Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Interview: Hershey Felder of NICHOLAS, ANNA & SERGEI at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Moving Portrait of Rachmaninoff in His Latest Virtual World Premiere

Felder's new work about the famed Russian composer livestreams from Florence, Italy on Sunday, May 16th

Interview: Hershey Felder of NICHOLAS, ANNA & SERGEI at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Moving Portrait of Rachmaninoff in His Latest Virtual World Premiere
Hershey Felder (L) as Sergei Rachmaninoff and J. Anthony Crane as Tsar Nicholas II
in Nicholas, Anna & Sergei

Have you heard the one about Rachmaninoff and Anastasia? Well, Hershey Felder has quite a tale to tell you! On Sunday, May 16th, acclaimed pianist/performer Felder will portray the iconic Russian composer in Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, his latest world premiere livestream from Florence, Italy. Nicholas, Anna & Sergei explores the little-known story of a strange meeting of Russian piano virtuoso Rachmaninoff and Anna Anderson, a woman who claimed to be Princess Anastasia, the sole surviving member of the Romanov Dynasty. Set in the Beverly Hills house in which Rachmaninoff died in 1943, Nicholas, Anna & Sergei is a mesmerizing memory play imbued with the composer's most-beloved music.

Presented by Hershey Felder Presents Live from Florence in conjunction with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the show was written by Felder and directed by Felder and Italian film artist Stefano DeCarli. It promises Felder's uniquely entertaining blend of live performance, filmed elements, sumptuous visuals, gorgeous music, compelling drama and fascinating cultural history, all leavened with bits of wry humor. The production will also include guest stars such as world-famed soprano and actor Ekaterina Siurina as Natalia Alexandrovna Rachmaninoff, Klezmerata Fiorentina violinist Igor Polesitsky as Dr. Golitzin, and theatre and film actor J. Anthony Crane (who played the title role in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Cyrano) as Tsar Nicholas II. Helen Farrell will play Anna Anderson. Nicholas, Anna & Sergei will stream live at 5pm PDT, on Sunday, May 16, 2021 (with streaming on-demand access through May 23). To purchase tickets or find more information, visit Ticket sales directly benefit TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

I spoke with Felder last week from his home in Florence while he was in the whirlwind of creating this world premiere. We talked about the craziness of producing these incredibly complicated multimedia livestreams during Covid times, how Rachmaninoff's music and story resonates so deeply for him, and his plans for a whole new season of offerings. Felder is always a delight to talk to - instantly engaging, funny, warm and knowledgeable - and any conversation with him is apt to go off on a number of unanticipated tangents. For example, who knew that Rachmaninoff was tickled pink by Mickey Mouse playing his Prelude in C #? Felder's use of language is also uniquely musical. But then, what else would you expect from a Canadian who grew up speaking English, Yiddish and French, and is now creating his latest work in Italy surrounded by a team of Russians? The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So Nicholas, Anna & Sergei is another world premiere for you! How are things going?

Oh, it's a zoo! [laughs] You know, they're downstairs in one part of the - how do you call it, borgo - with the costumes one set is doing, another set is making supper for crew. You can't imagine what goes on here. Pianos were moving all around the place today, and locations in palazzos and things to make the Tsar's winter palace. Finding as much red fabric as there is in all of Florence, because of course if you're dealing with tsarist Russia, it has to be red. So, you know having fun, almost too much.

The way you describe where you're at with putting this show together right now, it sounds like the ultimate "Hey, kids! Let's put on a show!" situation.

[dubiously] Ehh - a little bit different. It still requires a lot of [Covid] testing, and now Italy is so demanding that if anybody comes here, it's not just a rapid test, it's a PCR test, and it needs to be within 48 hours of arrival. It's lots of protocol, lots and lots of tough stuff. And so on that front, it's less about "Oh, let's just put on a show." than it is "We're going to put on a show and we're going to have to be very careful how we do it." We have to be very conscious that there are rules and we must take care of people, and at the same time produce something that's a bit of a spectacle. So it's a tall order!

This one is close to my heart. It's emotional, it's about a pianist and it's also about someone who's suffers greatly - not that I'm someone who suffers greatly. I mean, I suffer like a normal person, I don't suffer like an unhappy Russian. [laughs] - But like most people I suffer, and I know what it means to be an artist, and I know what it means to always feel unfulfilled, even if it's on a different level than Rachmaninoff did. I know what it means to be displaced, as so many of us do, running from home to home until you actually find one and feel comfortable.

So I understand that character. I understand to a degree what it must have been like to be in America, finally getting American citizenship 8 weeks before being diagnosed with severe terminal cancer and being pumped up with morphine in bed. And that's really his story, being 70 years old and just having so much more to do and say, and not being able to. And that's heartbreaking. So this is one that might make you cry - but that's okay. [laughs]

Another thing I imagine you connect with is that he was a great performer.

