Russia's Classical Stars Expected at Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

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Despite efforts to keep the content of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics under tight wraps, a few details have emerged about the musical lineup planned for Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia on Friday.

Several Russian performers have been linked to the ceremony, including conductor Valery Gergiev, violist Yuri Bashmet, and Mariinsky Theater ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina. They'll join a parade of athletes and other pageantry to create what is reportedly the most expensive opening ceremony in Olympics history. To help explore the cultural significance of the Sochi games, host Naomi Lewin speaks with Simon Morrison, a professor of music history at Princeton University who specializes in Russian music and dance. He’s currently writing a book on the history of the Bolshoi Ballet.


What is conductor Valery Gergiev’s role and why was he chosen to participate?

President Vladimir Putin named Gergiev as an official ambassador of the Sochi Olympics "because he is really the leading cultural export of Russia," said Morrison. Gergiev has a well-publicized friendship with Putin, and "can basically pick up the phone and get a hold of the president." This has made Gergiev a lightning rod. In recent months, his concerts in the West have been targeted by protesters against Russia's law that criminalizes the dissemination of "gay propaganda" to minors. "Naturally, given his jet-setting, his prominence and his panache, he's an emblem of Russia today," added Morrison.


Along with the celebrity performers, there are plans for a 1,000-voice children’s choir. What do we know about this?

Gergiev has been making the rounds with a newly-formed, national children's chorus. Morrison believes it’s an effort to project an inclusive, diverse image for the country. "I think they’ll sing some big hymn," he said. “I don’t think it will be a nationalist hymn like ‘Slava’ from [Glinka’s] A Life for the Tsar since that’s a hymn that deals with Russia suppressing Poland and that wouldn’t be very international and cosmopolitan.”

The chorus is reminiscent of the "Friendship of the Peoples," an old Soviet mantra referring to cooperation among Russia's ethnic and social groups. "Plus, a thousand children really suggests they want to rival with Beijing,” Morrison adds, referring to the grand spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies. Below is a video of the enormous Russian choir performing last month at the Mariinsky Theater:

What other types of music can we expect?

This has been a closely-guarded secret, but the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow may provide a few clues to current thinking. Expect Tchaikovsky ballet music, perhaps some Rimsky-Korsakov and grand choral numbers. “For choral music, maybe something that reaches back to the Catherine the Great era since, in many respects, this current regime would like to see itself – and the public would like to see it – as a sort of more benign imperialism,” said Morrison. "So I think the opening ceremonies will be a reinforcement of that.”


Any surprises in the works?

"One of the things that’s rumored – and if this happens, it will be truly sensational and a real stick in the eye to the West – is that there is this pop duo named t.a.T.u.,” said Morrison. The duo consists of two young women whose stage show involves Lesbian schoolgirl imagery. “That’s part of their shtick. They were notorious as well as popular with the younger set." If that happens, argues Morrison, it will be a subversion of Western protests against the anti-gay law. Last week, several Russian news outlets reported that the duo Tweeted about their involvement in the ceremony (the alleged Tweet was later deleted and doubts persist about the post's truthfulness). Photo: Wikipedia Commons.


What other figures from Russian culture or entertainment may take part in the opening or closing ceremonies?

The soprano Anna Netrebko will sing the Olympic Anthem in the Opening Ceremony and has also been rumored to sing in the closing ceremony. There have been suggestions that Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet who was the victim of an acid attack last January, will have a role. “So I’m sure we will see the elite cultural representatives,” Morrison said. A spokesman for pianist Denis Matsuev told WQXR that he will be performing not in the opening ceremonies, as has been reported, but in the closing events.


Any bets on a grand musical finale?

Says Morrison: “My money is on Swan Lake.”


The opening ceremony to the Sochi Olympics will be televised on NBC this Friday starting at 7:30 ET. (Updated 2/7.)