A spectacular ‘opera-operation’ about tyranny

Octavia. Trepanation

Boris Yukhananov, Dmitri Kourliandski, Stanislavsky Electrotheatre

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Octavia. Trepanation investigates the bloody mechanisms of the revolution. This opera, which has its world premiere at the Holland Festival, is by composer Dmitri Kourliandski and director Boris Yukhananov, the artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. They call it an ‘opera-operation’. On stage stands a giant replica of Lenin's head, the skull of which is being trepanated. Kourliandski's music consists of socialist hymns stretched out in time, texts by the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and excerpts from Octavia, a play attributed to Seneca about the Roman emperor Nero. Is art capable of explaining tyranny?

Programme book

What would you see if you cut open Lenin’s skull? This is the starting point of the Russian Opera Octavia. Trepanation by the composer Dmitri Kourliandski and director Boris Yukhananov, which will see its world premiere during the Holland Festival. The opera revolves around fear and power, fear of power, and 

fear of losing power. It is a reworking of a sprawling production Yukhananov wrote in 1989 on the basis of the classic Roman drama Octavia, attributed to Seneca, about the divorce the dictatorial Emperor Nero forced upon his wife, combined with excerpts from an essay Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1920s about his brother-in-arms Vladimir Lenin, in which he portrays Lenin as a God. For the opera, Kourliandski and Yukhananov have only kept the monologues and dialogues of Nero and his teacher, the philosopher Seneca in their entirety. Octavia does not speak until the very end, when she accuses the all-powerful Emperor, saying that he is not only sending her into exile but will also be responsible for her death.


The opera is about tyranny, which, according to Kourliandski, is the consequence of the hunger for power and struggle to maintain it. ‘It is an illness that man has always carried with him. Fear is a mechanism that determines how people see and understand reality. Fear of the unexpected, fear of change. People live in constant tension, in anticipation of the fate that might befall them. They always try to hold on to what they know. The same is true for those in power. They will use any means at their disposal in order to keep hold of their power. It is out of fear that they resort to terror. We use the image of Lenin, but it could just as well have been Stalin or another tyrant. The irony is that all personal power comes to an end, always and inevitably.’


Kourliandski uses found materials for his music. In this case a revolutionary song that everyone in Russia knows: Varshavyanka, written between 1879 and 1883 by a Polish socialist, a rebel against the tsarist Russians. It was one of Lenin’s favourite songs. Kourliandski has magnified the openings stanzas, stretching them to the length of the whole performance and turning them into a new composition. He says: ‘In fact, I carried out a trepanation on that song. Now if you listen to what’s happening inside, you hear new sounds appearing. The chords gain a new richness. Electronic sounds are added live. The third layer is sung by a choir that picks out tones and micro melodies from the bottom layer and allows new melodies to grow from them.’


Focus: democracy

This year several festival artists are looking at the problems faced by Western democracies. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville admired democracy for its social equality. He saw its dangers too. Director Romeo Castellucci is making La Democrazia in America, based on De Tocqueville’s eponymous book 

(1835). In The Gabriels director Richard Nelson reflects on the recent American election year through the eyes of an ordinary family. Other artists focus on controversies in democracies, such as the issue of refugees in directors Dieudonné Niangouna and Thomas Bellinck’s performances. Others address the threat of violence (Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed), tyranny (Octavia), or shaping activism (The Tempest Society). In Manifesto the film director Julian Rosefeldt examines the relation between art and society. 

We are presenting two national theatre production companies, each with its own state of the nation: My Country by the National Theatre in London, and The Nation by the Dutch National Theatre in The Hague. Both performances show divided countries in which no one, from politicians to citizens, seems to dare to take responsibility. We also believe that it is important to explore democracy of form. Members of the audience can get actively involved as a passer-by, participant, or activist, if they so wish. Our artists encourage you to question the old hierarchy between the audience and the artists.


Boris Yukhananov (1957) was trained as an actor but made the transition into directing during the 1980s. In 1985 he founded the first independent theatre company in the Soviet Union, Theatre Theatre. A year later he and three young filmmakers started the Soviet movement called Parallel Cinema, 

which made and screened films on a lively underground circuit. The films took on the sacred cows of the Soviet system, placing them under a critical, often satirical lens. As a filmmaker he was preoccupied at that time with what he called slow video: unhurried films that reflected the standstill of life in a Soviet Union in its death throes. In 2006 his film Crazy Prince Fassbinder was part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

In 1989 he founded the Free Academy in Moscow, an independent school driven by the enthusiasm of students and teachers, where various artistic disciplines were taught together. Octavia was premiered during its opening, an early version of the opera that will be given its world premiere at the Holland Festival. Since 2013 Yukhananov has been the artistic leader of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre in Moscow. Yukhananov has a taste for productions on a grand scale. Since 1986 he has been working on the video novel The Mad Prince, of which 12 parts have so far been released. In 2015 he created a trilogy on the basis of L’Oiseaubleu by Maurice Maeterlinck, with each part performed on three consecutive days. The same year saw the premiere of Drillalians, an opera in five evening-length parts for which six composers wrote music. Dmitri Kourliandski composed the first part.


Born in Moscow in 1976, Dmitri Kourliandski obtained his diploma in composition from the city’s conservatory. His has won various prizes for his music, including the Gaudeamus International Composers Award in 2003. In 2008 he was a guest composer in the Berlin DAAD Artist-in-Residence program. His music is played by famous ensembles such as the Asko|Schönberg, Ensemble InterContemporain, Slagwerk Den Haag and Klangforum Wien, and has been performed during the Donaueschingen Festival, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and MaerzMusik among others. Kourliandski was the founder of Tribuna Sovremennoi Muzyki in 2005, the first Russian journal to specialise in contemporary music, and was its editor-in-chief until 2009. Since 2013 he has been the musical director of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. Kourliandski has often made use of found materials in his compositions. He frequently combines live electronica with his music. His opera Nosferatu (2014) was about the evil that resides in every individual. All of the sounds were taken from the noises of bodily functions, like the heartbeat, the circulation and the breath. He is a member of the young composers’ collective Structural Resistance Group. This year the Italian magazine Classic Voice named Kourliandski among the 100 leading composers of the century. This year, his performance-installation called Commedia Dell'ascolto will be at the Venice biennale in the Russian pavilion.


The Stanislavsky Electrotheatre is in the centre of Moscow on Tverskaya Street, off Red Square. Originally it was the ARS Electrotheatre, one of the first cinemas in Moscow, opened in 1915. Lenin once gave an important speech in the theatre. After the revolution, the influential Russian director and theoretician Konstantin Stanislavsky established a studio for theatre and opera in this building. Now the building houses an modern theatre centre, which produces operas and conducts film showings. Boris Yukhananov has been its artistic director since 2013. He wants the theatre to function as a free space for innovative directors of film, theatre and opera from both Russia and abroad. He offers them the opportunity to organise experimental theatre, contemporary opera, performance and other innovative artistic forms there. Since this work often makes use of multimedia techniques and electronica, the old name electrotheatre remains appropriate. The Stanislavsky Electrotheatre offers composers the opportunity to work with directors, actors and visual artists in collaborative projects.



concept, conceptual elaboration
Boris Yukhananov, Sergei Adonev
Dmitri Kourliandski
Boris Yukhananov, Dmitri Kourliandski
Boris Yukhananov
set design
Stepan Lukyanov
Anastasia Nefyodova
Andrei Kuznetsov-Vecheslov
Oleg Makarov
Russian translation
Sergei Osherov
English translation
John Freedman
Stanislavsky Electrotheatre
in collaboration with
Change Performing Arts
Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, Holland Festival

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