Interview: Paradise Moscow

Olivia Moss interviews Co-Director Rachel Higgs and Co-Musical Director Thomas Hawkes about their new production

Shostakovich’s Paradise Moscow (Moscow, Cheryomushki) is a satirical operetta set in a housing estate in Moscow. Depicting the lives of several characters as they try to follow their dreams in the city, the problems surrounding housing development and social experimentation that lie at the heart of the story are showcased with light-hearted wit and spright.

I was joined by Co-Director Rachel Higgs and Co-Musical Director Thomas Hawkes to talk about their upcoming production of Paradise Moscow, to be brought on stage at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall this November.

Q: To start with, could you tell me a bit more about the story and what interesting themes and ideas are you exploring?

Rachel: Paradise Moscow is set the Moscow of the 1950’s, in a time when the housing situation was changing greatly due to the building of many new estates. This particular estate, the Cheryomushki estate, has been built on the outskirts of Moscow and people are being relocated there. The operetta is all about the characters’ views of what those houses will be like, as well as their excitement and apprehension for their new lives. One of the things that comes across most strongly is their desire for stability and for love: many romantic relationships – most of them very humorous – are involved in the plot, all quite different and quirky in their own right. However, they all suffer disappointments in their struggle to find love as the story goes on.

Q: What is your artistic vision and approach to this production?

Thomas: Primarily, we want to make sure everyone realises how this aims to poke fun at the situation: it is not a serious piece at all, but more of the Soviet’s “Have I Got News For You.” With lines like “this is your government at work” recited when there is utter chaos, the satirical irony is particularly evident, and it is crucial to exaggerate it. The orchestration mirrors that as well: it is very cheeky – with lots of brass squeals going on, to give an example! I think it’s about presenting it with light humour that should not be taken too seriously.

Although there are hints to classical music, there are tunes that are distinctly Russian in the score

Rachel: Throughout the show there is a strong dual theme of dreams and reality. For example, when one couple is dreaming about having a house of their own, all the furniture dances! There are a ballet scene and a magic bench in there as well. We aim at portraying two different worlds, but also at blurring them in a way that shows how they are related. Artistically, the operetta is set in its original time and place to reflect its social context with more clarity, but there is a lot of scope to be creative in how we portray it, particularly with the dream-like elements.

Q: Tell me about the musical style of this piece, please.

Thomas: There are so many different styles involved in this music. Shostakovich includes Mozartian-style and a Tchaikovsky-style ballet scenes, and then develops the big, stirring Cheryomushki theme which appears repeatedly throughout. 

Rachel: Although there are hints to classical music, there are tunes that are distinctly Russian in the score. The combination of the two is really interesting.

Thomas: Shostakovich mostly plays between marches and waltzes. The time signatures used for these styles give a lot of movement overall; even some of the slower love songs do move at quite a pace.

Rachel: Yes: there really is a fast pace to the whole show, which is nice, in a way, because it does not dwell too much on things. That in itself reflects the whole idea that Moscow is in the middle of a massive state of change.

Q: Please describe your roles to our readers?

Rachel: I am a Co-Director, so I am directing the show alongside Richard Oakman. We have been working together closely, discussing our ideas for each of the characters. We have been doing many character workshops, as well as blocking the scenes. He tends to work more with the main characters, while I handle the ensemble more. My role there is to make sure the chorus is comfortable with the dramatic elements of the story, because, of course, it is quite difficult to create a part for yourself when you are in the background. We have also been working meticulously with the choreographers to bring the dancing elements in the scenes. 

I have to say that the chorus have some really lovely material

Thomas: I am conducting Part I of the production, and Part II will be conducted by Danny Purtell. There is much repeated material that has been interesting to work with – which is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because you know and recognise the material as it returns, but the difficulty lies in finding ways to keep the tune interesting to listen to every time it crops up. Whilst I work mostly with the orchestra, I have also been working with the chorus, making sure that the singing can always be heard and that diction is clear.

Q: Do you have your favourite parts of the operetta?

Thomas: I love the overture. It is the first time you hear the theme, and equally the strongest version of it. But I also love the duet between Vava and Drebednyetsov because it is really fun! Some bits are difficult to play, particularly in terms of pace; during rehearsals we had to go over one part five times or so, just to find the perfect speed! But we got there in the end, and it was such an entertaining moment. Vava starts off as very disinterested in Drebednyetsov declaring his love for her, but that soon turns on its head when she offends him and he threatens to take away what she wants! Plus, I have to say that the chorus have some really lovely material…

Rachel: I agree; this show has a particularly strong chorus role. We have tried to have it on stage as much as possible. My favourite musical moment, though, has to be Lidochka’s song in the first act. She is a fairly bookish, nerdy museum guide looking for love… but the right one. This is a really great moment for establishing her character.

Q: How has the rehearsal process been going, particularly since there are so many people involved in the production?

Rachel: It has been very intense – I think that is the best word to use. We have approached it by blocking pretty much all of the show in three weeks! It has been a bit crazy to be honest! We have been splitting off into groups: Rebecca Adams the choreographer has been taking dancers off to learn their scenes; Richard has been taking care of the principal characters. I have done most of the work with the chorus, which has  been both very interesting and challenging, considering that there are a lot of them. Similarly, though, there has been some crossovering too, to make sure that we are seeing and agreeing on each other’s work before finalising it. We have also been keen on having the singers and the orchestra work together fairly quickly, which I think has been really beneficial.

Thomas: With the orchestra, the first day was dedicated to going through everything just to get a general idea of the material; since then we have been refining things with knowledge of the score overall. That first day was probably the most difficult: we did not really know each other or anything about our individual styles, both the players of my conducting and I of their playing. Now we are at the point where they understand my mannerisms and we can start a rehearsal comfortably. I agree with Rachel that it has been good to get the singers in early too: it gave everyone more confidence.

*Tickets are available at the Department of Music Box Office. Paradise Moscow will run 4th– 6th November, 7.00pm each night.