Friday, September 26, 2008

Requiem in Tbilisi

TBILISI, Georgia -- The Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater held a charity event last night to raise money for children orphaned or displaced by the war. The event was organized in part by Paata Burchuladze, whose bass voice has filled the major opera houses from Teatro alla Scala in Milan to the New York's Met.

Burchuladze was joined by several fellow opera stars to perform Verdi's Requiem along with the Tbilisi Symphony and Choir before several thousand people.

Few things made by man evoke the range of emotions as does Requiem. And war.

From tumult to enduring sorrow to joy to angelic, the music echoed what Georgians had experienced during the previous month.

During the piece's last movement, Libera Me, the audience raised thousands of lit candles. After the music finished, children who had left their homes in South Ossetia and adjacent areas occupied by the Russians were brought on stage.

Tbilisi has a rich operatic tradition, started, ironically, in 1845 by a Russian general. The city has many great classical musicians, although most are better known in Eastern Europe.

Paata Burchuladze with a child from Gori

The opera and ballet's general director, David Sakvarelidze, wants to make Tbilisi a jewel of the international arts community and in doing so -- he believes -- help save Georgia from being swallowed up by Russia. He wants the state to launch a blitzkrieg of cultural diplomacy.

"We can't defend ourselves against the Russians. What can I do?" he asked rhetorically in a cafe behind the opera house. "I can direct performances."

The West has little reason to care about Georgia, Sakvarelidze said.

The overwhelming majority of Westerners know nothing about Georgia, although some do know it exists thanks to the war. Most politicians know little more than that two pipelines run through the country.

Tbilisi's arts community can put Georgia on the map and in the hearts of many Westerners, he explained.

Cultural warfare is not new. During the Cold War, the US spread jazz far and wide. While the Soviet Union could turn out fearsome weapons systems, such as the T-72 tank and multi-megaton ICBMs, the workers paradise never had anything on jazz.

"Art is our weapon," said Sakvarelidze.

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