Skene Catling de la Pena

Fidelio in the Gulag, Opera Design (Perm, Russia 2010)

This won the Perm Regional Prize for Arts and Culture, June 2011

In July 2010, an historic production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio took place as a site-specific piece in the former Gulag, Perm 36. Perm 36 is a World Heritage Site. This was a collaboration between Director Michael Hunt, Architect Charlotte Skene Catling, George Isaakyan, the intendant of the Perm State P. Tchaikovsky Opera Ballet Theatre of Russia, Viktor Shmyrov and Tatiana Kursina, the Directors of the Perm 36 Museum. The universal nature of the themes extended the piece beyond Russia and the 20th century, to act as a witness to all victims of persecution and oppression. This is art at its most powerful, as an agent of memory, transformation and catharsis.

The Approach: Skene Catling de la Peña use narrative means to interrogate their architectural projects. However, there are several layers and media in this production. The story contained within the opera libretto is told through Beethoven’s music; this is then laid over the history of the site itself and the millions of lives lost through the Gulag system. We inherited an extremely powerful context in place of the ‘imaginary world’ of conventional theatre. This is real, not invented.

The Process: An initial series of mapping exercises were used to analyse and understand the various elements of the piece: the site and its history; the musical score; character movement, and audience experience. The result was a series of interventions throughout the site. In some instances these are responses to existing buildings, while in others they stand as independent structures in the landscape. A luminous orange colour coded all interventions on the site, and provided a navigational strategy for the audience.

The key to the experience lay in embedding apparent constraints into the approach to the piece itself. The history of the site, its scale, the need to move the audience through it and the acoustic qualities of the variety of spaces were all challenges. Added to this is the fact that the geographic location of Perm meant that a July evening, when the piece  was performed, will have daytime light levels. For an opera based on the themes of Enlightenment, which is illustrated literally, symbolically and musically throughout by the use of light and darkness, this was one of the most challenging aspects of all.

The issue of lighting also affects the material nature of the interventions. What is normally disguised in theatre through dramatic lighting will be completely exposed in this context. This introduces another layer of reality into the experience.

The context of the Camp is almost ‘sacred’ space. This had to be addressed in the design. The ‘sets’ are devices that frame elements of the existing context. They are also completely legible as interventions in the space and do not try and disguise themselves as extensions of the existing structures. The historical structures are the context which have the brooding presence of silent witnesses.

All the construction will be visible under daylight conditions, which meant that the material qualities of the set had to be completely legible. This was critical to the construction of the interventions and will bring a real material presence to the piece.

All the movement of the cast around the site had to be incorporated in the piece as there is no conventional back-stage space. There was a secondary layer of acting animating peripheral space to give greater depth to the piece and resonance with the site.

The Opera:
The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a male guard named ‘Fidelio’, rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. The drama describes a decent into darkness, both literal and moral, and the re-emergence into light, with the triumph of truth over tyranny. The subject of Beethoven’s opera will resonate with the palpable experiences of those individuals who were imprisoned at Perm 36 and appeal to a fundamental human sense of justice.

“…This is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage… Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theatre, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’ which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through.

Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera… Independent of any historical consideration… the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply. We realize that for we Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.”

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, Salzburg, 1948.

Project team: Charlotte Skene Catling, Thomas Greenall, Jordan Hodgson, Lucy Reuter 

  • Act I - Pizarro's arrival
  • Prisoners' Chorus
  • A singer who was born in the Gulag, both parents were prisoners
  • Michael Mylac, a former Perm 36 prisoner who came to the last performance. He said, 'Beethoven has purified this place'
  • Act i - Prison Guard
  • Singer, whose real family were sent into exile in the Gulag accused of plotting to murder Kirov
  • The Guantanamo Bay uniform brought the piece into the 21st C. The eyemask explains the darkness and isolation in daylight.
  • Guard, Act I. Most of the extras in the performance lived in a nearby mining town. Many had directly suffered through the Gulag
  • Perm 36 - Special Section, where the political prisoners were held historically - Act II
  • 'Dolls House' - Scene of the Canon Quartet
  • Act I - Prisoners' Chorus
  • Women outside the Gulag
  • Act II - Florestan's Aria 'Oh Gott Wie Dunkel'
  • Perm 36 - Main Camp Act i
  • Site - aerial photograph
  • Forest of dead trees
  • Prisoner's chair
  • Surveillance Scene 2
  • Surveillance Scene