBURG, Germany: He’s under house arrest in Moscow without a phone or the Internet, yet Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s new opera is set to premiere in Germany on Sunday.
A modern take on Verdi’s Nabucco, the work at the Hamburg Opera deals with the anti-immigrant populism that flared amid Europe’s refugee crisis.
Serebrennikov, the enfant terrible of Russian theater, cinema and ballet, has been shuttered in his apartment for two years, accused of embezzlement in what his followers consider politically motivated charges.
But thanks to a dedicated lawyer and to Yevgeny Kulagin, a colleague and friend who became his co-director, he remotely directed the performance by sending instructions to the singers, costume and set designers.
To make the show possible, the team sent him daily video clips on USB data sticks of the rehearsals in Hamburg, which were delivered to his apartment.
There, Serebrennikov would respond by filming his own comments and sending them back the same way.
The exchange was unconventional, admits Geraldine Chauvet, who plays Fenena, the rebellious and compassionate daughter of the dictator Nabucco in the contemporary staging.
“It’s true that it’s quite strange to find yourself at each rehearsal sitting in front of a computer screen watching a video with the director’s notes,” she told AFP.
“But in the end everything worked out.”

Critic of Russian arts censorship
The famed director, a prominent critic of Russian arts censorship, is on trial for allegedly embezzling some $2 million in public funds and faces a lengthy prison term if convicted. He denies the charges.
Serebrennikov’s supporters believe his legal troubles were orchestrated because he has confronted sensitive political, societal and sexual themes that have run afoul of the orthodox conservatism dominant in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
His case has become a cause celebre in Western cultural circles, most recently at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where the artist was absent from the screening of his film “Leto.”
It was during the filming of this movie, a homage to Soviet rock, that he was arrested.
“I really think of him as a fighter for artistic freedom, for the freedom to be a free artist, to be able to express his art, his thoughts,” said Kulagin, the director’s chief partner in Hamburg.
“It’s not about confronting (Russian authorities), it’s simply about the artist’s need to continue working whatever the conditions.”
Nabucco is the third show which Serebrennikov has directed at a distance.
Kulagin however denies the label “dissident” for his friend, and he argues that the new version of Nabucco does not target the Kremlin in particular, nor Russian affairs.
Instead, he says, the opera deals with the powerful forces behind current conflicts such as the Syrian war and those lashing out in Europe and the United States against its victims, the refugees.

Ancient and modern-day despots
“These walls they are building, these human beings who are in conflict zones and are forced to flee their homeland, this is our Nabucco,” Kulagin says.
There are obvious references to Donald Trump’s “America First” motto and Putin’s United Russia party.
The Babylonian despot Nabucco is elected under the slogan “Assyria First” and his party is called “United Assyria.”
Instead of the Hebrews in Verdi’s work, it is the refugees who are persecuted.
“This is an allegory of the contemporary world,” says Georges Delnon, the artistic director of the Hamburg Opera, who initiated the project three weeks before the arrest of the director.
“Nabucco (...) hovers — feels, I would say — like a God. These are things that unfortunately we are experiencing in this world,” he said.
The performance shows the 2015 mass influx of refugees that sparked an upsurge of populist and Islamophobic anger in Europe.
On stage, two Syrians interpret traditional songs, breaking occasionally with the original opera.
Images show lines of migrants, the anti-Islam Pegida street marches in Dresden, Germany, and inflammatory headlines such as “All Refugees Are Foreign Invaders.”
Serebrennikov also includes 35 refugees in the “slave choir,” the high point of the opera, to sing “Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!.”
“But it’s not about giving lessons, as Kirill says,” Kulagin told AFP. “We’re just raising questions, we’re not providing answers to contemporary problems.”

Bahraini singer Mo Zowayed: ‘I’m not the sad and tortured type’

Mo Zowayed started singing when he was about 25. (Supplied)
Updated 05 June 2020

Bahraini singer Mo Zowayed: ‘I’m not the sad and tortured type’

  • The Bahraini singer-songwriter discusses his latest album and keeping busy in lockdown


MANAMA: Mo Zowayed’s email signature bills him as “Singer. Songwriter. Sleeper.” But the sleeping part of his repertoire is clearly not top of the 31-year-old Bahraini’s agenda.

