The Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theater:

Russia’s West Meets East

Over 9000 kilometers east of Moscow, Vladivostok defies stereotypes about Russia: sun shines for much of the year; it overlooks the Pacific; Japanese and Korean products sprinkle the shelves of grocery stores; the whole city looks forward to Navy Day every July, wherein a massive sea parade of battle ships and submarines cruises along the coast. This is not the Russia of revolutions and Romanovs that is so familiar from Hollywood.

In addition, for much of the 20th century it was a restricted military city, allowing only limited access for civilians. This uniqueness, however, also means that Vladivostok missed the cultural explosion of dance and music for which western Russia is so renowned. Starting in 2016, the Mariinsky Theatre, spearheaded by its director, Valery Gergiev, embarked on a quest to change this and unite the best of East and West.


The project that embodies this vision was the First International Mariinsky Far East Festival, which took place from 30 July to 10 August, 2016. It is no exaggeration to say that this festival was the most ambitious artistic endeavor in the history of the region to date. The festival hosted a total of 27 performances, including the premieres of two operas, multiple ballets, and symphonic concerts featuring world-class soloists and conductors.  

The festival was largely conceivable because of the Mariinsky Theatre's expansion to the Far East in general, having incorporated a new theatre in Vladivostok on January 1, 2016 (now called The Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre). While most of the grander productions took place at the 1300 seat main hall of this theatre, the festival spread throughout the city, hosting concerts at multiple venues including a children's camp, a battleship, and several other concert halls. 

The director of the festival prioritized introducing audiences to the highest level of opera, ballet, and symphonic genres.  To introduce the Vladivostok public to opera, Gergiev chose two iconic works which had never been performed in Russia's Far East before: Prokofiev's comic Betrothal in a Monastery, and an opera bearing ties to the culture of the city itself, Puccini's Madama Butterfly.  Both of these operas featured stunning sets and costumes sent by the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg and all-star casts (including, arguably, the leading Madame Butterfly of our time, Ana Maria Martinez).   

Madama Butterfly struck many resonances with the coastal residents. Puccini’s tragedy chronicles the brief romance of a Japanese geisha and an American sailor, who leaves and subsequently marries another woman, abandoning his faithful first wife.  Despite the fact that opera is a foreign genre in Vladivostok, the sea, as well as naval stories of love and loss, are native.  Perhaps it was the gripping plot, as well as Ms. Martinez’ stunning performance, that provoked 7 rounds of standing ovations after the premiere. 

The symphonic concerts blended Russian music with Western European standard repertoire, and featured a staggering list of international soloists. While there was certainly a focus on artists from the Pacific Rim, such as Korea's star pianists Seong-Jin Cho and Yeol Eum Son and Japan's Akiko Suwanai, many other, prominent Western artists made appearances as well, such as Greek violin virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos, and the versatile young American, Nigel Armstrong, who wowed audiences with everything from bluegrass to Saint-Saens.  And that does not begin to list the fabulous Russian musicians and child prodigies. In short, it is unusual in any music festival to have the breadth of exposure offered in Vladivostok over the summer, and it was frankly a shocking accomplishment to offer this kind of a program in the year of the festival's inception. The ballet playbill was equally international, bringing stars from the Paris Opera Ballet, the Mariinsky Theatre, The Bolshoi Theatre, as well as a bright young prima from South Korea all onto the same stage.  Two of the greatest ballerinas of this age also appeared on stage: Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina.  This not only put Vladivostok on the map as a potential future center of ballet, but it also validated ballet in Russia as a living and expanding art form.  Rather than succumbing to the dark prophecies that audiences are shrinking and dying, Gergiev has proactively sought to shape the future and develop new audiences in new places--including Vladivostok.


This project was not only monumental for its scope and quality, however, but also for its international impact, and its investment in the future of the classical performance arts. 

On the day of the closing, The Festival announced a partnership with the most prominent Korean music festival, the Greater Mountains Music Festival (recently rebranded as the PyeongChang Music Festival). It also attracted interest from other established festivals in Japan and China.  This demonstrates the potential impact that such a festival can have: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, and even American artists were able to gather and collaborate in what only a year ago would have been considered an unlikely place.

But there is a potentially even broader impact that should not be missed, and that is Russia's commitment to the classical arts.  If this extremely high budget project demonstrated anything, it is that Russia, at least, values and supports classical performance as much as it has at any point in its history. The festival was supported not only by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, but also by the Ministry of Culture. Ticket prices were kept low for locals, and the result was a phenomenal turnout: over 20,000 visitors locally and from overseas.

   This festival set an example that there is hope that with this kind of support from Russia, there will be enough impetus to inspire future generations of classical musicians, dancers, singers, and also audience members.  In recognizing the increasing importance of the global East, and its growing market for the classical arts, Gergiev is moving in a prescient direction by preserving the prestige and grandeur of this form for the next generation and cultivating a culture of artistic appreciation.

But some might ask, isn't all of this just political? Are Russia's politicians backing away from the West and making alliances with the East with classical music caught in the middle?  The question, ultimately, is not relevant.  The outcome of the festival was that thousands attended concerts, operas, and ballets for affordable cost, and over 300 performers created beautiful moments in time and space on stages that had never before displayed such talent.  The outcome was international collaboration, artistic excellence, and an investment in the next generation of audience members and performers of the classical arts.

by Hannah Schneider
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