From Sketch to Premiere

Thanks to the fascinating film Kyz Zhibek, which was released in the country’s cinemas in 1970, the beautiful legend of love between two young hearts became widely known. Even so, in the theatrical circles, the folk poem about ‘the silk girl’ was sung much earlier – in 1934. Now, after 83 years, Y. Brusilovsky – G. Musrepov’s opera, featuring the latest technological innovations, will be staged at the Astana Opera. On February 10 and 11, the audience will meet with a real masterpiece.

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This production can certainly be called the premiere of the season, referring to a number of reasons: first, the production will be offered to the listeners in A. Mukhitdinov’s new musical version, with the participation of well-known opera singers. Secondly, due to the Stage Director M. Pandzhavidze’s idea, the viewers for the first time will see the change of all four seasons in this opera. Third, not only the stunningly beautiful sets, sumptuous costumes by S. Tasmagambetova and P. Dragunov, incredible 3D effects, but also the presence of real animals – camels and horses – onstage will please the audience’s eyes. And that’s not all by any means….

Let us remind that the folk poem about Kyz Zhibek expresses the dream of happiness, talks about loyalty to your loved ones and your friends, celebrates bravery and honour… The opera is based on a story of two lovers Zhibek and Tulegen. Beautiful Zhibek rejects the suit of overbearing Bekezhan. She will only marry her one true love. Her choice is Tulegen, who came from far away, intrigued by the tales of the beautiful girl. However, Bekezhan treacherously kills him, cutting off a beautiful love story.

Good Clothes Open All Doors

A record number of costumes is made in the Astana Opera’s Costume Shop for this swan fairy tale: 350 sets. The Head of the Costume Shop Zhanar Momynova admits that the amount is large, but the specialists already have experience working with similar productions. After all, this is not the first national production in the opera house’s repertoire: the opera house’s craftsmen have previously worked on the costumes for the operas Birzhan-Sara by M. Tolebayev, Abai by A. Zhubanov, L. Khamidi, and the ballet Karagoz by G. Zhubanova.

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Designers Sofya Tasmagambetova and Pavel Dragunov, who have been working in tandem for almost 10 years, were responsible for the costumes and sets for the opera Kyz Zhibek. They always create all the scenic and costume sketches together.

We decided not to delve into the ethnography too deeply, as opera implies artistic imagery. However, there will definitely be a visible difference between clans, which the main characters belong to. Bazarbai’s clan is rich, and Zhibek’s, in the version of our stage director, is more austere. The young artists of the Astana Opera Children’s Studio are involved in the production. Their costumes are among the most difficult ones. There have been made 55 of them altogether. Although their sizes are much smaller than the adult ones, it takes the same amount of time to sew them. There are children who will play warriors, and therefore, their attire includes leather armor and other accoutrements. This is especially true for Bazarbai’s warriors, his young recruits. Among other things, the choir artists have two costume changes, which further increases the scope of work,” noted the designers.

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The patternmakers say that the most common materials in this production are velvet, corduroy and velour. The costumes have high-quality cotton lining. The dresses are made of silk and taffeta. The headdresses are also created in the opera house’s workshops, their number will be equal to the number of costumes, and they, too, will be unique, one-of-a-kind. It will be possible to ascertain not only the time of the year, but also the social status, age, clan membership and even the characters’ mood by their headdresses.

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“In this production, two costumes were made for the heroine. Zhibek’s state of mind is reflected in the colours of her outfits, and in the embroidered ornaments. For example, the geometric patterns on her chapan show the strength of her willpower, but the soft flowery ornament on the dress under the vest shows the girl’s gentle and vulnerable soul. We have trimmed her costumes with stones and pearls. The most important is the bridal gown. It is customary to make this costume white or red. We decided to make it a pearly-grey colour. This shade represents symbolizes the heroine’s unfulfilled hopes. I would like to note that she has the most ‘modern’ outfit of all in this production. Lace skirt is embroidered with stones and beads, and a vest with an unusual ornament in the center is embroidered with silver,” shared Sofya Tasmagambetova.

