Remote possibilities: an unforgettable conference in Siberia

Braving frozen horse liver, shamanic rituals and endless vodka-soaked toasts may not have resulted in the hoped-for discovery of a hitherto-unknown form of opera, but Nicholas Till has no regrets about his visit to Yakutsk

July 12, 2018
Lena Pillars

What’s the coldest city on the planet?

Somewhere in Canada? Perhaps Norway? I’ve heard that Vladivostok gets pretty iced up.

No. The officially recognised coldest city on earth, where temperatures regularly plummet to −50°C, is Yakutsk.

Where?

Except for players of the board game Risk, no one I’ve ever spoken to has heard of Yakutsk. It is the capital of the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia: the largest territory in the Russian Federation, occupying most of central and eastern Siberia. Even among the few who know this, the number of people who have actually visited Yakutia is even smaller. Yet without having really planned it, I joined that club last year – in the summer, I hasten to add, when temperatures regularly sit at around a humid 25°C.

How I got there is quite a long story. In the spring of 2015, I spent an enjoyable week as visiting professor in the theatre department at the University of Amsterdam. My hosts then invited me back for a symposium on opera and globalisation. Without any great forethought I accepted, only to realise a few weeks before the event that I didn’t have much to say on the subject. As I was casting around for inspiration, a friend asked if I’d like to go to the French Institute to see some Chris Marker films. These were showing in conjunction with a major retrospective of the French New Wave film essayist at the Whitechapel Gallery, which I’d already seen. Some inexplicable hunch told me that the solution to my global opera dilemma might lie with Marker, many of whose films take the form of travelogues. My hunch proved to be uncannily correct.

One of the films shown was Marker’s 1957 Letter from Siberia, a portrait of life in Soviet Yakutia, much of it shot in and around Yakutsk. In one section of the film, Marker discusses Siberian myths and legends, and then cuts to a sequence depicting a musical-theatrical performance. Characters in exaggeratedly theatrical costumes and make-up, looking somewhat like performers from Beijing Opera in their appearance and gestures, enact some kind of epic warrior drama, singing in a distinctive nasal, ululatory manner. Marker’s typically playful commentary speaks over the performance: “And the gods, devils and heroes of Yakutsk, whose presence we sensed lurking behind everything that had thrilled us in Siberia, lived again before our eyes in Yakut opera”.

Well, of course, my ears pricked up. Yakut opera? Here am I, an opera scholar and yet I’ve never heard of Yakut opera. Admittedly, my work is shamefully Eurocentric, but to find that an operatic genre entirely unknown to me exists instantly piqued my curiosity.

Or does it exist? One of the things that struck me as I embarked on a Google search was how little information was available. The search term “Yakut opera” yielded almost nothing. Having worked out that if I converted my searches into Cyrillic they yielded better results (duh), I discovered that there is an ancient Yakut sung epic form known as Olonkho, from whose tales Marker derived his “gods, devils and heroes”. It consists of lengthy narrative recitation interspersed with more expressive passages that sound like a kind of slow, low yodelling that, in the hands of the best performers, creates a haze of harmonic overtones. The singing in Marker’s “Yakut opera” is clearly derived from this vocal technique.

Once sustained by families of Olonkho masters, who would deliver their epic recitations in remote communities over two or three days at a time, the tradition had almost died out after years of Soviet hostility and neglect, until, in 2005, the form earned recognition as a Unesco “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. In a period in which Putin was taking back political and economic autonomy from Russia’s federal colonies, the Unesco award encouraged the Sakha people to affirm their cultural identity instead, leading to a political commitment to preserve and renew Olonkho, with significant investment in scholarship, training, education and audience development.

Videos on YouTube and Vimeo – often unattributed – confirmed that Olonkho is the basis for a broader cultural revival in Yakutia. The representation of characters from Olonkho epics, combined with singing, music and dance, clearly play an important part in the folk festivals that are widespread throughout the country (pictured below). But these are evidently not quite Marker’s “Yakut opera”. I also found clips of some more obviously theatrical recent performances based on Olonkho, which I suspected were part of an effort to make this otherwise rather austere and demanding form more accessible to modern Yakutians. And a 1958 Soviet publication, Yakutia as I Saw It, by the Swedish communist journalist Karl Staf, revealed that a “national opera” based on the best-known Olonkho folk hero Nurgun Botur, had been staged in 1940, and was then revived in 1957, exactly when Marker was making his film. But I could find no further information about this work other than a handful of documents archived from the original Olonkho application to Unesco.

