June 02, 2021

“Astana Opera is the biggest temple of art in Central Asia”: conversation with one of the theatre’s founders, conductor and composer Abzal Mukhitdinov

One of the key priorities of the International Chodiev Foundation’s work is supporting culture, the arts and cultural exchanges between countries (to read more about this work please follow this link). For many years, the ICF Founder, Dr Patokh Chodiev, has been a member of the Board of Trustees of Astana Opera, the largest theatre in Central Asia. Astana Opera presents world-class productions that meet the tastes of the most demanding spectators; the architecture and technical equipment of the theatre also meets the highest international standards. As Nursultan Nazarbayev, the First President of Kazakhstan, noted at the official opening of the theatre in 2013, “Astana Opera is the biggest temple of art in Central Asia. It is the only classical theatre of this scale built in the last few decades throughout the entire Eurasian space. It is one of the most technically advanced theatres in the world.”

Today, we meet with Abzal Mukhitdinov, the man who stood at the very origins of Astana Opera, one of the founders of the theatre and the very heart of it – the symphonic orchestra, and a talented conductor and composer, whose works are recognized both in Kazakhstan and internationally. Today, Abzal Mukhitdinov’s conducting repertoire includes more than 1000 works of symphonic, chamber, vocal-symphonic music and over 50 opera and ballet performances. He has conducted in many famous concert halls in Asia, Europe and America, among them Carnegie Hall (New York), Opera Bastille and Gaveau (Paris), Konzerthaus (Berlin), Musikverein and Hoffburg (Vienna), Opera di Roma (Rome), the Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa), De Doelen (Rotterdam), Woori Art Hall (Seoul), the Bolshoi and Novaya Opera Houses (Moscow), all three stages of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the Concert Hall ‘Russia’ and many other world stages. He has collaborated with the legendary musicians and composers, such as Monserrat Caballé, Valery Gergiev, Saulius Sondeckis, Denis Matsuev, and Placido Domingo.

Abzal Mukhitdinov is an Honoured Artist of the Republic of Kazakhstan, recipient of the Order of Kurmet, Member of the Republic of Kazakhstan Composers’ Union, and author of several works for symphony orchestra, choir and piano – it is difficult to list all his merits.

Maestro, let us go back in time to Kazakhstan in the 1990s. What was the young capital’s cultural life like before Astana Opera? How was Astana Opera created?

The idea for Astana Opera came about when the capital city was transferred from Almaty to Nur-Sultan, known back then as Akmola and subsequently – Astana. In 1999, I was invited to Astana to create a symphonic orchestra of the Philharmonic, a year later, the opera theatre was opened, named after Kulyash Bayseitova, a famous Kazakh opera singer and actress. In a city where opera had never been performed before, the first opera theatre became the starting point in the development of current musical theatre. For 13 years we have managed to put on more than 50 performances, to hold many festivals and competitions – it was a big job for a new team and a new theatre, the troupe improved professionally, we grew up. In 2010, the Head of State invited us to the construction site of the Astana Opera House, and in 2013 it was inaugurated. Today, thanks to its artistic and technical achievements, the theatre ranks among the most world’s famous and prestigious halls, such as La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in Madrid, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow or the Metropolitan Opera in New York. An international team worked on the technical equipment of the theatre, and the acoustics were handled by leading specialists from Italy and Germany. All the minute details, from the parquet material to the angle of the seats, were considered, all in order to achieve excellent sound quality. Artistic work is handled by a local team and, of course, we regularly work with guest artists and collaborate with the world’s leading theatres.

So, it was a huge step forward…

I am proud that in twenty years we have succeeded in achieving such important milestones. In the early 2000s people used to come to the theatre in valenki, shapkas, almost popping sunflower seeds. People came for the entertainment, but there was no understanding of the level of this ‘entertainment’. In the past, they often applauded without realising, for example, that a four-part cycle was being performed, where applause was not permitted in order not to disturb the integrity of the work. It is worth noting that audiences today have changed greatly; they have become more selective, more educated and sophisticated. Several generations of musicians have changed over that time. Today, there is a strong competition among the performers . You have to take into account the fact that we are frequently visited by such outstanding artists as Gergiev, Mehta, Frigerio… To stay in shape, you have to play a lot of complicated music. I think the right vector was chosen when we started staging the classics. As a repertory theatre we put on classical productions, but we also try to experiment sometimes. For example, at the Kulash Bayseitova Opera House we staged the opera-oratorio ballet Batyr Bayan, which combines various styles and directions. Although we had a small stage at our disposal, we staged such productions, which wee extremely rare in the post-Soviet time, as ‘Manon Lescaut’, ‘Othello’, ‘Werther’. Now Astana can boast about the availability of high quality ensembles, the world-class stars perform here. For example, it took us 11 years to get from our ‘Operalia’ to ‘Placido Domingo’s Operalia’. I am sure that in the future, our theatre will flourish, develop further and gain momentum.

