Nizhny Novgorod got its first public theatre in 1798, when Prince Nikolai Shakhovskoy brought his troupe of serfs from his estate in Yusupov near Moscow to Nizhny to entertain his guests here. One of Shakhovskoy’s mansions in Nizhny Novgorod was remodelled to make it suitable for a theatre. In the years that followed, the company would perform opera and ballet, as well as drama.
The existing theatre, one of the finest buildings in town, was constructed in 1896. Emperor Nicholas I had personally fingered the spot for the future theatre in Nizhny’s main street, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, so the theatre would bear the name “Nikolaevsky” for a long time thereafter. The theatre was designed by Viktor Shreter, the Imperial Theatres Architect, and the construction was sponsored by local merchant Nikolai Bugrov. Playing on the new theatre’s maiden night was Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Czar, starring a young Fyodor Shalyapin. In subsequent years, the theatre narrowed its repertoire down to drama. The company’s heyday came under the stewardship of director and actor Nikolai Sobolshchikov-Samarin, who was committed to promoting Stanislavsky’s acting system in the provinces with incredible zeal.
The theatre was renamed after the Soviet writer and playwright Maksim Gorky for good reason. In different years, all of Gorky’s plays were staged by the Nizhny Novgorod Drama company. In fact, this is something no other theatre company can boast.
While the company plays a mostly classical repertoire (including two Gorky plays) these days, it is not afraid to experiment with modern drama (plays by Ray Cooney and Piotr Gladilin are on the playbill). Sometimes, Nizhny Novgorod Drama will invite guest directors from Moscow to work with the company. Valery Sarkisov, for one, has directed close to a dozen plays in Nizhny, including Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. Vadim Danziger did The Philistines, a Maksim Gorky play. Karen Nersisyan directed Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, and Elena Nevezhina directed Paul I, the drama by Dmitry Merezhkovsky.
The Nizhny Novgorod Drama Theatre hosts the biennial Maksim Gorky Russian Theatre Festival, and the annual Evgeny Evstigneev Open Theatre Festival Awards. Evstigneev, a celebrated Soviet film and theatre actor, was a graduate of the Nizhny Novgorod Acting School.
Established in 1947, this theatre moved into a fancy new building in 2000. The statute of Thaleia the Muse of Comedy is by the front door. One of the youngest theatre companies in town, Comedia Theatre tries to live up to this reputation by being cutting-edge, staging modern plays, trusting the work of young directors, and raising some directors of its own. Comedia also invites experienced guest directors to work within its walls. The company has collaborated with Moscow director Valery Belyakovich for years. Belyakovich directed Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Drea.m., Neil Simon’s Fools, and Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide at Comedia. Irina Promptova, a professor at the National Institute of Performing Arts, directed the literary plays Bird of Happiness, based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov, and We Lived on a Different Planet Back Then, based on the works of Russian émigré writers. A few years ago, the company went beyond the confines of its genre, staging its debut musical, Leonardo, directed by Kim Breitburg, a director and producer from Moscow. One other play directed by Breitburg currently plays at Comedia: Casanova. The current playbill also includes Comedia’s own production: A Truthful Redhead in Love.
The existing theatre building was constructed in 1935, replacing the “Folk House,” the public theatre and concert venue built on the cusp of the 19th-20th centuries with money raised by Maksim Gorky and Fyodor Shalyapin. Gorky and Shalyapin first met and became friends in Nizhny Novgorod. Boris Pokrovsky, the future celebrated Russian opera director, was appointed director of the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Nizhny Novgorod (then named Gorky) in 1937. Pokrovsky served as Head Director of Bolshoi Theatre in 1952, 1955-1963 and 1970-1982. In 1972 he founded the Cha.m.er Musical Theatre of Moscow and would remain its art director for the rest of his life. Pokrovsky directed his debut, the opera Carmen, in Nizhny, and would serve here until 1943. In the 1980s, the Pushkin Opera and Ballet Theatre was one of the first opera companies in Russia to perform offstage with Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera The Sorceress, played by the walls of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, and Mikhail Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin, played at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma, Susanin’s hometown. While staying true to the academic tradition (the operas Ivan Susanin, The Queen of Spades, Aida, the ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Peer Gynt remain on the repertoire), the company seeks new vistas for its further development. The operatic musical Coco Chanel: Pages from Life, premiered here in 2014. The music for Coco Chanel was written by Eduard Fertelmeister, Rector of the Nizhny Novgorod Conservatory. In 2015, director Ilya Mozhaisky of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre of Moscow staged the opera The Cossacks, by modern Dagestani composer Shirvani Chalaev, at Nizhny Novgorod Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The theatre has hosted Autumn at Boldino, the national opera and ballet festival, every year for nearly fifty years. In the past five years, the company has ended each season with an operetta and musical comedy festival titled My Favourite Easy Genre. The company’s artists perform in concert at the Evenings by the Fireplace, hosted by the Art Museum at Verkhne-Volzhskaya Embankment.