Yakut folk festival

I used my stalled research as a way of talking at the Amsterdam symposium about our ignorance of whole nations and cultures in a supposedly globalised, networked world, giving examples of the superficiality, commercialism (and inherent neo-colonialism) of many existing transnational cultural projects. But the puzzle of Yakut opera kept bugging me. So in August 2016 I emailed my queries to the director of the Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Peoples of the North-East at the Ammosov North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk. To my surprise, I received answers the same day from a member of the faculty there who spoke English. The email also informed me that there would be a conference on Olonkho in Yakutsk the following summer, to which the university would like to invite me.

I had little idea what to expect when I arrived at the airport in Yakutsk on a July morning last year, bleary-eyed after an 18-hour journey. Natalia in the conference office had been very helpful, especially concerning a last-minute panic about my visa, but information about the conference itself had been opaque: “Don’t worry,” she’d said. “Everything will be taken care of.”

I was duly greeted by Natalia at the airport, and whisked to my hotel in the centre of the city, where I was installed in a spacious suite and told that someone would come to get me for lunch. In need of sleep, I declined the invitation, saying that if I needed anything I would find it for myself. Natalia expressed alarm at the idea that I might wander the streets on my own, but I reassured her that I would be safe.

After a nap, I did indeed venture out to explore. The hotel was just off the main square of Yakutsk, a forbidding space still dominated by an enormous statue of Lenin (pictured below). Signs pointed me to the old town, which consisted of a couple of streets with reconstructed log-cabin buildings from the turn of the 20th century. Colonised by Russian trappers in the 17th century, and then by gold panners in the 19th, Yakutsk is still recognisably a frontier town; a tributary of the great Siberian River Lena marks the end of the old town, beyond which grazing lands stretch to the river itself and then the horizon.

Statue of Lenin in Yahutsk square

I presented myself for what I expected to be the pre-conference dinner in the hotel at the time Natalia had stated. Two to three people were in the lobby, one of whom approached me. This was Robin Harris, an American ethnomusicologist who, it turned out, had been responsible for posting some of the videos of Yakut folk festivals that I had previously found on Vimeo. To my enormous relief, she declared that she would be my interpreter for the evening, which was a lifesaver since she interpreted not only language (she is a fluent Russian speaker, having lived in Yakutsk for several years in the 1990s) but also the food and the expectations of protocol. For it turned out that this was a private dinner, hosted in honour of the handful of foreign visitors to the conference, of whom I was the only person from anywhere beyond the former Soviet Union (Robin didn’t count, having gone native many years previously).

Our host was the chair of the Yakutian parliament, Alexander Zhirkov, one of the chief political drivers of the Olonkho revival. An amiable host, he held court throughout the dinner, introducing fulsomely the various Yakut delicacies delivered to the table. These included frozen raw carp, cut into great curls that you eat with your fingers, and cubes of frozen, raw horsemeat and horse liver (pictured below) that I had no choice but to eat, disguising the taste by chasing each mouthful with the all-too-plentifully replenished vodka.

Frozen raw horsemeat and horse liver

The alcohol continued to flow through the announcement of the latest publications of the state-funded project to document Olonkho (which included an English translation of the most famous epic, Nurgun Botur), and reached a crescendo during the toasts that ended each of the obligatory speeches. Pictures were taken by an official photographer, but I never suspected that photos of me at the dinner – luckily still just about upright – would appear in the local press. Nor did I expect that this would result in my being mobbed by journalists (well, two charming young women requesting an interview) as I came out of a conference session a couple of days later.

