Ulysses Festival connects high art, folk art and underrepresented culture

Spring arts festival highlights Russia, Tchaikovsky

by Dee Grano

The upcoming festival will include “Eugene Onegin” among other works of art. (Courtesy of Opera Carolina)

Like the butterfly for which it’s named, the Ulysses Charlotte Spring Festival of the Arts will celebrate the transformative nature of opera, ballet, film, symphonic music, chamber music and visual art this month.

Throughout March, the Ulysses festival will feature dozens of cultural events all unified under the theme “The Majesty of Russia and the Music of Tchaikovsky.” A full schedule can be found at www.-charlottecultureguide.com/ulysses.

The Russian theme unifies a variety of events: NC Dance Theatre’s “Sleeping Beauty;” screenings of Russian films including Mihaileanu’s “The Concert” (presented by the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival) and Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (presented by The Light Factory); the little known but well-respected opera “Eugene Onegin” (pronounced Own-YAY-gin) by Opera Carolina; and other performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s work.

“Tchaikovsky is extremely unique,” said James Meena, executive director of Opera Carolina, who started the Ulysses festival to collaborate with the Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina.

“He is one of few conductors who produced masterpieces in symphonic music, chamber music, ballet, opera, choral and sacred music,” Meena explained. “You can’t say the same thing about Mozart, Beethoven or even Brahms.” This elite club does, however, include Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostokovich, both Russian.

“[Tchaikovsky] is the best composer of the 19th century for dance,” NC Dance Theatre’s Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who leaped at the chance to stage “Sleeping Beauty,” said. First performed in 1890, Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” score was set to motion by Marius Petipa, a French ballet dancer considered to be the most influential ballet choreographer in history. “They understood dance,” Bonnefoux said on the legendary collaboration: “Russian people have it in their blood to dance.”

“The musical tradition from which ‘Eugene Onegin’ comes has a deep Russian folk element, which made it exciting and accessible to a Russian audience,” Meena explained. The story of “Eugene Onegin” is based on a novel of the same name published in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, an influential Russian literary figure. In both the book and libretto (text of the opera), Onegin regrets his blasé rejection of a young woman’s love and challenges his best friend to a fatal duel. Interestingly, Pushkin himself died in a duel over a lady’s honor.

In the fine art world, the rich fruits of Russian culture are relative newcomers when compared to the traditions of French ballet and Italian opera. “Before the iron curtain fell, we didn’t have a lot of Russian artists coming over – people fluent in the language and style,” Meena, referring to the end of the Cold War in 1989, explained. “Today, that’s very different and now we are aware of the treasure trove that is the Russian opera house.”

“‘Sleeping Beauty’ was not performed for a long time but the Russian dancers kept it alive,” said Bonnefoux, who was a principal dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet and the New York City Ballet.  “The greatest dancers and teachers came from Russia to Paris.”

Those that know little or nothing about Russia or the music of Tchaikovsky are sure to find something to please along this cultural odyssey. “For the first time, so many organizations are collaborating with the same goal and high standards,” Bonnefoux said.

“[All the partner organizations] work from a place of respect for one another,” added Meena, who credits Charlotte’s collaborative infrastructure.

The Ulysses Charlotte Spring Festival of the Arts will be an annual event with a different theme each year. Experience “The Majesty of Russia and the Music of Tchaikovsky” before time flies.

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