THE DUCHESS OF CHICAGO @ The Sverdlovsk Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy in Yekaterinburg, Russia

Composed by Emmerich Kalman, Original Libretto by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grunwald, Russian Adaptation by Arcadia Zastyrtsa

Choreographed by Patti Colombo, Musical Directors Gregg Opelka and Victor Olin, Set and Costume Design by Vyacheslav Okunev, Managing Director Michael Safronov, Artistic Director Kirill Strejnyev


(Reviews Below Images)


During the period when art could help people, Kalman’s tunes played the same role as Hollywood during the years of the Great Depression. Kalman is not a well-known composer in the USA. Operettas of Legrand and Strauss are performed on the opera stages, but “pop” operettas like “The Gypsy Princess” haven’t reached it yet. Recently little known operetta “The Duchess of Chicago” was staged in Yekaterinburg by  Michael Unger, the director from New York. First of all he didn’t suspect of the existence of two dozens of operettas by Kalman and was  surprised when he watched “The Gypsy Virtuoso” and “Countess Maritza” on the stage of the Sverdlovsk State Academic Musical Comedy Theater. He understood that something good went past America. Since neither Moscow nor St Petersburg recalled the idol’s 130th anniversary, Yekaterinburg is the only one of the big music cities where he was honored by attention. The Duchess of Chicago has much to offer: suitable libretto, consonant power of music, and even the gap between Russia and America dramatic art, which was filled when the theatre invited the stage team from America.

The experiment was a success – we’ve got the great show, somewhere in the spirit of Broadway musicals, somewhere in European operetta style which is well-known in America. At the first-night, the theatre proved its high grade and the stage company’s ability to act in different genres. The performance is spectacular with chic costumes, grand style music and attempt to adapt the libretto to the current requirements. A widespread interest in ‘The Duchess of Chicago’ in recent years (productions in Chicago, Vienna, St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg) is closely related to a longing for discovering the new, unconventional facet of Kalman’s creative activity.

Director Michael Unger, composer Gregory Opelka and choreographer Patti Colombo visited Ekaterinburg to create the operetta, and the clichés of European operetta have been replaced by less prevalent in Russian theatre  – Broadway style. American artistic devices work perfectly well in Russia: on the opening night the theatre was overcrowded with audience rediscovering their old beloved composer. However, the most interesting part of the intercontinental collaboration is an impression that the system of Russian repertory theatre made on our American colleagues.

During the staging process Michael Unger presented a detailed report about every day of his life in Russia in his blog. As any detached view, the blog is grippingly interesting. It’s thrilling to read about director’s astonishment when at first night he was brought on a completely empty stage. He was more astonished to find out that there could be any one of 24 shows in the rep on a given night. He managed to watch several of the shows, assessing their quality with a professional eye and constantly using the word ‘great’. “It’s a real mystery for me how an actor can keep 15 roles in his head at the same time!’ says Michael Unger with great and admiration.

The observations of the American about the Russian theater system are even more notable as they oppose the prejudiced views of our radicals. “Though we Americans, think that they (Russians) could learn something from us  about performing arts and their organization, there are a lot of amazing things in the system here. This kind of system is impossible in America, as long as our government does not support the arts to the extent they do here. To see these actors enjoying the diversity of their roles, to see so many leading characters, 26 chorus members, 24 ballet dancers and 35 musicians in the orchestra, to say nothing of the production group and administrative team – all this is worthy of admiration. All the year round, with consistent payment, without worries about their future. I assume, there is something that America could adopt from the cultural heritage of this country, or at least, something to admire .” It even seemed to the author of the blog, inspired by work at one of the leading musical theaters of Russia, that in Russia “hundreds of cities could be proud of their many theatres – opera houses, musical theaters, ballet, drama, theaters for children, puppet theaters and so on. In America, only our largest cities can boast that number of major cultural institutions.”

Visit my blog here. It goes back in time – and I have not yet blogged about the final few days and opening nights – which were the craziest of all! Updating soon.