Sometimes people think of a conductor as someone who simply stands in the orchestra and waves the baton. However, the role of a conductor is much more important and expansive. What does your job actually involve?

You could draw an analogy with the human body. The conductor is the brain, which gives impulses to different parts of the body: to raise an arm, to smile, to stand up or to run. The main task of a conductor is to give an impulse for action; a conductor is in the present and future tense at the same time, he or she prepares a sound, an idea of the sound, its volume, its tempo. In the present tense he corrects the sound, analyses the performance and anticipates where an error could occur, therefore a quick analysis is important. For example, if a passage in the beginning doesn’t work out for the violins, it is clear that they will come out wrong at the end of the passage, and the other instruments’ introduction needs to be corrected. Another analogy can also be drawn – the conductor’s role is akin to that of a military commander in a battle; he brings the composer’s strategy to life. It is also important for the conductor to set the right mood every time, to inspire the orchestra, to create an aura that brings musicians and audiences together.

We know that you not only conduct, but also you founded such musical ensembles as the Camerata Kazakhstan and La Primavera chamber orchestras, the Astana Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the K. Bayseitova Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Astana Opera Theatre. It is an enormous task. What should guide the founder of the new companies?

The main point to consider is the expediency of the new company. You need to ask yourself: “Why do we need this collective?”, “What are its objectives?”, “What will it bring to the development of the country’s musical heritage and even the world heritage?” These are the questions that are needed to be asked first and foremost.

Abzal, you are always on the lookout for new technologies. You were the first in Kazakhstan to use computer software for note-taking, score recording and sound recording. Last year, under your management an orchestra of 100 musicians performed the famous overture from Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’ online. No one has ever performed it in such a way. The video literally exploded on social media.

Last year, during challenging for everyone time, our aim was to give people hope that all will be well at the end. This cheerful music easily brings people out of pessimism and apathy, gives hope, and speaks of simple human joys and love of life. As children, we used to march to this music. This music excited us, evoke a sense of unity, which is why I chose this music for our flash mob ‘Biz Birgemiz’ (‘We are together’ in Kazakh).

What productions are you working on at the moment?

We are currently working on two productions. The first is ‘The Secret Marriage’ by the famous Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa. To this day ‘The Secret Marriage’ is recognised as one of the finest works in the genre of opera buffa, the Italian comic opera. Our premiere will take place in October. The second project in progress is the opera ‘Alpamys’ by the Kazakh composer Yerkegali Rakhmadiyev. The premiere is scheduled for early December.

Maestro, you give your listeners the opportunity to enjoy masterpieces of world classics and at the same time you work hard to promote national music and Kazakh composers in Kazakhstan and abroad. Besides, you do a lot of editorial and publishing work on Kazakh composers’ works. Besides ‘Alpamys’, these are operas ‘Birzhan and Sara’, ‘Kyz-Zhibek’, ‘Kamar Sulu’, ballets ‘Karagoz’, ‘Steppe Legend’, you orchestrated many Kazakh national songs. We also know that you are currently working on the opera Al-Farabi… Please tell us more about your efforts to promote Kazakh culture.

I was approached by Zhupar Kozhak, a Kazakh poet. About nine years ago I wrote a piece for an unaccompanied chorus – ‘Amanat’ (‘The Lamentations of an Enemy of the People’). And recently she suggested writing an opera dedicated to Al-Farabi. Now we are looking for a good dramatist to write the libretto. But there are already rough drafts.

What is the importance of the figure of Al-Farabi?

He is outstanding figure in the history of human civilization, his writings have formed the basis of philosophy and science all over the world. He was the Aristotle of Central Asia. He is a figure not yet presented to the world in the way he deserves.

You are also a teacher and have raised many musicians. Is it now your mission to raise the next generation who will continue to develop the Kazakh symphonic art?

Yes, this is very important to me. Half of the orchestra is made up of my former students in the orchestra class at the Academy of Music, half of the soloists are my former students of the opera class and conductors are also my students, winners of international competitions. I am still teaching now, but teaching online is not the best idea for teaching conducting.

In your opinion, how important is the role of patrons and benefactors in developing the culture and the arts?

The role of benefactors has been very important since ancient times. It remains so nowadays, especially in the sphere of culture and art which are not always a priority of government efforts and investments, as can be seen in many countries all over the world. Philanthropists, sponsors not only provide tangible and necessary material support for the development of creative groups, they also inspire and draw attention to important issues of cultural heritage and development.

What is the role of the Board of Trustees of the Astana Opera?

The main role of the Board of Trustees is the strategic development of the theatre and the  implementation of recommendations for its further development. The Board also works to raise extra-budgetary funding for the theatre. It is a critical role, especially in the current time of uncertainty and various challenges that society and the state are facing. And that is why we bring onboard the outstanding representatives from various fields, who can provide a versatile, expert perspective on the challenges facing the theatre.

Thank you for such interesting and engaging conversation. We wish you success in all your exciting projects and new beginnings!

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