Theatre as reflection

All people that we encounter in life are a reflection of ourselves

City Dmitry Bertman

 

The opera house, in the imagination of the modern man, is something of a relic — bulky, imperial, austere, walls smothered with the portraits of its founders. Ordinarily, only venues aged enough to have acquired the heft of historical significance are capable of inspiring reverence and awe. But, upon entering the Helicon Opera, still under its original management, and set to ring in its 27th year on 10 April 2017, you feel as though you have stumbled into a wonderland of ideas that, in a different venue, would seem but commonplace. Dmitry Bertman has managed to breathe into his opera a renewed sense of levity, enthusiasm, and youth. In our winter issue, we are proud to present Mr. Bertman’s piece on the privilege of having been able to employ his passion and courage towards opening the theatre of his dreams.

All people that we encounter in life are a reflection of ourselves. And they are sent in order that we, watching these people, would rectify our own mistakes, and when we rectify them, these people will also change, or else just fade away out of our life

(Boris Pasternak)

The theme of reflections is boundless — even if you don’t recall Plato’s Theory of Forms, Borges’s Labyrinths, or Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror,” it is one you can contemplate for an eternity. In my case, it’s simple: at a very young age, I got into theatre.

picture Katerina Bernyak

The greatest encounter of my life (and, I must say, I’ve met a number of great and extraordinary people in my life, some of whom have blessed me with their friendship and support) has been theatre. If I were to try to identify the main reason, it would be that the theatre is a place where one can create an entirely new reality out of the simplest means, and, thusly, we are able to access the human soul. Therein lies the great, elusive, inexplicable miracle. To capture it in words would be impossible, but, from my first brush with theatre, I felt the breath of that miracle.

Still a little boy, I felt this unbelievable vibration of transformation and love, and I was totally conquered by it, once and for all. It was most definitely love at first sight, and it would come to define my fate. The theatre was so immense that it wouldn’t let go of me for even a second. I grew up in the theatre, and grew with the theatre. Fate had introduced us, and fate would continue to hand me amazing opportunities, until eventually it seemed a logical step, albeit a bold one, to establish a theatre of my own. This theatre was inside of me, and, first taking form as a plan of toys under the sofa, it gradually became an adult reality.

Helicon

According to myth, the fountains of the muses spring forth from the slopes of Mount Helicon. It was there that Narcissus, glancing at his own reflection in a pool of water, met his death. In one way or another, all creative people are vain and prone to narcissism, but I, for one, do not fear death, because my main reflection is my theatre, and my theatre is generative, rather than destructive. Looking back now, I realise what an absurd, sacrificial, even impudent decision it was to embark on this construction. But it is human nature not to question acts of love, and rather simply to do what must be done. Such was my situation.

Today, opera remains one of the pinnacles of all that humanity has managed to accumulate in its creative portfolio. Is it really any wonder at all that we decided to build this opera house? The music, the magical space, reflecting the real world and thus creating a world of its own, not inferior to the real but, in many ways, actually far superior. And yet it remains subject to the inevitable rules of harmony that captured my heart in early childhood. The construction was initially intangible; the plan was bred out of vague desires, unremitting needs, and the understanding that, with all the greatnesses of others’ plans, they couldn’t satisfy me completely. I would inevitably have to implement ideas of my own.

Surprisingly, it all worked out, and, step by step, we created the Helicon, which quickly shook the whole capital. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’ll still say I believe that the boisterous success of the theatre in its first few years was wholly deserved. Nobody was doing opera like we were doing it: loose, free, and impassioned, with a limited means of expression, but with love and aspiration that enabled us to unleash something new and unexpected.

I remember each and every individual with whom we got our start, and I remember all the people who have helped us. I remember every moment and every step in this process, difficult, often tragic, but, at the same time, so rewarding and so luminous. It’s as if before me there were a massive phonebook, and, for each letter of the alphabet, there is a whole list of people who have been absolutely essential.

Many of them have left us, but, as Mandelstam wrote, “I still have the addresses, I can look up the voices of the dead.” I continue communicating with them, hearing the voices of these great men.

Then we started growing up. To the immaterial structure, we began adding processes of the earth’s very nature. My theatre was maturing, standing on its own two feet, taking on distinctive features of its own and a future that would bring new, even more complex tasks. The backbone to these glorious milestones was always the performances, and my little, rowdy, singing children, with whom I eventually travelled all over the world.

And then the theatre’s construction took on its least tangible form yet. Our legendary building required not just repairs, but new encounters (new reflections, if you will), and perhaps it was the love and recognition from the outsiders who appreciated our work that allowed us not only to begin the construction, but to see it through to completion.

And now, here I am, sitting in my own theatre, writing these lines, on one of the most beautiful and beloved streets in one of the greatest cities in the world. And that is how our theatre turned out, without any aspects whatsoever to feel shameful about, beginning with the special spirit of Helicon and ending in the fine details of the behind-thescenes machinery and the building’s decorated facade. Nemirovich-Danchenko once said that the theatre is a mirror of life. I often tell my students that the theatre is a reflection of everything that happens in life. And so it was that the Helicon came to be not only a reflection of my life, but also of the life of our society, as well as the lives of the many people who have intertwined with the theatre.

I’ve often heard it said that there is no knowing the real Bertman: there’s too much diversity in him — Bertman the producer, Bertman the teacher, Bertman the son, Bertman the theatre director, Bertman the friend, Bertman the citizen — each one differs from the other. But to actually see the real Bertman is very simple. The words of Pasternak in this essay’s epigraph are not there by chance. Poets do not lie. There can be no lies in verse. So there you have the real Bertman, perfectly visible in each of his performances — but you need not gaze too keenly, because the clearest and most accurate reflection is that which is reflected in our love.