The Nizhny Novgorod Philharmonic, also known as the Kremlin Concert Hall, is the premier concert venue of Nizhny Novgorod and one of the national classical music standard-bearers. It was here that Mstislav Rostropovich (the Philharmonic was named after him in 2004) staged his modern music festival of festivals, sensational for its time and first-of-a-kind in the Soviet Union, in 1962. A festival of the music of Dmitry Shostakovich (the only one to take place during the composer’s lifetime), and the world’s first Alfred Schnittke festival, were included in the progra.m.me. Rostropovich himself conducted music for the first time at his festival in Nizhny Novgorod. As for Shostakovich, this was the only time he conducted the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra on the actual Philharmonic stage. The legendary Nizhny Novgorod Philharmonic Orchestra has seen many a sensational premiere. It was the first in the world to perform many works of Aram Khachaturian, Tikhon Khrennikov, Rodion Shchedrin, Georgy Sviridov and many other modern Russian and Soviet composers. At different times, this orchestra has played with such greats as Heinrich Neuhaus, Svyatoslav Richter, David Oystrakh, and Galina Vishnevskaya. The orchestra has toured the whole world under the tutelage of its incumbent art director Aleksander Skulsky. It welcomes renowned international guest musicians for collaborative projects every year.
The key musical highlight for the philharmonic nowadays is the Andrei Sakharov International Arts Festival, “Russian Arts and the World,” which has been staged every by-year for over 20 years. This was the first Russian music festival to be admitted to the European Festivals Association at UNESCO, which unites similar events in 56 countries. The customary line-up of guests at the Sakharov Festival includes Vladimir Spivakov and his Virtuosos of Moscow orchestra, Yury Bashmet and the Soloists of Moscow, the Borodin Quartet, and the pianist Denis Matsuev. It takes only the first few days for these concerts to completely sell out. The philharmonic has staged its “summer charity seasons” every year since 1958, with free symphony concerts for several weeks. One other generous philanthropic initiative of the Rostropovich Philharmonic is its annual New Names festival for young musicians with personal scholarships for the winners.
The first teachers of the Nizhny Novgorod Conservatory, founded in 1946, were graduates of the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories. Some compositions of Alfred Schnittke, the church music of Sergey Rachmaninov, Pavel Chesnokov and Aleksander Kastalsky, and some music of Western composers premiered at this Conservatory in the 1970s. The Nizhny Novgorod Conservatory is today one of the foremost schools of music in Russia. It lists citizens of Japan, Syria, Denmark, France, US, China and Jamaica among its students, as well as Russians. The overall number of students exceeds 700 per year. The Conservatory is also a concert venue of national significance. Organ music festivals have been held here regularly since 1960, when a German-made Alexander Schuke organ was installed at the Grand Concert Space of the Conservatory. Subscriptions for organ evenings series are also available. The Conservatory stages numerous classical, church, and folk music festivals, which it organizes independently. The Conservatory also lets its professors and students play their own concerts (concerts that are played as part of the graduation exams are free of charge). It hosts performances by musicians from partnering cities in Europe and Asia. Some event or another is taking place at the Conservatory almost every day.
When you walk back after a concert, note the small overgrown earthen rampart running along the Conservatory ads on Ulitsa Piskunova. These are remnants of the town’s 17th-century fortifications.