It has been a pretty classy week here in Astana. First celebrating the opening of a new vintage at Arba Wine, and now, the opera! Allow me to gush for a few minutes over the Astana Opera House. While I’ve seen the exteriors of many opera houses throughout my travels in Europe, I’ve never been inside any to see an actual performance. Visiting the relatively new Astana Opera House (built in 2013) was going to be a treat! I was eager to take in the show, but also the architecture and décor of the building as well.
The exterior of the Astana Opera House uses Classical architectural elements, such as rows of Ionic columns, a decorated frieze, and a large adorned pediment, to connect it with the European origin of the art. A closer look, both inside and out, reveals that this structure does not simply copy the European tradition wholesale, rather, it fills in the Classical framework with details that are uniquely Kazakh, such as the eagle sitting atop the scrollwork in the pediment or the guardian statues on either side of the main entrance, which depict Kazakh musicians, one playing a kobyz, a type of stringed instrument and the other playing a zhetygen, a sort of lap-harp, both symbols of culture and music history.
Uniformed men wearing fur hats with long, military-esque woolen coats, endure the cold winds to hold the doors for the opera’s patrons. The dark and maze-like foyer opens to a brightly lit and open hall where we are greeted by beautiful women, all wearing white blouses with sky-blue skirts with gold details, who direct us to the coat check-in. In the center of the white hall is a brilliant crystal chandelier set against a stylized sun with burgundy, gold, and white rays, whose pattern is mimicked in the inlayed floor. Crossing this floor, we enter the performance hall. There are rows of box seats on either side which look a bit futuristic, like round spaceships set into the wall, or perhaps even like the scales of a fish. The seats and stage curtain are a bright red. Looking closer at the curtain, more details of Kazakh culture are visible; the hem is embroidered with gold shafts of wheat and vertical Kazakh-style scroll work, also in gold, draw one’s attention to the pediment above the stage. Here we see another row of golden painted wheat shafts running under a central harp with musical notes radiating out from it and capped by a golden seal of Kazakhstan. Spreading out from these seals are wing-like designs with trident tips, all outlined in gold and filled with a dramatic royal blue, creating the effect of a sunrise. The ceiling of the performance hall is similar to the white entrance hall, another stylized sun, but with an array of colors.
And the performance! Madame Butterfly. I’ve known it was a classic opera and an important one to see, but I didn’t know what to expect. Set against a beautifully designed set meant to look like an early 20th century home in Nagasaki, Japan, the orchestra and performers helped bring this story to life. Many of the details of the story were lost on me since I don’t understand Italian and I could not read the Russian or Kazakh subtitles yet, but the voices and actions of the singers made it easy to ascertain the general story and emotions of the characters. The orchestra conductor, a most animated figure, expertly led the musicians through the score which varied from deep and sad to rapid and stark moments; the music was phenomenal. There is a lot of talent within this opera house.
While reading a little bit about the history of the Astana Opera House on its website, a quote from the president of Kazakhstan stood out to me and is worth thinking about.
“A country, that builds factories and roads, creates a firm foothold for years to come. A country, that builds schools and hospitals, takes care of the future of a nation for decades. A country, that builds theatres, looks forward for the coming centuries…”
The arts are so important. They inspire and provide us with beauty in a sometimes very bleak world. While many will agree, it seems the arts are the first thing on the chopping block in the United States. For some, it seems superfluous, an indulgence that is not worth funding when there are so many social problems in the world. Yes, that is one way to look at it. But as Nazarbayev recognizes, supporting the arts means we are supporting our cultural history and our future as a society. Even in times of economic crises, they subsidize and make sure the arts stay affordable offering tickets for as little as $1.40 (our seats were 11 rows from the stage and only $15!).
The arts give us a way to see the world and to see how it changes over time. In Madame Butterfly, originally produced in 1904, we see how Japanese and American societies (albeit through an Italian lens) viewed issues of religious conversion, marrying outside of your culture, fidelity, loyalty to your family and to yourself, and death. These are things we still encounter over a hundred years later. The arts give us a way to explore controversial topics in heartbreaking, honest, and beautiful ways. Having this opportunity means that as a society, we can discuss and debate what really matters to us and collectively move forward. The arts are not simply entertainment, they offer us insights into human nature and allow us to think about what we would do in such situations; through the arts, we learn empathy and compassion.
Can you really imagine a life without the arts? I was moved walking into such a beautiful building let alone seeing the show. Can you imagine your children or grandchildren not having that experience at some point in their lives? The arts give us a chance to imagine, to dream, to make beauty in the world. This is something we should treasure and protect (i.e. continue to fund programs like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, public museums, local art teachers and programs, etc.). Because really, if we think about it, what is life without something to look forward to? What is life without some joy and beauty? We need the arts to bring us to life, otherwise, we are just existing.