Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Bolshoi: Part 1

Once upon a time, I decided to enter a blogging contest for expats based on the theme "Working Abroad." You see, I think I have a pretty fantastic job and decided it was worth sharing a few of the details. Apparently it didn't make the contest cut, however, so instead you get exclusive reading rights here! Enjoy!!!

Putting my experience at the Bolshoi Theatre into words seems impossible. I could describe the magic of a holiday evening spent mesmerized by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, captivated by the exquisite movements of the Russian ballerinas. Or perhaps reminisce about the first Russian opera I saw in the exquisitely renovated theatre, The Tsar’s Bride.  But while those evenings spent at the Bolshoi will always be vivid in my memory, they are only the beginning of my story.

You see, unlike most Americans who spend an evening at the Bolshoi, I work here.   
I’m a pianist/vocal coach and while I enjoy every evening spent in our theatre, the real show (and sometimes the real drama) takes place behind the scenes. Where exactly? I spent the first month of my employment trying to figure that out.

What the public sees of the Bolshoi Theatre is only the beginning. Two stages, an administrative building, 6 stolovayas (cafeterias), an atrium, more confusingly-placed elevators than I’ve managed to count, and enough rehearsal spaces and offices to house an insane number of employees, which include a ballet company, opera ensemble, chorus, orchestras (yes, plural!), security guards, custodial staff and the ever-powerful babushkas who fiercely guard the keys to said rooms—ALL of this is connected with an intricate maze of tunnels that seems nearly as perplexing as the Russian language itself.  

My first week trying to make it to my coachings with singers involved more than one conversation that went something like this:

-       Aleksey, I’m so sorry that I’m late. I’m in the theater…somewhere. I should be there soon. (This was the English version in my head. I cringe to think of what actually came across in Russian at that point.)
-       Where are you now?
-       Somewhere near the atrium???
-       Should I come get you?
-       No, no. I’m sure I’ll be right there.

Twenty minutes later I’ve finally found my way back to the centrally located atrium where I bashfully wait to be found and led to work. Even though I’m already “at work.” I quickly learned this conversation was best modified to “Come find me please!” Much less Russian and no venturing unaided into the Russian matrix.

The Bolshoi maze itself may not be enough to compete with stage antics, put in my opinion there are daily dramas that do. And no, I will not be talking about acid attacks. Although this is tangentially related….you see, post-acid I was often asked if I felt afraid as an American working at the Bolshoi. Answer: yes. Was it related to the acid? No.

I’m terrified of the key guardians.

In Soviet times everyone had to have a job. I’m assuming this is where some of the Russian systems originate, including that of “the keys.” (I feel like there should be music accompanying their mention). In the American opera world where I came from, doors to rehearsal spaces were either left unlocked, opened by stage management pre-rehearsals, or even by myself. Occasionally even with my very own key.  But I’m not in Kansas anymore, as a quick glance at the spidery alphabet on signs everywhere affirms, and here every room has a key that is carefully guarded in one of three offices. Often by at least three people. You give them your name, your room number, your signature, some blood, a pledge of your first-born child (maybe I mistranslated that one) and try to justify your very existence as they glare suspiciously at your clearly foreign name. But then they hand over the key and you can finally give a deep sigh of relief.  It seems like the terror is over.

But forget to return it, and it’s really only the beginning.

I don’t know that I can write this in a way that can truly communicate the seriousness of the key system, but the first time I found myself at home—about an hour away—with a theatre key in tow, I felt slightly sick. The second time was even worse. And the third? As I am still living to tell this story, you can assume it didn’t take place. Chided by colleagues, seriously cursed by the key guardians (I can only assume all that unintelligible Russian was foul language) and even slightly shunned by one singer for my stupidity, I came to understand the importance of a Russian system that I never mastered. After Round 2, my rehearsal space was shamefully (but much to my relief) always opened by custodial staff.

I could go on about the culture of the Bolshoi cafeterias, the tradition of greeting everyone you pass in the hallway, the ballerinas running around in sweat pants and slippers…not the ballet kind, but the massive, foot-warming kind…and opera singers testing out high notes in the elevators, heard from floors below. Horses waiting backstage for an entrance, neon-colored frog heads bobbing through the hallway, and the never-ending construction that seems to take place in the tunnels…it’s all part of the scenery for the stage of daily life at the Bolshoi. It might not be as glamorous as the first time I set foot in the theatre, and it definitely doesn’t feel as surreal as my first moment performing on stage, but it’s this daily life, with its details and dramas that will truly make this job unforgettable.  It’s life backstage. At the Bolshoi.


  1. Amazing! What an experience! This is definitely one of the coolest expat jobs going :)

  2. Steph this is truly amamzing. I am inspired by your story and experiences. Im sure there were times that it seemed so hard and difficult but im sure looking back you see how worth it it was. Im jeleous of your awesome experiences you have created.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your life and what goes on behind the scenes. It's such a wonderful experience! Hugs :)

  4. What a fantastic experience to work at the Bolshoi! I am happy for you :)

  5. Wow. I was there. That is your life...crazy! Even cooler reading this post-Moscow trip. You amaze me Steph! Love ya!

  6. I love the Bolshoi:) We will be in Moscow mid August, but that's when everyone is on break so I won't be able to go back :( It's a sad sad day


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