Well, great is probably an understatement. He was a staggering performer. But he wasn't a performer in the traditional sense that Horowitz was. Rachmaninoff was a great, great pianist and a great, great musician, but he was not a showman. His music can be very showy, but that's not really what it's about; it's emotional. And finding that, finding the sadness of this loss of Russia and wanting to go home, and wanting to find home is really what the story is about. It's not at all about "Oh, look at what I can do at the piano." He left that to Horowitz, you know? He was asked what is the right interpretation of the 3rd Concerto and he said, "Ask Horowitz. He's the one who knows." [laughs] Because Horowitz knew how to show off with that piece. Rachmaninoff was not really a showoff. He was a really serious musician. And the more I study it, the more I really appreciate the deftness, the elegance, the quiet nobility that he brings to his music. It's quite moving.

There's also the story of Anna Anderson, which is completely nuts you know, why he all of a sudden got involved with her. I mean, it's kind of crazy, but he was so desperate for home that even a fraudulent person was enough to make him want to do something with her. Amazing.

Once again you have soprano Ekaterina Siurina in the cast.

Yes, Kat is going to play Natalia Rachmaninoff, and she's going to sing one of the famous Rachmaninoff pieces. And look, she's Russian and she's born in Yekaterinburg so you know we're going with as much authenticity [as possible]. In fact, my whole cast is all my Russian friends. [laughs]

Interview: Hershey Felder of NICHOLAS, ANNA & SERGEI at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Moving Portrait of Rachmaninoff in His Latest Virtual World Premiere
Hershey Felder as Sergei Rachmaninoff & J. Anthony Crane as Tsar Nicholas II
in Nicholas, Anna & Sergei

You originally titled the piece just Anna & Sergei. Did you rethink how you wanted to tell the story?

Well, it was written for [in-person] theater. When the pandemic hit, I was rehearsing here and we were scheduled literally to go to America with the whole team, two weeks later, something like that. March 10th everything shut down here, so all that was annulled of course.

So this was supposed to be a stage play and that was the way we worked it. And then as I started adapting it for the screen I realized Nicholas has a much bigger part onscreen because Rachmaninoff is talking directly to the audience in a fever dream, and who he's talking to in the fever dream is the Tsar. But you can't quite do that on film; it would be very awkward. You can do it in the theater because, you know, it captures differently. So I realized we can't just say "Anna & Sergei" when the Tsar is one of the main characters. The structure of the play is the same; it's just how it's told on film is with more characters, and so I thought it would only be fair to give them their due in the title.

That's interesting. Like many folks, I've been watching lots of plays on video this past year, and there have been times I've felt like, "Yeah, I bet that kind of switching up characters in direct address worked really well in the theater, but on my TV set, not so much."

It feels uncomfortable, you know? And scenes played out on the TV screen are complicated, so it has to be adapted properly, and not just sort of - I don't want to say "lazy," cause it's not; it's just not having quite solved all the problems that need to be solved.

And they're different problems than they would be onstage.

Completely different problems, and you can't just pretend that "Well, it's fine." [laughs] Which is a lot of what we've seen this year, and I'm sure early on I was guilty of that a lot too, but at least I was always pushing forward to try and figure out a better way to make it work.

Given the drama of Rachmaninoff's music, I'm guessing this show will give you a major workout at the piano.

Oh, for god's sakes, talk about exercise! It's really not fun! [laughs] I mean I love to do it cause it's really in my nature and I have a good time doing it, but "easy" is not what I would say it is, you know?

Unlike many of the musicians you've portrayed, Rachmaninoff lived well into the 20th century so there are existing audio and video recordings of him. Did you find that at all helpful in developing your characterization of him?

Well, video not really. There are home movies that people made. You know, it was fashionable, kind of like us with our cell phones? It's him with his wife, with his daughters, with this or that pianist, but there's no real film of performances. He wasn't into that. In fact, he was highly against it for the simple reason that he never felt he sounded or came off on film or in recording the way he did in concert hall. Whether that was just his impression or whether that was the case, who knows? But this was the situation so there's not really much extant video, of his playing anyway.

Rachmaninoff suffered greatly from depression, which is an illness that is still so misunderstood. How was it dealt with in his time?

Well, he was very depressed and couldn't compose, and his aunt insisted that he go see a shrink, Dr. Dahl, or more specifically a hypnotist. One of the lines that I actually say in the piece is that he was asked what the hypnotist did and he said, "I was hypnotized - how should I know?" [laughs] But the truth is we don't really know how he dealt with it or treated it. He didn't talk very much about that. So we know what happened to him, but we don't know much about the details about his illness.

Interview: Hershey Felder of NICHOLAS, ANNA & SERGEI at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Moving Portrait of Rachmaninoff in His Latest Virtual World Premiere
Ekaterina Siurina & Hershey Felder as Natalia & Sergei Rachmaninoff
in Nicholas, Anna & Sergei

I was surprised to learn that Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills, of all places.

