Yevgeny Kolobov, the Russian conductor and musician who founded one of Moscow’s most successful and critically acclaimed independent new opera companies, died Sunday June 15 in Moscow, apparently from heart trouble. He was 57.
An outstanding interpreter of opera of all kinds, Kolobov introduced many works to the Russian repertoire. However, he was known locally as much for his organizational ability, in particular for Novaya Opera (New Opera), the company he founded in 1991.
Kolobov graduated from Leningrad’s Glinka Chapel school and from the Urals State Conservatory, where he worked as the principal conductor in the city of Sverdlovsk from 1974 to 1981. He then moved to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) as a conductor at the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theater.
In 1987 he became principal conductor at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater. In 1991 he left that post in a scandal which saw him taking many of the company’s main principals and much of its orchestra with him to found Novaya Opera.
Without a permanent venue, for seven years Novaya Opera worked out of a disused cinema that served as its rehearsal hall, as well as performing in rented venues around the city. With its reputation quickly established, the company became a major international tourer, comparable in critical acclaim for the territory only to Valery Georgiev’s Mariinsky Theater.
With the support of his longtime ally, Moscow’s mayor Yury Luzhkov, Kolobov’s dream of a permanent base was realized in 1997 when Novaya Opera received its own purpose-built, 700-seater theater, located in a park in central Moscow. He later remarked that only two major theaters in the world had been built to the request of the musicians involved — one for Richard Wagner at Bayreuth, the other for Kolobov in Moscow.
As well as more mainstream repertoire, Kolobov introduced a number of operas — mainly Italian, often from the bel-canto tradition — to the Russian public. Among them were Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny”, Donizetti’s “Mary Stuart” and Bellini’s “The Pirate” as well as a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” in the composer’s original version.
Never afraid of an original re-interpretation, he reorchestrated a number of classic operas as well as created original works, like “O, Mozart! Mozart …”, a compilation of Mozart’s “Requiem” with music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Mozart and Salieri”, which was not judged wholly successful by critics.
A brilliant, mercurial — sometimes exasperating, and occasionally authoritarian — individual, Kolobov’s energy and dynamism were remarkable in the bureaucratic slowness that characterized many of the more established classical venues (such as the Bolshoi Theater) in the Moscow music world of the 1990s.
His personal qualities were no less valued by musicians and performers — many of whom, after Kolobov had discovered them, would be eventually lured away to the West on more lucrative foreign contracts. As he said: “An artist must have two principal qualities: a good name and a talent. The existence of talent depends on God, but a good name is the responsibility of the artist.”
The struggles of creating Novaya Opera were enormous, and it is possible the effort contributed to his early death. The future of his company without its dynamic founder looks all too uncertain.