UCL European Institute


New short film – Singing Truth to Power: Politics, Opera, and the Russian State

22 June 2022

We proudly present our new film about directing, performing and seeing the opera "The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko".

Singing Truth to Power: Politics, Opera, and the Russian State

Singing Truth to Power: Politics, Opera, and the Russian State explores the themes of artistic representation, truth and political assassination in Putin's Russia. It focuses on the opera The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko by Anthony Bolton (music) and Kit Hesketh-Harvey (libretto), which premiered in 2021 at Grange Park Opera. 

The fifteen-minute video short brings together director Stephen Medcalf and mezzo soprano Olivia Ray - who sang the role of journalist and mediator Anna Politkovskaya - with writer-journalist Owen Matthews, Russian politics expert Ben Noble and anthropologist Michal Murawski.

Who were Litvinenko and Politkovskaya? What do their stories tell us about Russia under Putin? 

The film traces how Ray approached the role, and Medcalf came to direct an opera on the topic, while investigating the understandings that govern life under Putin, and the relationship between theatrical and historical truth. 

The film was created by filmmaker by Graham Riach in collaboration with the EI's Claudia Sternberg. Many thanks to Grange Park Opera for letting us use their recording. 

Watch now 

Grange Park Opera on The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko:

Exiled and living in London, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko becomes Putin’s most ebullient and needling critic. He learns that his former colleagues are using his face for target practice; a law is passed that allows Russian traitors to be killed anywhere in the world.

Just a few months later – in November 2006 – Litvinenko is poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210. Alexander Litvinenko was a man who solved his own murder. As he lay dying, he worked with Scotland Yard detectives, and tracked the lethal dose to his former colleague – and football fan – Andrei Lugovoy. 

This real-life story is told through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards covering events in Russia that lead Litvinenko to seek exile and his family’s life in Muswell Hill. Extensive use is made of historic film footage.


  • Olivia Ray, mezzo soprano. Olivia sang the role of Anna Polikovskaya in The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko at Grange Park. In the current season engagements include Emelia in Otello, directed by David Alden at Grange Park Opera, a recital with Elizabeth Mucha at the London Song Festival and Bach B Minor Mass with the London Chorus. Other highlights in recent seasons include Lady Spencer in Georgiana at the Buxton International Festival; Gertrude in Roméo et Juliette, Flora in La traviata, Enrichetta di Francia in I puritani, and Soeur Mathilde an Dialogues des carmélites for Grange Park Opera; Elgar The Apostles at Gloucester Cathedral; and Rossini Petite messe solennelle at the Three Choirs Festival.
  • Stephen Medcalf, stage and opera director, including of The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko for Grange Park Opera. Stephen's current and future engagements include UN BALLO IN MASCHERA and DIE WALKÜRE at Grange Park Opera, LEONORE and IDOMENEO at Buxton Festival, HERCULANUM at Wexford Festival Opera, MANON LESCAUT at Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia and Asociación Bilbaina de amigos de la Ópera in Bilbao, FALSTAFF at Accademia della Scala on tour to Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman and AIDA and ARIODANTE at Landestheater Niederbayern. Career highlights include PIKOVAYA DAMA Teatro alla Scala, LE NOZZE DI FIGARO Glyndebourne Opera House (televised and released on video/DVD), MANON LESCAUT and DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE (released on DVD) Teatro Regio di Parma, and DIE ENTFUHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL for Teatro delle Muse, Ancona, which was subsequently seen at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari and the Theatre Festival of Thessaloniki. In 2005, he earned the coveted Premio Abbiati Italian critics’ Prize as Director of the Year.
  • Dr Ben Noble, Associate Professor in Russian Politics at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and Asssociate Fellow of Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) in the Russia and Eurasia Programme. Ben is the author of Navalny: Putin's Nemesis, Russia's Future? (Hurst, 2021). 
  • Owen Matthews,  British writer, historian and journalist. His first book, Stalin's Children, was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Books Award, the Orwell Prize for political writing, and France's Prix Medicis Etranger. His books have been translated into 28 languages. He is a former Moscow and Istanbul Bureau Chief for Newsweek Magazine. He now writes for The Spectator, among other outlets. 
  • Dr Michal Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture and of cities based at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where he is Assistant Professor in Critical Area Studies. During 2017-2018, he carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Moscow.
  • Dr Graham Riach, academic and documentary filmmaker based in Oxford and Brussels. As an academic, he specialises in world literature, with a particular interest in questions of form and aesthetics. As a filmmaker, he specialises in working with academics to tell the story of their research in words, images, and sound. 

This film was produced as part of Music Futures, our initiative with the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies.

Erasmus plus logo