Even in lockdown he’s busy, having recently taken part in an online concert to raise funds for Bahrain Animal Rescue Centre. (“I don’t know what life would be like without dogs and I’d rather not find out,” he says.) There’s another scheduled for the end of May. 

He’s also just gone live with his “Viola Sessions” — a series of five original tunes from his latest album,  “That Good Love,” released in November, captured at a local club — and he’s performing Instagram Live sessions every Saturday afternoon, besides writing a bunch of new material.

His dad is an oud player and his grandfather Mohamed is a respected folk singer. (Supplied)

It’s no surprise Zowayed ended up as a musician. His dad, Yusuf, is an oud player and his grandfather Mohamed is a respected folk singer. His own musical journey, though, began with a spot of bribery. 

“I started when I was 13. I struggled a bit in seventh grade with my math grades. My parents agreed to buy me a guitar if I managed to turn my grades around,” he says. “It was tough, but I did it. I got the guitar.” He’s now an accomplished player of several instruments, including mandolin, banjo, trumpet, ukulele and harmonica.

He didn’t start singing until he was about 25, though. He cites acoustic artists including Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz and Ben Harper as major influences. “I just loved the way that they could express themselves with just a guitar and (vocals). So, I started practicing like crazy,” he says. 

His own musical journey, though, began with a spot of bribery. (Supplied)

Unlike many regional musicians, he was always set on writing and performing his own material, rather than covers. “I’m still surprised when I meet a good musician who doesn’t write their own stuff,” he says. “For me, it’s the most enjoyable part — there’s no feeling like performing a song you’ve written and having some of the audience singing along.”

Zowayed quickly established himself on the Bahrain music scene. “I started by accepting every single gig. I played everywhere — every little dingy venue. There were some well-known bands in Bahrain, but they played a couple shows a year, tops. I just wanted to put myself out there, and I was one of very few people doing that. What makes me happy is that almost every band in Bahrain is doing that now. We’ve got a community of working musicians who are on stage all the time. I love seeing that.”

His work ethic and determination eventually landed him an American tour — something few independent musicians from the Middle East manage to achieve. “I spent months emailing, calling and messaging venues in the US. I must have contacted over 100 venues and festivals. I didn’t give up, even after 50 rejections — no exaggeration. I just kept trying.

He cites acoustic artist Ben Harper as a major influence. (AFP)

“Eventually I was offered a spot at Farmfest in Michigan. That gave me the motivation to keep trying to book shows. We played in Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, Nashville, Alabama and Ohio. It was the most surreal time.”

From there, Zowayed and his “incredible band” The Moonshiners, got offered a support slot for UK star Jools Holland at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall in 2017. “I just can’t overstate how magical that night was,” he says. In December last year, he and The Moonshiners were back on tour with Holland and played several shows of their own in the UK to support the release of “The Good Love.”

He cites acoustic artist Jason Mraz as a major influence. (AFP)

That album has evolved from the folky roots of Zowayed’s debut EP “New York Times,” partly because he’s playing an electric guitar, but he describes it as a natural progression. 

“I really wanted to make an upbeat record, because that’s the kind of music I’m into these days. I’m a pretty upbeat guy,” he says. “I’m not the sad and tortured type, and I’ve realized that’s okay, I don’t need to be.  As soon as I embraced that, the songs started pouring out. The result is an album that gets me excited every time I hear it.” 

Zowayed’s goal is to be a touring musician, and he recognizes that that could mean leaving the GCC. “It’s simply not possible in the Middle East when it comes to non-Arabic music,” he says. 

But his local fans don’t need to worry just yet. “I’m on a mission to put out as much music and as many videos as I can and play as many shows as possible,” he says. “And I hope to see everyone at a live show once we kick this virus in the behind.”