Moscow’s performing arts are a major drawcard: classical ballet, music and theatre are at the heart of Russian culture. For so long, that’s all there was. Happily, times have changed, as directors, conductors and choreographers unleash their creative spirits. If your heart's set on Tchaikovsky, you won’t be disappointed, but if you’re yearning for something experimental, you'll find that too.
The classical performing arts are one of Moscow’s biggest attractions. Highly acclaimed, professional artists stage productions in elegant theatres around the city, most of which have been recently revamped and look marvellous.
Opera & Ballet
Nobody has ever complained about a shortage of Russian classics at the opera and ballet. Take your pick from Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov or one of the other great Russian composers, and you are guaranteed to find them on the playbill at one of the major theatres. The choreography and staging of these classics is usually pretty traditional (some might even say uninventive), but then again, that’s why they’re classics. If you tire of the traditional, keep your eye out for more modern productions and premieres that are also staged by some local companies.
The largest opera and ballet company in the city – and the most celebrated – is the Bolshoi. The repertoire of this world-famous company is mostly classical, with choreography in the style of Balanchine and Petipa. In recent years, the Bolshoi has premiered many new works.
A sort of rival to the Bolshoi is the Stanislavsky & Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre, which is approaching its centennial in 2019. In addition to its classical repertoire, this prominent company has staged ground-breaking ballets and avant-garde operas in recent years.
There is a slew of younger opera and ballet companies around the city. For experimental, contemporary fare, check out the ground-breaking New Ballet, performing in a small theatre in Basmanny.
It’s not unusual to see highly talented musicians working the crowds inside the metro stations, often violinists single-handedly performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and flautists whistling away at Mozart or Bach. While it’s possible to hear a good show in the metro station, a visit to one of the local orchestra halls is highly recommended.
Founded in 1922, the city's oldest and most prestigious symphony orchestra is Moscow Philharmonic Society, which performs at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, as well as the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Giving hundreds of concerts a year, the orchestra is still the standard bearer for orchestral music in the capital, if not the country.
Across town at the International House of Music, the National Philharmonic of Russia was the country's first private symphony orchestra when it was founded in 1990. Also around that time, the feisty Levine sisters founded the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (MSO), an upstart assemblage that still operates on a relatively small budget, under the direction of the young Vladimir Ziva. The MSO performs at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
Live bands and DJs travel from other parts of Russia and all over Europe to perform in Moscow’s many clubs and theatres. Summer is an especially busy concert season, with several big outdoor music festivals. Check the schedules of local clubs or look for signs advertising the biggest names.
Due to the language barrier, drama and comedy are less alluring prospects for non-Russian speakers than are music and dance. Nonetheless, Moscow has a long theatre tradition, which remains vibrant today. The capital has around 40 professional theatres and countless amateur theatres, staging a wide range of plays.
Recognising the lack of options for non-Russian speakers, English actor Jonathan Bex founded the Moscow English Theatre (MET), which performs contemporary American and British plays for English-speaking audiences. The MET performs at the Mayakovsky Theatre.
The circus has long been a favourite form of entertainment for Russians young and old. There are two highly lauded, permanent circuses in Moscow, putting on glittering shows for Muscovites of all ages. Near the centre of town, Tsvetnoy bul has been the site of the Moscow circus since 1880. This so-called 'Old' Circus – now named Nikulin Circus for the famous clown Yury Nikulin – had always set the standard by which all other circuses were measured. Until 1971, that is, when the new Bolshoi Circus on Vernadskogo was built. This state-of-the-art facility was bigger and better, with five replaceable arenas (water, ice, equestrian etc) and room for 3500 spectators.
The shows performed by both companies feature acrobatics and animals, as well as dance, cabaret and clowns. The displays of daring-do are truly amazing, especially the aerial arts. Only the Nikulin Circus features big cats in its performances, but both venues have monkeys, bears and sea lions. The animals are apparently not mistreated – though their very involvement in the show might make you cringe.
Russia’s international reputation in sport is well founded, with athletes earning international fame and glory for their success in ice hockey, gymnastics and figure skating.
The most popular spectator sport in Russia is football (soccer), and five Moscow teams play in Russia’s premier league (Vysshaya Liga). Currently, football is enjoying a boom, with several state-of-the-art stadiums recently built for the World Cup in 2018.
Moscow's most successful team is FC Spartak (www.spartak.com). The team’s nickname is Myaso, or ‘Meat’, because it was sponsored by the collective farm association during the Soviet era. Nowadays, Spartak plays at the new Spartak Stadium (also known as Otkrytie Arena), north of the centre near Tushino Airfield.
Meanwhile, their rivals, FC Dynamo (www.fcdynamo.ru), will soon be playing at the new ultramodern VTB Arena.
Additionally, six-time winner Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA; www.pfc-cska.com) plays at CSKA Arena, part of the CSKA Stadiums complex. Two-time winner FC Lokomotiv (www.fclm.ru) plays at the eponymous stadium east of the centre.
Moscow’s main entrant in the Continental Hockey League (KHL) is HC CSKA (www.cska-hockey.ru), or the Red Army team. HC CSKA has won more Soviet championships and European cups than any other team in history. They play at the CSKA Ice Palace, which is part of the CSKA Stadiums complex.
Men’s basketball has dropped in popularity since its days of Olympic glory in the 1980s, but Moscow’s top basketball team, CSKA (www.cskabasket.com), still does well in the European league. They play at USH CSKA, which is part of the CSKA Stadiums complex.
Need to Know
Nowadays, most theatres sell tickets online. Or, you can do it the old-fashioned way and buy tickets directly from the theatre box office or from a teatralnaya kassa (theatre kiosk), several of which are scattered about the city.
The classical performing arts remain an incredible bargain in Moscow, especially if you go anywhere other than the Bolshoi Theatre. Tickets start at around R500, with prices for the best seats ranging from R1500 to R4000. Happily, Moscow venues do not charge higher prices for foreigners.
Unfortunately for summer visitors, many venues are closed between late June and early September.
Summer Music Festivals
Some of the best things about summer in Moscow:
- Afisha Picnic (www.picnic.afisha.ru) Indie-rock at Kolomenskoe.
- Ahmad Tea Music Festival (www.ahmadteafest.ru) Alt-rock festival at Art Muzeon.
- Bosco Fresh Fest (www.boscofreshfest.com) Mostly Russian bands at Tsaritsyno.
- Park Live (www.parklive.pro) Modern-rock big names at CSKA Arena.
- Usadba Jazz Festival (www.usadba-jazz.ru) Jazz at Arkhangelskoe.