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The first scene takes place in early spring. The costumes and hats are trimmed with fur. Working with fur has always been considered time-consuming, as it takes a lot of time and effort. We use real karakul fur, fox, arctic fox, as well as faux fur. Fabrics are presented in different colors, unusual textures. I can say with confidence that no two costumes will be the same. The whole color palette is used in this production. The colors also change depending on the season. Dark colors, cool shades are used in the winter scenes. Accordingly, summer and spring are represented by saturated colors: reds, oranges, pinks. Many kamzols, chapans, dresses will be embroidered by hand,” says Zhanar Momynova. 

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In Every Art, It Is Good to Have a Master…

The immense steppe with an unusually blue sky, high hills, a large caravan and mysterious city of artisans will be located on the stage according to the idea of set designers Sofya Tasmagambetova and Pavel Dragunov.

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Although in order to ‘reach’ the stage and turn into sets to be admired by viewers, at first glance ordinary materials – wood, elastic polyurethane, aluminum, and fiberglass – undergo a complex process. At first, the designers’ sketches are brought to the Implementation of Scenic Projects and Staging Works Management. After that, when the experts calculate the precise sizes and create blueprints, they will be passed on to the Restoration and Craft Shop. And here real miracles are created.

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Looking at this wall, you might think that this is just a common, ancient, very realistic-looking wall. Its manufacturing process was incredibly difficult: every brick was fashioned by a sculptor, after that a form is created and only then it is cast in plastic. A titanic task is hidden here, because the volume is truly massive,” said Pavel Dragunov.

We will show not only the description of the everyday life that existed 500 years ago, but will also create a specific atmosphere, convey the spirit of that era,” noted the designers.

The most exciting sight will be the appearance onstage of the city of artisans. Multi-ton two-sided structures will open, introducing the audience to a new, stunningly beautiful space.

The elements of the city – towers and walls – were created by the opera house’s Italian partners. A professional of his craft, Head of the Artistic and Production Complex Viktor Carare was responsible for their quality, as well as for the realization of all the rest of the set pieces. 

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The city is executed at a high artistic level, especially in terms of the architecture of the exterior walls and the interior decor of the palace. The audience will see a large gate, as well as other equally impressive three-dimensional set pieces. The city residents will be constantly on the move, for example, the blacksmiths will be forging iron. The steppe will be presented in different interpretations: snowy, covered in lush blooming poppies. We must keep up with the constantly evolving technology of today and tomorrow. I am sure that another masterpiece will be born. This production is on a historical scale, there has not yet been one like it in Kazakhstan. Designers Sofya Tasmagambetova and Pavel Dragunov know our culture, way of life and customs perfectly. Sofya has a very rich library, from which we drew a lot of information,” said Victor Carare.

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In addition to the large-scale sets, video projections are used in the production. They will show caravans, one of which will be present onstage in reality also. Animal artists are treated very carefully and with great respect. Especially for the comfort of camels and horses, a non-slippery floor will be made.

The Work Shows the Workman

Prop masters definitely do not have any chances of becoming bored. There are countless props in this production. Bows, arrows and daggers are made of natural wood. Sculptures are made of non-ferrous metals, as well as foam, after that papier-mâché technique is used; the final stage is priming the statues. Shields, hammers, whips, quivers, children’s hats, belts, sleeve protectors, helmets for soldiers – all of it is also made in the Prop Shop.

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For the first time in our practice we are making tumbleweed. The grassy plant has to sweep across the stage; a special mechanism is used for this purpose. We are making full-size carpets with intricate ornaments. It is a very interesting set design work, we are learning a lot in the process,” says prop artist Zhanna Musayeva.

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Creative Approach

Let us remind that the time when the poem Kyz Zhibek was created is not yet determined. It was first published in the late XIX century. The form of narration, the richness and brightness of the verse of the poem is considered to be one of the best works in the Kazakh epos.

