Venables: new opera Denis & Katya

Venables: new opera Denis & Katya

"It’s an intimate, haunting triumph." (The New York Times)

Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Denis and Katya. In the new opera Denis & Katya, composer Philip Venables, librettist and director Ted Huffman, along with dramaturge Ksenia Ravvina, transform the true story of two lovers pitted against the world into a novel drama about adolescence. The world premiere took place at Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19 on 18 September, the same day that Venables’s previous opera 4.48 Psychosis had its French premiere at Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg.

Denis & Katya (2019)
Opera with a libretto by Ted Huffman
Bar.Ms –
Duration: ca. 70'
WP: 18.09.2019, Philadelphia

Co-commissioned and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia, Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier.


27.02.2020 (NP)
The Riverfront Newport, Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone), members of London Sinfonietta, Music Theatre Wales

Emlyn Williams Theatre, Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone), members of London Sinfonietta, Music Theatre Wales

Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone), members of London Sinfonietta, Music Theatre Wales

Southbank Centre, Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone), members of London Sinfonietta, Music Theatre Wales


The story follows tragic events in November 2016, when two Russian teenagers ran away from their parents, locked themselves in a house, and broadcast their last moments in a standoff with Russian Special Forces on social media. Almost three years have passed since their deaths, and still no one can conclusively determine whether Denis and Katya committed suicide or were killed unlawfully by the police.

About the work

Although the whole world could potentially have viewed their deaths, no one actually did. And neither does the audience in the theatre. We don’t ever see the children “in the flesh” but instead witness the events from multiple outsiders’ perspectives: the Journalist, the Friend, the Neighbour, the Teenager, the Medic and the Teacher – all wonderfully performed by a duo of singers: Siena Licht Miller and Theo Hoffman in some of the performances, Johnny Herford and Emily Edmonds in the others. Accompanied by a description of Denis and Katya’s video stream and an e-mail exchange between the creators, the performance takes the form of a puzzle, and we are invited to put its pieces together.

"Part of the brilliance of Denis & Katya is the way its storytelling naturally mimics the process by which internet surfers come to learn the news – obliquely, in dribs and drabs, with facts mixed alongside (and sometimes indistinguishable from) conjecture" (Parterre)

 Picture of Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller
WP of Denis & Katya, Philadelphia 2019

With an instrumentation of just four cellos, Philip Venables once again follows his “fetish for groups of the same instrument” while at the same time creating a “small and tourable piece” (Venables). His concept has already paid off in UK and French premieres by co-commissioners Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier scheduled for 2020.

"It may sound perverse to have scored an opera for four cellos, but it allows Venables to tap into a rich vein of melancholy. Where 4:48 Psychosis was all jagged rage, Denis & Katya skillfully blends reflective arioso with outbursts of dramatic frenzy…" (Musical America)

Picture of world premiere of 'Denis & Katya'
WP of Denis & Katya, Philadelphia 2019

Composer’s note

[…] we wanted to put storytelling at the heart of Denis & Katya. We asked ourselves, “In what different ways can opera tell stories?” With just two performers, we have tried to make a world of many characters. […] Our inspirations were documentaries and crime-based reconstructions, where a series of interviews with people surrounding the event are rapidly intercut, along the chronology of events, to reconstruct the story from many partial viewpoints. We didn't want to dramatize Denis and Katya themselves as characters – that felt insensitive to their very real tragedy.

There isn't a one-to-one relationship between performer and character. Instead we've tried to give each character a different dramaturgical 'mode', rendered differently by the two performers. The Journalist and the Friend (our main characters) are essentially solo sung roles, but with additional spoken text provided by the opposite performer. The Neighbor and the Teenager, both in Russian, are live translated for the audience by the other number. The Teacher and the Medic are played by both performers at once, in an effort to keep some distance or artificiality between character and stage representation.

We have marked out the roleplay ‘arena’ with our four cellists at each corner of the stage. Many people have asked me, why four cellos? We really wanted Denis & Katya to be a small and tourable piece. Our original idea of string quartet I found a bit predictable, and I always have a fetish for groups of the same instrument. (My last opera had three baritone saxophones and three violas in amongst the 12-strong ensemble.) The cello spans the range of both singers, just about, and packs a punch, both aurally and visually, when four of them play together. With identical sound but spatially separated we have the possibilities of absolute unity and four individual soloists. There is no conductor – the piece is all made from the six performers on stage together, hopefully like a collective act of spontaneous music theater.

