“Spellbinding” — reviews for Denis & Katya

September 30, 2019 - news

We sent Denis & Katya out into the world on 18th September at the premiere at Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia with Opera Philadephia. Scored for just two singers, four cellos and pre-recorded sound and video, the 65-minute pseudo-verbatim opera tells the story of two Russian teenagers who, while caught up with the police after running away from home, broadcast their last days online. Ted Huffman and I are so proud of what we’ve made, and it wouldn’t have been possible without our incredible collaborators Ksenia Ravvina, Pierre Martin, Rob Kaplowitz, Andrew Lieberman and Emily Senturia, all the team at Opera Philadephia, led by the exceptional David Devan, and our two dedicated, talented casts (Siena Licht Miller, Theo Hoffman and Emily Edmonds, Johnny Herford), our cello ensemble and technical crew.

The response to Denis & Katya by the press has been incredible. Here are a small selection of reviews.

“Most important for the long-term health of the art was the première, at Opera Philadelphia, of Philip Venables’s “Denis & Katya,” based on the real-life story of two Russian teen-agers who died after a standoff with police. With extraordinary sensitivity, Venables examined the fallout of viral Internet fame and media frenzy. […] What is remarkable about “Denis & Katya” is how it explores the psychological roots of our fixation on such sad and gruesome cases. […] Venables’s way of building tension through minimal means is astonishing throughout.”

— Alex Ross, The New Yorker

“The result of all these elements is an uneasily poignant reflection on storytelling, on the possibilities and limitations of our understanding — especially across space and language in the fragmentary era of social media. At just over an hour, with just six performers, it’s an intimate, haunting triumph.”

— Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times

“Employing the most slimly elegant resources, Festival O’s Denis & Katya is a monumental, dramatically shattering event.” […] “This is an important, out-of-the-box work, superbly performed. Denis & Katya deserves to have a long afterlife, and with luck, it will. But if you can see one of the remaining performances here at Festival O19, you absolutely should. It is utterly spellbinding.”

— David Fox, Parterre Box

“Opera Philadelphia opened its Festival O19 Wednesday on a level that eclipsed the expectations created by the unusually high success rate of past festivals, this time with the world premiere of Denis & Katya. Highly experimental in its manner, the piece exudes great confidence of purpose plus gritty, thoughtful artistry”

— David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer

“The arresting world premiere of “Denis & Katya” by composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman tackled a real-life fatal collision of unhappy teenagers, guns and social media. In 2016 in Russia, the eponymous couple, both 15 years old, ran away from home, holed up in a family hunting cottage, and posted photos and a video of their standoff with the police on social media. The 70-minute opera ingeniously deconstructs this event, recounting it through the eyes of six observers” […] “As was the case with his shattering “4.48 Psychosis,” Mr. Venables’s music is particularly good at conjuring up emotional atmosphere and building tension. The piece starts out almost boringly placid, with the singers describing bits of the video in flattened speech, and gradually gathers momentum to reach an almost unbearable peak, followed by a reflective coda.”

— Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal ($)

“Exactly what happened to Denis and Katya remains conjectural; Huffman and Venables takes pains to thematize the complexities and complicities inherent in their having created—and in our observing—the resulting opera.” […] “Denis & Katya may not assuage those Philadelphia operagoers still awaiting the return of Tebaldi, Tucker and Corelli performing Verdi and Puccini in front of faded painted panels. But it’s an impactful work of music theater that OP executed with admirable visual and aural precision and imagination.”

— David Shengold, Opera News

“Composer Philip Venables and Librettist Ted Huffman’s unsettling, unconventional new opera Denis & Katya challenges the ear, the eye, and the soul to accept a wholly new hybrid form of operatic expression. This is a performance quite unlike any most have ever experienced.” […] “Mr. Venables’ score is a wholly unique aural palette. The deep, often mournful keening of the cello sound grounds the composition in a suitable Russian melancholy. But there are ample flashes of brilliant overtones, and agitated writing as well to complement the often declamatory, angular vocal lines. It was a pleasure to encounter a composer new to me, whose work was forward-looking, yet abundantly accessible.”

— James Sohre, Opera Today

Denis and Katya, a striking music drama receiving its world premiere as part of Festival O19, might stake a claim as the opera that most closely captures the 21st century’s virtual-reality ethos. The 70-minute work—crafted by composer Philip Venables and librettist/director Ted Huffman, with the aid of translator Ksenia Ravvina—is easily the best original offering I’ve encountered since Opera Philadelphia started presenting these festivals three seasons ago. Rarely has a work felt so connected to the culture in which it was created.”

— Cameron Kelsall, Broadstreet Review