I quickly realised that the official programme I had been given bore little relation to what was likely to happen during my stay. The next morning we were collected by a bus with the rest of the conference attendees and driven for about an hour out of Yakutsk to an open-air festival park, bustling with people wearing traditional Yakut costumes. Still nursing my hangover, I was led to a seat in a space kept clear in the middle of the two front rows of the auditorium. A few moments later, an elderly gentleman entered the amphitheatre and the audience started to applaud. This, it was explained, was the former president of Yakutia, who had steered the country through the post-Soviet crisis. He took a seat immediately in front of me; evidently I had been seated in the presidential box. My companion on the bus journey, Svetlana Yegorova-Johnstone, who had been responsible for editing the English translation of Nurgun Botur, greeted the former president warmly and sat down beside him.

After a lengthy wait, a cavalcade of SUVs appeared in the distance and drove to the back of the stage, where dancers in folk costumes were assembled to greet the arrivals: the current leader of Yakutia, along with Irina Bokova, then the director-general of Unesco. Speeches were made and a sequence of performances were presented from different Central Asian traditions, including, of course, Olonkho. We were then driven back in our bus to the docks, where we boarded a cruise ship for an overnight sailing on the stately but bug-infested River Lena.

Yakut opera

The next morning, we docked at Unesco world heritage site the Lena Pillars (main picture), a remarkable rock formation that is also the location of Nurgun Botur’s defeat of the devil, and therefore sacred to the Sakha peoples. The conference proper also started on the boat that morning, with papers on epic traditions from all parts of the Russian federation and former Soviet Union, and evidence of a thriving industry in Olonkho studies at the North-Eastern University itself. The presentations included a paper whose author made a fervent plea for shamanic paganism – the spiritual worldview that underpins Olonkho – to be recognised as the national religion of Yakutia (a position for which a controversial political movement has also been founded).

Around lunchtime, a speedboat appeared on the further reaches of the river. As it drew near, the crest of Yakutia became visible on its prow: it was the president and Madame Bokova again, who joined a special session of the conference before being welcomed to the pillars by a shamanic ritual.

Meanwhile, I had used my time productively, and had ascertained that my guess was correct that there are modern theatrical adaptations of Olonkho epics. Indeed, a national Olonkho Theatre was founded in 2005 as part of the effort to popularise the form. Asking whether it was possible to see a performance, I learned that there was going to be one opportunity only, that very evening. But we were 160 miles from Yakutsk – a 12-hour sail away.

Helpful people scurried around, and then reappeared. It was possible that there was a spare seat on the presidential launch, which might get back in time. After nervously rehearsing in my head what small talk I might have suitable for the president and Madame Bokova during the four-hour journey, I was slightly relieved when it was decided that the launch wouldn’t make it back in time after all. Instead, as the cruise ship sailed back through the white night, we were entertained with a “Yakutia’s got Talent” competition for young Olonkho performers.

Nicholas Till is presented with a copy of the English translation of ‘Nurgun Botur the Swift’

The next day, I was taken for an audience with Andrei Savich Borisov, director of the Olonkho Theatre and a former Yakutian minister of culture. In creating the theatre, he had, he agreed, invented a tradition, drawing on folk and shamanic performance practices enhanced by dramatic narrative and contemporary technologies. Highly theatrical, with extensive use of music and singing, Olonkho theatre is, indeed, close to opera. But since it is a recent form, it can’t have been what Marker filmed. I showed the Marker clip to Andrei Savich, and he confirmed immediately that it was from the 1940 national opera based on Nurgun Botur.

It had been a long way to go, but I had found my answer: despite a handful of subsequent national operas based on Olonkho, there is no historical genre of Yakut opera for me to have been ignorant of after all.

I left Yakutia the following day with two unexpected gifts. At the closing ceremony for the conference, I was presented with a copy of the English translation of Nurgun Botur the Swift (pictured above). In gratitude for this handsome door slab of a book I was obliged to make an impromptu speech – without so much as the preparatory vodka that oiled the wheels when, at the conference dinner later that evening, I was summoned by the rector of the university to make an equally impromptu toast. The next day, as I left the hotel for the airport, I was presented with two enormous smoked river fish.

And, of course, since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I had the day before accepted Andrei Borisov’s invitation to become the official representative for Olonkho theatre in the UK.

This is a responsibility that I shall carry out diligently, and with gratitude for the generous hospitality of the North-Eastern Federal University and the Sakha people. Let’s say no more about the raw horse liver. 

Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex.

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