Talking Theatre: Music Theatre Wales’ Artistic Director Michael McCarthy Discusses Opera, Denis & Katya

Denis & Katya, a game-changing new opera from award-winning duo Philip Venables and Ted Huffman, will receive its UK premiere performances this month. The UK premiere will be performed in at The Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre in Newport on 27 February before touring to Mold, Aberystwyth, London and Cardiff throughout March.

Responding to the real-life tragedy of two teenage runaways, the co-production between the UK’s leading contemporary opera company Music Theatre Wales, Opera Philadelphia and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier received glowing reviews from US critics when it opened in Philadelphia this autumn. Denis & Katya also received the Fedora Generali Award for Opera – a major prize awarded to innovative work created through international collaboration.

We catch up with Music Theatre Wales’ Artistic Director Michael McCarthy to find out more….


Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.

Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.

Tell us more about the true story of Denis & Katya

It’s a sad, terrible story of two young people whose lives suddenly spiral out of control. They were in love, but the girl’s parents didn’t want them to be together. They’d had a big argument with her parents the day before they ran away. Denis and Katya ran away from home and went to her parents’ cabin, where they had access to her father’s guns and brought or found some alcohol. Her parents went to the cabin to get them out, but this ended up in some kind of fight, with Katya cutting her hand on a knife and Denis shooting Katya’s mother in the leg with an air gun.

Katya’s mother then told the police that Katya was being held hostage and the situation went from bad to worse. Trapped in the cabin with nowhere to go and no-one to talk to, Denis and Katya started to reach out on the social networking site Periscope.

They started to play around with the guns, posing with them for camera and shooting out of the window, targeting the police van that arrived and shooting at the TV inside until it exploded and then throwing it out of the window. They were drinking, cuddling, crying. As they continued, the number of people watching the website grew, amongst friends, but also attracting trolls and international media attention. The stand-off ended when the Russia military police entered the cabin, but it is unclear what happened. Somehow, the police enabled horrific images of the two dead youngsters to be posted, suggesting they had killed themselves, but there is much debate. They were young and vulnerable and completely out of their depth. It seemed that nobody knew how to help them and instead, people sat at screens and watched.


Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.

Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.

Why do you think the story makes such a good subject for a contemporary opera?

The idea of exploring a contemporary story like this, with its timeless aspect of forbidden love and young people prepared to sacrifice themselves for their love so clearly relating to Romeo and Juliet, is already incredibly striking. But the role of social media in the events, influencing the way it evolved is powerful and relevant to the here and now. It raises so many questions about how we play out so much of our lives through social media and the consequences of doing this. It opens issues of privacy and public behaviour, about the ownership of such stories once they are out. It also raises issues relating to performance – in real life (were Denis and Katya performing in some way to an unknown audience, were they reaching out and asking for help or were they caught up in their own Bonnie and Clyde moment of fame?), and then comes the debate about why a composer and writer would make a performance piece about it? All these issues are raised in Denis & Katya, but no answers are given.

The piece explores not just the story itself but crucially it explores the consequences of the story. There is no re-enactment of the siege and Denis and Katya are never seen on stage or in projection. This would be distasteful and disrespectful, and probably sensational, but it makes us think about the actual people much more deeply, and the work becomes a haunting experience through which the real human tragedy is felt. 

I understand it involves multimedia, 2 singers and 4 musicians. How is this piece different from other productions that Music Theatre Wales has performed?

Although the piece requires just two classically trained singers and four cello players, all of whom need to be contemporary specialists, it is a completely new departure for Music Theatre Wales.

The contemporary relevance is a major feature, but so is the nature of the storytelling, using spoken as well as sung narration and lots of projected text, not least the Whatsapp conversation between the composer and writer about how and why they are using the material. But it is more than that. In opera it is more normal to expect to see and hear an emotional outpouring through singing, action and music, but here there is no overt characterisation. It is cooler than that, but it still needs to be sung because the music has an incredibly powerful impact on the audience as the piece gradually builds tension and suspension.

The audience’s emotions are absolutely engaged, not because someone else is pretending to be in love or die on stage, but because we are made to think about and feel these things for ourselves. And all this is achieved through incredibly simple means. All the elements work together and are highly integrated: text, music, singing and projections, and the whole piece is run on click tracks with all these things triggered by the programme simultaneously. It sounds as if it could be rather machine-like, but the overall effect and impact is incredibly human and felt. I think Philip and Ted have found a new way to harness not only the core ingredients of opera (singing, drama, music) but also the potential of digital media to make a show that is truly in the present. 


Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.

Music Theatre Wales Tour With Denis & Katya during February and March 2020. Photograph: Opera Philadelphia.

Do you think the production showcases how much society reacts to social media these days?

I think the piece and its production provide stimulation for debate around social media, why we use it, why is it so powerful, what it is that makes us click and click again even if we don’t like what we see, and raises questions about what this might be doing to us. We must discuss these things and what better place to undertake that discussion than the theatre?

How did the relationship with composer Philip Venables and writer/director Ted Huffman come about?

Philip and Ted had done some work together before Phil’s first opera 4.48 Psychosis for the Royal Opera which Ted directed. The opera really put them on the map as a partnership to look out for. I was already aware of their potential and attended the opening performance of 4.48 Psychosis and was blown away.

I told Phil there and then that Music Theatre Wales would be seriously interested in working with them if the opportunity ever arose and fortunately it did, along with our partners at Opera Philadelphia. Interestingly, Opera Philadelphia had tracked down MTW a few years earlier to see what we were doing. They were beginning to think about producing new work on a smaller scale and they came all the way to Aberystwyth to see us perform and talk to us. It has been fantastic working with them on supporting the development of this piece.


Denis & Katya composer Philip Venables and writer/director Ted Huffman Photograph:  Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia.Denis & Katya composer Philip Venables and writer/director Ted Huffman Photograph:  Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia.

Denis & Katya composer Philip Venables and writer/director Ted Huffman Photograph: Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia.

The reaction to Denis & Katya in Philadelphia was very powerful. Do you expect a similar reaction in the UK?

I very much hope we will get a similar reaction. The piece is so new and original and so well crafted, I would be surprised if the critical reaction would be any less strong, but what really matters to me is the audience reaction.

You must be brave to come and see a live performance you know so little about, and it seems to be especially risky if it is new music, but there is nothing about this piece that fails to communicate. It works in a simple and direct way, with music that serves the dramatic idea in the same way music for film or tv does. You know it’s there and can feel what it is doing to you, but it doesn’t dominate and is just 65 minutes long. It works away on the inside of the story provoking a reaction.

There is a beautiful, poignant lament at the end for solo cello which cannot fail to catch your heart. If you want to discover a piece of new music theatre that makes you think and makes you feel about real people and real issues we confront every day, then Denis & Katya is well worth trying.

  • For more tour information visit musictheatre.wales

Denis & Katya Tour Dates 2020 :

Thursday 27 February

  • (UK Premiere) Riverfront, Newport

Monday 2 March

  • Theatr Clwyd, Mold

Tuesday 3 March

  • Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Friday 13 March

  • Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

Saturday 14 March

  • Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

Friday 27 March

  • Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff

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