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Review: The World Premiere of DENIS AND KATYA at Opera Philadelphia

Review: The World Premiere of DENIS AND KATYA at Opera Philadelphia
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

Two teens. One livestream that resulted in their untimely deaths.

Opera Philadelphia's Denis and Katya, a world premiere part of their annual opera festival, uses this true story to ask questions about life, death, voyeurism and entertainment in an innovative 70 minute opera. It covers the real life aftermath of Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova, Russian teenage lovers who ran away together and found themselves in a house surrounded by police after streaming themselves playing with a gun on the video app Periscope.

The titular subjects never actually appear in the opera. Instead, their story is told by a journalist who covered their deaths, Denis's close friend, a teen acquaintance that went to their school, a medic, a teacher and a neighbor. All six characters are sung by two actors - Siena Licht Miller and Theo Hoffman. The young cast makes each character distinguishable, while bearing an unshakeable resemblance to the real couple which found themselves dead in 2016.

Each character is based on interviews with the real people who experienced it. Their inner thoughts put the audience in the moment. The neighbor is frantic as police fill her neighborhood. Teachers tell of Katya's dark home life. Denis's best friend serves as a reminder that Denis left people behind when he died. The journalist brings up a striking point: "why do we report on these things if we can't help them?"

The story unfurls on a blank set in front of a projector. Four cellists watch the performance from each corner of the stage as they play the haunting score. The emptiness allows the audience to imagine the actual footage for themselves, making it possible for viewers to use their own experiences to parallel that of Denis and Katya. Used in transition, texts between the creators of the opera write themselves out on the screen. Here we learn about how the creative team determined what would be included, if any actual footage would be used, and their empathy for the young subjects. The audience also gets a glimpse of the comments people left on the real livestream. Oftentimes they are rude and extremely devout of feeling for these high schoolers who are clearly about to die. One person comments "is this even real?"

Contemporary operas can at times seem strange. Why must the actors sing this story? What is the purpose of this format? Composer Phillip Venables and Librettist Ted Huffman made these answers clear. By presenting the story as an opera, regular theater-goers expect a classic opera: an extreme tragedy viewed for entertainment with sets and gimmicks and costumes that wow. But Denis and Katya isn't that. People watch their story play out, just as people watched their livestream. It's not focused on aesthetics or the talent of the performers (although they were great) -- just the raw feelings and thoughts of those who were impacted by their death. The format reinforces that not all things that are presented through video or song or opera can be brushed off as far away or imagined. There is real tragedy that underlies Denis and Katya's story.

Each piece of Denis and Katya is impeccably thought out. The symbolism is clear and makes people rethink how we approach tragic moments in a world where news is updated every moment of every day. The journalist says the day after Denis and Katya died, a father nearby murdered his wife and children, and the deaths of the teenagers were more or less forgotten. There has not been a piece of theater that has made me think so deeply in a very long time.

The world premiere runs at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre through Sept. 29. Tickets can be purchased HERE.

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From This Author - Alyssa Biederman

Alyssa Biederman is a senior journalism and political science major at Temple University with a passion for theater. Since leaving her theater career as an actress and singer behind after ente... (read more about this author)