Previous productions of the opera Kyz Zhibek celebrated the free choice of a life partner, the stage directors deliberately emphasized the protest against matrimonial traditions and customs of courtship existing in Kazakh society. The main characters – Tulegen and Kyz Zhibek – embodied the ideals of freedom-loving youth. The directors portrayed them to represent the best traits that people wanted to see in the younger generation. Stage Director Mikhail Pandzhavidze, who is working on the production at the Astana Opera, is not willing to follow previous examples of his colleagues.

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Trying to revive the previous productions does not make sense. In the process, we have said that we need ‘the principle of reasonable sufficiency’, ‘we should be like surgeons and do no harm’. However, there is a risk to overdo it and stay in line with the ‘traditions’. That way a boring performance can be created. As Voltaire once said – ‘All genres are good except the boring one’. I tried to interpret this work through the prism of human relationships. By removing superficial one-dimensional images, where one is the villain, the other is the positive hero, and the third is the lyrical heroine. From the pictorial point of view, an abundance of high-tech stage effects will be presented here. We must not forget that the people who come to the opera house will be expecting something amazing, a sense of wonder, a certain unreality, occurring in real life,” shared Mikhail Pandzhavidze.

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The Stage Director did not reveal the secret of who will play the role of beautiful Zhibek. Let us recall that performing this part has brought huge popularity to Kulyash Baiseitova, Bibigul Tulegenova and Roza Dzhamanova, as it is absolutely impossible to resist their genius.

Musical Know-How

Music of the first Kazakh opera is based on national folklore. The original score uses melodies of improvisers-akyns, folk ceremonial and workers’ dances and games. Expressive artistic means of the Kazakh language were masterfully used to convey the inner world of the characters, their range of feelings and emotions. Forms of song genres – zhar-zhar, koshtasu, zhoktau, many aitys – poetry contests can be encountered here. Thus, Y. Brusilovsky used about fifty folk kuis and songs. The most symbolic of them was Kyz Zhibek’s aria, which is actually a song Gak-ku by akyn Ibrai – a poetic interpretation of a swan song.

For over 80 years, the genre of this work was defined as a musical drama. After a new musical edition by the Honored Worker of Kazakhstan, member of the Composers Union Abzal Mukhitdinov, Kyz Zhibek can be rightfully called an opera. Maestro replaced spoken dialogue with musical recitatives, and added a few episodes, using, just as Y. Brusilovsky, music of famous Kazakh songs and kuis. 

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At first I did a trial version of a few episodes and gave them to our artists, so that they can assess the work. After hearing from them that everything turned out very organic and natural, I was convinced that we were on the right track. Then I sent several recitatives to Almaty to People’s Artist of Kazakhstan Professor B. Zhamanbayev, who knows all the previous productions for 50 years. He confirmed the artists’ conclusion. Having excellent support, I concluded the work on the clavier. At the moment, we have an opera, where rhythm and intonation of the spoken Kazakh language are recorded in musical form, and it can be performed by any professional singer, not necessarily even a native speaker. The score of the opera has undergone significant changes – mistakes that were made when it was recorded by hand were implicitly eliminated, the orchestration became richer,” said the maestro.

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In addition to the extensive work that Abzal Mukhitdinov did on improving the clavier, he also introduced a number of national instruments to the orchestra. Vintage instruments, examples of which can now only be found in museums, will be featured for the audience.

Vintage national instruments give special colour to the sound of the opera. However, at the moment I am working on another version of instrumentation, so that it could be performed by the standard symphony orchestra composition. I hope that this opera will become very popular and in-demand after our performance. It is close to the heart of every Kazakh person, and at the same time it talks about what all people were always interested in, what stirs their minds – love, the struggle between good and evil, loyalty and betrayal,” summarized Abzal Mukhitdinov.

… The opera Kyz Zhibek has been in existence for almost a century, which proves that it has withstood the test of time and is still in demand. We wish this work in a new modern interpretation to march across all the stages of all opera houses of the world with the same success and to meet an enthusiastic reception everywhere.

Photo: Copyright © Astana Opera, 2017

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