Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


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

21 June 2022, 10:00 am–11:00 am

Olivia Ray, mezzo soprano

Conversation and premiere of a short film about directing, performing and seeing the opera "The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko". With director Stephen Medcalf, mezzo soprano Olivia Ray, writer-journalist Owen Matthews, anthropologist Michal Murawski, Russian politics expert Ben Noble, and filmmaker Graham Riach.

This event is free.

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Institute of Advanced Studies / UCL European Institute

Our film 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 twelve-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. 

During the one-hour launch event we will explore how Ray approached her role, how Medcalf came to direct an opera on this topic, while Matthews, Noble and Murawski provide political context. We are joined, finally, by filmmaker Graham Riach. 

A recording of the premiere of the opera in July 2021 is available on this link.

Film now available on Youtube

Watch the film

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 Associate 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. 
  • Dr Claudia Sternberg (moderator) is one of the Music Futures project leads and has worked with Graham in producing a number of films for Music Futures and the European Institute. She is Head of Academic Programmes at the UCL European Institute and a scholar of European politics and political legitimacy. 

Watch our other music-related films:

Sea Song Writing: On the Palmy Beach - an exploration of music and poetry around Judith Weir's song cycle On the Palmy Beach, bringing together the composer, the three world-class musicians who premiered it, and two UCL literature scholars. Watch it online here

Josephine Morcashani: Playing with Gender and Race in Music across Europe - this brand new video short will likewise be premiered as part of this festival, at 4pm-5pm on the same day (21 June). Josephine Morcashani (1870-1929) was a Black British music hall star known across Europe as a glamorous cross-dressing diva. Come join the launch of our new short film about how she played with stereotypes and refused to be boxed in. Register here!

Also check out our In Search of Europe series of five-minute video shorts featuring UCL researchers giving insights into their ongoing projects across disciplines and European contexts. 


This event is part of the Music Futures FestivalCheck our website for more information.