Can you imagine? He died at 610 N. Elm Drive and the theater that I was meant to premiere this at was the Beverly Hills Wallis Annenberg [Center for the Performing Arts]. The Wallis is four houses from the house that he died in. I really felt very poorly for people who were living in his house now, because I figured everybody's gonna leave the theater and go over and take pictures at 10 o'clock at night. [laughs]

He was brought to LA to give concerts. He was not feeling well at the time, and there was a great Russian community in Los Angeles. Of course, remember when '43 is, three years time of the war, across the pond, so he didn't want to be there. They had left Switzerland, their special home so to speak, at [Villa] Senar in Lake Lucerne. He ultimately got sick. Cancer was eating every part of him, and he had to stay, and he actually enjoyed the Russian community there. And there were some cute things about him there, like he went to see with Horowitz a tour of Disney studios, and the first sound that was used with Mickey was actually Rachmaninoff's Prelude [in C# Minor], Opus 3.2. He was fascinated that a mouse was playing his prelude on film. [laughs]

When you do these livestreams from Florence, you finish your performance at some ungodly hour like 4AM. What do you do immediately afterwards? I mean, it's not like you can go out to dinner.

Usually - the talkback, cause that's important for the audience. So you know I'm up at 4 o'clock in the morning having to talk to the audience live from Florence.

And then there are the cooking shows, because now we've decided to associate all these events with a cooking show - "prepare Rachmaninoff's favorite foods." A friend of mine who's a Cordon Bleu chef in Florence, the two of us together, we cook. We made a whole ton of Russian food yesterday and filmed it for TV. And that's the fun part of it, a little too much fun considering what's going on in the world, but you know that's OK, too, sometimes.

Once Nicholas, Anna & Sergei has premiered, you'll have completed the full slate of "Live from Florence" shows that you had announced last year so -

- except we've already got our next season scheduled. So having completed it? Meaningless! [laughs] We're already starting on the next bit. It's a lot of work, but I mean how lucky am I compared to what's going on in the world? June 15th is the announcement for the next season. We've got a slate of 8 pieces, and you know we'll see, we'll see...

(All photos courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

Pear Theatre Will Present PEAR SLICES 2023 Beginning in April Photo
Pear Slices 2023 features nine new short plays. Playwrights include Barbara Anderson, Robin Booth, Leah Halper, Greg Lam, Sophia Naylor, Ross Peter Nelson and Bridgette Dutta Portman.

Sú North To Release Music Video For Single Yellow in April Photo
Alternative hip hop/rap artist Sú North (previously known as Sharif Hassan) is back with his latest single, 'Yellow,' and its accompanying music video, set for release on April 7th.

San José Chamber Orchestra to Present Three New Works By American Composers Photo
The San José Chamber Orchestra (SJCO) will present NEW SOUNDS on Sunday April 2, 2023 at 7 pm at the St Francis Episcopal Church.

Center Repertory Company Pauses Performances Of SWEAT At Lesher Center Photo
Center Repertory Company will pause performances of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT due to illness in the company. All performances between Saturday, March 25 and Thursday, March 30 have been cancelled. Performances resume on Friday, March 31 and continue through Sunday, April 16.

From This Author - Jim Munson

Review: A MUSICAL CONVERSATION ABOUT STEPHEN SONDHEIM Sheds New Light on the Composer's GeniusReview: A MUSICAL CONVERSATION ABOUT STEPHEN SONDHEIM Sheds New Light on the Composer's Genius
March 22, 2023

What did our critic think of A MUSICAL CONVERSATION ABOUT STEPHEN SONDHEIM at Hershey Felder Presents? BroadwayWorld reviews pianist-actor Hershey Felder's fascinating and entertaining new film exploring the composer's genius.

Review: THE COLORS OF DANCE at San Francisco Ballet Is Truly a Thing of BeautyReview: THE COLORS OF DANCE at San Francisco Ballet Is Truly a Thing of Beauty
March 16, 2023

What did our critic think of THE COLORS OF DANCE at San Francisco Ballet? BroadwayWorld reviews SFB's 'The Colors of Dance,' a gorgeous new program of 3 contemporary ballets running through March 19th at the War Memorial Opera House.

Interview: Greta Oglesby of FANNIE: THE MUSIC AND LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Has Clearly Found Her CallingInterview: Greta Oglesby of FANNIE: THE MUSIC AND LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Has Clearly Found Her Calling
March 9, 2023

BroadwayWorld speaks with acclaimed actor Greta Oglesby about playing a civil rights icon in Cheryl L. West's 'Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer' running at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley through April 2.

Review: GISELLE at San Francisco Ballet Casts an Otherworldly SpellReview: GISELLE at San Francisco Ballet Casts an Otherworldly Spell
February 28, 2023

What did our critic think of GISELLE at San Francisco Ballet? BroadwayWorld reviews SFB's stunning production of 'Giselle,' a classic ballet that still has the power to startle and move us, running through March 5th at the War Memorial Opera House.

Interview: Hershey Felder of GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE at Mountain View Center For The Performing Arts Reprises the Role that First Brought Him International AcclaimInterview: Hershey Felder of GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE at Mountain View Center For The Performing Arts Reprises the Role that First Brought Him International Acclaim
February 24, 2023

BroadwayWorld chats with virtuoso pianist/actor/playwright Hershey Felder about returning to the Bay Area in 'George Gershwin Alone,' the show that initially brought him international acclaim. It will run in a strictly limited engagement at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts March 2nd to March 5th