In November 2016, in western Russia, two 15 year olds — boyfriend and girlfriend Denis Muravyev and Ekaterina (Katya) Vlasova — caught a bus to the village of Strugi Krasnye. What happened next would send shockwaves across the world, and prompt debate about what should and should not be accessible on social media.
The pair’s bus journey to Strugi Krasnye had been funded by money stolen by Katya from her mother following an argument. Arriving in the village, the pair headed to a cottage belonging to Katya’s stepfather, and once there forced entry to a safe in which the former special forces agent kept two shotguns, a pistol and ammunition.
When police, dispatched to find the missing teenagers, arrived at the cottage, the pair began shooting at them from the windows. The ensuing siege went on for several hours, and the whole episode was streamed live on social media by Denis and Katya via the video app Periscope. With hundreds of people watching online, Denis gave a running commentary of his firing at a police van parked outside, and the pair also uploaded images from inside the cottage to Instagram, including tender farewell messages.
According to reports at the time, relayed on the BBC website, the police stated they did not return fire, but instead tried to persuade the children to surrender. As too did Denis and Katya’s parents, but ultimately their efforts were in vain. After telephone communications with the cottage went quiet, special forces stormed the house and found the bodies of the two teens, who had allegedly shot themselves.
It is this tragic story which has provided the inspiration for the new opera from British composer Philip Venables and American director Ted Huffman (pictured above). Denis & Katya, which received its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia in September 2019, explores the real-time voyeurism of Denis and Katya’s final moments, as well as the public’s reaction to the tragedy, and how we consume information online.
Without the internet Denis and Katya’s story would have undoubtedly have played out differently - it may not have even happened. Without the internet, Denis and Katya’s story would not have been reported as widely around the world; it wouldn’t have been just a click away. Whilst tragedy and opera may be readily associated with each other, and real-life crime and suicide similarly no strangers to the stage, it’s rare to see such a modern story portrayed through the medium.
But, as the Russian theatre creator Ksenia Ravvina suggested in an interview with ABC News last year, there is an argument that Denis and Katya had already transcended the boundaries between stand-off and story by their own actions. “Katya and Denis put themselves on the internet, they started to broadcast themselves. It's very theatrical movement and gestures… They somehow became artists by doing this.”
Still, decisions as to how to sensitively adapt the story of such a recent tragedy for an operatic stage remained pertinent for Venables and Huffman. Which is why Denis and Katya never actually appear on stage, and the opera centres instead on the reaction to the siege and ultimate tragedy, with the entire cast of characters, stretching from friends of the pair to journalists, played by just two singers.
In keeping with this stripped back staging, the opera’s music comes not from an orchestra, but four cellists each one situated in a different corner of the stage. Behind them, onto the stage backdrop, words are projected that include comments from viewers of the original Periscope stream, and also Venables and Huffman’s own WhatsApp conversations about how to put on the production.
The result of all this is an opera, unlike any other, one that has proved a deviation from the norm even for a composer of Venables’ stock. As he told ABC News ahead of the Philadelphia premiere; “What I've been really interested in in opera is generally how we tell stories, how we represent people onstage, how things are kind of dramatized and told, and this has been a really, really great kind of exploration for us.” As for the audience, this is an opera that portrays real-life tragedy in a sensitive voice, and also asks pertinent questions about how we interact with the online world we increasingly inhabit.