Since its 2017 launch, Opera Philadelphia’s annual Festival O has become one of classical music’s most hotly anticipated events, drawing aficionados near and far for two weeks of innovative programming.
At the center of Festival O19 is the world premiere of “Denis & Katya,” the latest chamber opera from out British composer Philip Venables. Performances take place at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, on the Avenue of the Arts, from Sept. 18-29.
The 70-minute piece centers on the real-life story of Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova, whom Venables described in an interview as “a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.” After running away together in 2016, the Russian teenagers used the streaming app Periscope to broadcast a three-day standoff with police, which ended in their suicides.
Venables was attracted to the role of social media in the story. “I think it reflects our current relationship to reality, to what’s real and what’s not,” he told PGN.
Although the production — which will be directed by Venables’ frequent collaborator Ted Huffman, who also wrote the opera’s libretto — is still in the development stages, Venables said that it will draw on elements of virtual reality, combined with the kind of sensationalism viewers have come to expect from media coverage of tragic, violent events.
“The style of the piece is sort of a docudrama, with talking heads,” he said. “There are multiple characters even though there are only two performers, so part of the story is how they shift from person to person.”
Venables is not afraid of setting complicated, disturbing stories to music. Before writing “Denis & Katya,” he and Huffman adapted “4.48 Psychosis,” the final play written by the late Sarah Kane, which indirectly charts the battle with mental illness that ultimately led her to her death by suicide. The play’s challenges include a text that does not specify character or setting, requiring the interpreter to make decisions on how it should be presented.
Venables’ adaptation has proved an unqualified success, with acclaimed stagings in London and New York. During the run of “Denis & Katya,” he will briefly leave Philadelphia to oversee the opening of a production in Germany. The success of “4.48 Psychosis” has brought the Cambridge-educated composer to the attention of many in the opera world, including Opera Philadelphia general director David B. Devan.
“We pitched David the old-fashioned way by presenting him with several ideas,” Venables said. “This is the one that clicked. That’s how we got here.”
The investment appears to be paying off already. In June, “Denis & Katya” won the FEDORA-GENERALI Prize for Opera, which provides a financial boost to productions in the development stage. The FEDORA Platform infused the Opera Philadelphia production with 150,000 euros, or approximately $175,000. The win marked the first time an American company received this top honor.
As is common in the creation of a new work, Venables is taking a hands-on approach. He will be in residence in Philadelphia for more than a month — although he cautioned that he likely won’t be seeing much of the city.
“We’re in rehearsal six days a week at the moment,” he said. “But once we’re a little more settled, and I’m over my jetlag, I’d like to see some of the galleries and maybe have something of an evening social life.”
When Venables isn’t traveling the globe for work, he lives in Berlin. He came to Germany more than a decade ago, and he relishes the cultural and musical opportunities the city has to offer.
“Berlin has three opera houses, and Germany itself has more opera performances going on than anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Even if you’re not going to the opera all the time, there’s a sense of music all around. And there’s a real sense of an artistic community and collaboration there, even when you’re not actually collaborating.”
“Denis & Katya” will be performed from Sept. 18-29 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, as part of Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19. For tickets and information, visit operaphila.org.