Picture of Siena Licht Miller
WP of Denis & Katya, Philadelphia 2019

Press quotes

"Toward the end of the piece, the screen is filled with a video shot from a train as it pulls out of the town station and trundles through a barren countryside. In the wake of that eerie interlude, Venables’s cello score, which has leaned on nervously skittering textures, takes a wrenching turn into neo-Baroque lament. Venables’s way of building tension through minimal means is astonishing throughout."
The New Yorker, 7 Octorber 2019

"Highly experimental in its manner, the piece exudes great confidence of purpose plus gritty, thoughtful artistry – in the spirit of O19’s commitment to making opera a distinctly 21st century thing.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 September 2019

“What is certain is that “Denis & Katya” is quite magnificent, and unlike anything else on the operatic stage. As such it points the way forward for an art form that can too often be found facing the other way.”
Musical America, 20 September 2019 

"With Denis & Katya, O19 has produced another first rate operatic experience, a highly effective production that should be seen by anyone who cares about the future of the art form."
Opera Today, 20 September 2019 

“The opera, too, lives in haunting ambiguity, its language—both musical and textual—simultaneously stark and murky. Venables employs four cellos, placed in the corners of a bare stage, as the only musical accompaniment, although electronic and industrial noises are also mixed into the soundscape. [...] In addition to their beautiful voices, Miller and Hoffman display something perhaps even rarer: a sense of complete ease and comfort onstage, while at the same time bringing laser-like focus to the drama.”
Parterre, 21 September 2019

“Created with Ksenia Ravvina and directed by Mr. Huffman, who also wrote the libretto, “Denis & Katya” is an immersion in this awful ambiguity; the new piece is as memorably tense and stark as “4.48 Psychosis,” Mr. Venables and Mr. Huffman’s brutal operatic study of mental illness.”
The New York Times, 23 September 2019

“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.”
Wall Street Journal, 23 September 2019

Picture of Philip Venables and Ted Huffman
Philip Venables and Ted Huffman after the world premiere in Philadelphia

4.48 Psychosis

Like Denis & Katya, Venables’s award-winning opera 4.48 Psychosis is capable of of shaking one to the very core, though in a completely different way. Whereas Denis & Katya shows us the outsiders’ perspective on a deeply personal drama, 4.48 Psychosis takes the audience into the heroine’s inner world, exposing the most vulnerable corners of the human self. After the 2016 world premiere and a 2018 revival at London’s Royal Opera House, the US premiere at New York’s 2019 Prototype Festival, and the German premiere in the new German version at Dresden’s Semperoper, the opera has now had its French premiere at the Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg. Capping an already perfect evening, following the premiere of 4.48 Psychosis the innovative Alsatian company was honoured as “Opera House of the Year” by the German magazine Opernwelt.

4.48 Psychosis (2016)
an opera in one act
Text: Sarah Kane
3 soprano, 3 mezzo-soprano / tape / alto flute + picc, 3 sax (all sop+bar), piano+synth with organ pedalboard, accordion, 2 percussion (solo roles, some playing from memory), vl+vla, 2 vla, bass. (all amplified)
Duration: 90'
WP: 24.05.2016, London

Picture of performance of '4.48. Psychose'
NP of 4.48. Psychosis, Strasbourg 2019

Press quotes

"Venables’s music, which syncretistically ranges between pop and chamber and is conducted most attentively by Richard Baker, is not just illness but therapy as well: after a final outburst of hate and violence, it makes room for hope and compassion with a children’s song and a Bach quotation... The orchestral refinement that Venables coaxes from just twelve Strasbourg opera musicians and a team of technicians for recording and amplication is a veritable anti-depressive...Supported by stark lighting dramaturgy, the music follows a non-linear course between anxiety, yearning for love and death, and loneliness. The finale is a sort of miniature farewell symphony with a fatal ending. Gradually the protagonists leave the stage and the instrumentalists fall silent. What remains is a sigh."
FAZ, 20 September 2019

"In this production we experience her anxiety, moments of hope and indescribable beauty – this in spite of the sadness of the subject matter."
francetvinfo, 19 September 2019

Photos: Dominic Mercier/Opera Philadelphia (title, world premiere of Denis & Katya), Katie Salmon (Philip Venables and Ted Huffman), Klara Beck (national premiere of 4.48 Psychosis)