by Feargal Mostyn-Williams (2017/18)

20 December 2019


In November 2019, six recent alumni of the National Opera Studio, Carly Owen (soprano), Heather Lowe (mezzo-soprano), Feargal Mostyn-Williams (countertenor), Andrew Henley (tenor), Emyr Wyn Jones (bass-baritone) and Emily Hooker (répétiteur) headed out to Moscow for a series of concerts as part of the 2019 UK-Russia Year of Music, coordinated and supported by the British Council.  Feargal Mostyn-Williams tells us about the experience:

Настоящее произведение искусства делает то, что в сознании воспринимающего уничтожается разделение между ним и художником, и не только между ним и художником, но и между ним и всеми людьми, которые воспринимают то же произведение искусства. 

“A real work of art destroys, in the mind of the perceiver, the separation between himself and the artist, and not only between himself and the artist but also between himself and all the people who perceive the same work of art.” - Tolstoy, What is Art?

Apprehension is the most apt description of our collective feeling before our departure for Russia. UK-Russia relations have been somewhat strained of late, and recent events did not leave us positively itching to head to Moscow. In addition, as none of us have performed in Russia before, we were unsure as to how a wholly English programme would be received. However, bolstered by NOS Director of Artist Development, David Sulkin, and his Russian counterpart, Anna Genina, we arrived in a Moscow that was lightly tinted by the winter sun, ready to perform a programme of 12:40 (contemporary arias, written for us during our final project at NOS) and some of the greatest music ever written, that of the Golden age of Elizabeth I. 

Artistic inspiration was found everywhere in Moscow, from the gargantuan poster of Bryn Terfel's head adorning the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall opposite out hotel, to the Metro Stations, and the venue of our first concert, the Puskin Museum. Surrounded by a cornucopia of plaster replicas, we performed our 12:40 arias to an extremely engaged and attentive audience. We were all, perhaps ignorantly, surprised and warmed by the resoundingly positive reaction to these new English language arias, which we thought might have been lost in translation. 

In the words of the Northern Irish 90’s pop group D:Ream, “Things can only get better”, and this was assuredly true of the venues and audiences we encountered in the concerts that followed. We took in a memorable visit to Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin, who among many other things possessed an admirable level of OCD, and performed a concert in the hall, premiering our Elizabethan repertoire. This was followed the next day by Tsaritsyno, the reconstructed palace of Catherine the Great, a bastion of Russian female empowerment. This ambassadors concert was to be broadcast across Russia and contained both 12:40 and Elizabethan music. 

It was a truly memorable concert, with everyone really connecting with their 16th-century musical counterparts, something I was especially touched by as a super-fan of Elizabethan music. Other highlights included the joke of Thomas Morley’s ‘Will you buy a fine dog’ being well understood by Russian ears, and the emergence of a new Queen, the self-appointed Carlitsyna, who, inspired by Catherine the Great, pronounced herself Tsarina of Wales and Heidelberg. The ascension from ‘Carly showbiz Owen’ to royalty was really only a matter of time.

In our final days, we took in an incredible extensive tour of the Kremlin, which according to the signage also holds seances (the aspiration of Russian dominion seemingly extending into the afterlife), concerts at the Moscow Conservatoire, and finally Helikon Opera, the latter being our final concert in Russia, and perhaps the final performance of our 12:40 arias for a while. Throughout our trip, we experienced only warm hospitality and witnessed an artery of classical music that ran through the corpus of Russian identity. These trips always present a manicured version of nationhood, but the mainstream cultural appreciation we witnessed is something substantially absent from the UK, and was a pleasure to experience. 

So what of our initial apprehension? We all left wanting to see more, heads impacted by a little vodka, and exploring the power of the music we performed. However, upon reflection back home, it was more than the compositions. Everyone produced consistently incredible performances, and I believe it was this, not Dowland or our voices, that bridged the divide and removed the separation between us, the music, and the audience. As Tolstoy also wrote in What is Art?

“By words, one transmits thoughts to another, by means of art, one transmits feelings.” 

Nothing was more true of the National Opera Studio’s concerts in Russia.


Cover Image © Maxim Gorlov 2019