Opera as an Icebreaker

The Russian language finds a home on a Latvian Stage.

Born a Russian on Latvian soil, Sergei Timofeyev explores the two country's history through chess on stage. Photo courtesy of arterritory.com.

Born a Russian on Latvian soil, Sergei Timofeyev explores the two country’s history through chess on stage. Photo courtesy of arterritory.com.

 If there was any sweat on his forehead, no one can remember anymore. But it was an intense match — that much is clear. It’s 1960, in the height of the Cold War and the first and only time that 23-year-old Latvian-Russian chess player Mikhail Tal becomes world champion. Bravo, you might say. But what would you say if he beat a Russian world champion who was more than 20 years older than himself, the famous Mikhail Botvinnik?

‘’I consider myself to be Latvian but with double roots,” explains Russian-Latvian poet Sergei Timofeyev. He is the man that wrote a Russian opera about this memorable chess-match for Riga as the Capital of Culture 2014. Not only the battle and victory are being shown, but also the time when both players flourished before meeting each other: one in the swinging ’60s and one in communist Russia. Born into a Russian family but on Latvian soil, Timofeyev was himself perhaps “doomed” to become a man like so many—sticking to his own culture and not merging with the rest. But his story couldn’t be further from that.  As a real success story, he incorporated the love for chess of both countries, Russia and Latvia, together in this one piece of high-class art.

Timofeyev is an active as a member of the Russian-Latvian poetry collective Orbita — which has succeeded in bringing together both Latvian and Russian-Latvian audiences. He sits down in the Galerie Istaba café in Riga’s city centre in a half-private little chamber, excusing himself for being late because he had to leave a child’s party back home. The poet apparently comes here often as he and other guests keep exchanging “Ciao’s”. Instead of the usual beer, or vodka for that matter, Timofeyev  opts for a cup of tea. Making himself more comfortable, the 43-year-old explains why this play was relevant years ago but also nowadays. ‘’Who would’ve thought that the Soviet Union and everything which was connected with that time and that type of politics would reoccur? With things going on in Ukraine and Russia, it’s in some way a Soviet revival.’’

Galerie Istaba is the place where books from poet collective Orbita are sold. Upstairs is a café where Timofeyev often visits to work and relax. It's a small place, but big enough for creative thoughts — and beers.

Galerie Istaba sells books from poet collective Orbita. Timofeyev often works in the upstairs cafe. It’s a small place, but big enough for creative thoughts — and beers.

Even though Timofeyev has integrated into the culture completely and calls himself Latvian, the Russian culture is still very important to him. With this play, he is able to express not only the differences and difficulties, but about a shared love that both cultures have. According to the poet, chess is a system just as much as the Soviet Union was a system. ‘’They’re both strong and powerful. It’s about if you’re in the system or are you trying to be better than the system.’’

Of course, a strong element of culture is language. But besides going right where everybody goes left, why would Latvian composer, Kristaps Pētersons, choose to make it a Russian sung opera?  Timofeyev amplifies that a structure of a language is very important. ‘’Pētersons thought it would be more interesting to work with a language that is not his mother tongue and feels more like a song.’’

Whereas some people find it difficult to maintain their cultural heritage in a different country, Timofeyev seems to have found the secret to not packing merely one cultural backpack. ‘’I speak Latvian but the Russian language for me is like an operation system in a computer: I write everything in Russian.’’  But doesn’t there have to be a certain compromise? ‘’Well, I’m from here, I’m Latvian. I don’t want to go to any other place. But I like it when I can use my Russian language and bring something new for the Latvian culture. I’m Russian, I was born in a Russian family in Latvia. But above all I’m European, I can use many things.’’

Timofeyev, who’s deeply connected to the Russian culture, keeps using Russian language as a creative tool. ‘’But as an influence I can think of so many other cultures. Latvian culture is also very meaningful for me. It’s from the place where I live.’’

For an outsider it’s perhaps a little too coincidental, but according to Timofeyev, the opera’s librettist, the makers of the play absolutely hadn’t thought about current political developments when they were taking the first steps in this project. ‘’But somehow what was going on in the world came closer to what we were doing in this opera. We didn’t incorporate that directly but it’s just like a reminder of what this Soviet type of mentality is, how it influenced people and still does.’’






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