Doing The Bolshoi On The Cheap

At a time when a relatively small amount of the cash generated from the country’s oil reserves is enough to pour countless millions into the U.K.’s Chelsea soccer club and the government is starting to ramp up its defence spending, finance minister German Gref has shocked Russia’s cultural elite by saying there’s not enough money in state coffers to fund the three-year renovation of the Bolshoi Theatre.

The seminal but apparently crumbling 19th-century building, one of Russia’s most precious cultural institutions, has closed for a refurb that’s meant to give it a sparkle to match the Royal Opera House in London and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

The work on the Bolshoi is more than just indulgent cosmetic surgery. The magnificent 180-year-old colonnaded theatre is widely regarded to be falling apart.

“The Bolshoi building does not conform to any modern standards; for example, fire safety. There is no fire-exit network. And what is more, the building is simply in a hazardous condition. That’s why we closed the theatre. To be inside there is simply dangerous,” general director Anatoly Iskanov explained.

“The government is trying to cut corners that can’t be cut,” he added, referring to Gref’s request that the 25 billion rouble (US$892 million) budget be cut by nearly two-thirds to 9 billion roubles.

Nikita Shangin, the project’s chief architect, threatened to pull out of the project if Gref gets in the way. He said the stage needs a revamp, the opulent six-tier auditorium needs an overhaul, the foundations and walls need to be strengthened, escalators and lifts need to be installed and the cracked facade is in urgent need of repair.

“If it becomes clear that all we’re going to get is a cosmetic facelift, I’m pulling out,” he told the Russian media.

— John Gammon