Fidelio in the Gulag

Historic memory – Overlaid Narratives

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 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. One that is real, not invented.

An initial series of mapping exercises was 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 were 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 was the fact that the geographic location of Perm meant that a July evening, when the piece was performed, had 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 effected the material nature of the interventions. What is normally disguised in theatre through dramatic artificial lighting was completely exposed in this context.

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