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Russian Orthodox Male choir of Australia: We look forward to perform in Russia

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Russian Orthodox Male choir of Australia: We look forward to perform in Russia


Sergey Vinogradov

Photo courtesy of Nektary Kotlyaroff

When Nektary Kotlyaroff, a fourth-generation Russian Australian and founder of the Russian Orthodox Choir in Sydney, first visited Russia, the first person he spoke to was a cab driver at the airport. Having heard that Nektariy's ancestors left Russia more than 100 years ago, the driver was astonished, "How come you haven't forgotten the Russian language?" Nektary Kotlyaroff repeated his answer in an interview with the Russkiy Mir. His affinity to the Orthodox Church (many of his ancestors and relatives were priests) and the traditions of a large Russian family brought from Russia helped him to preserve the Russian language.

The Russian Orthodox Male Choir performs spiritual pieces by Russian composers in churches, as well as folk songs on secular stages. Both Russian compatriots and Australian fans tap along to the song "Dorogoi Dlinnoyu" (The Long Road) performed by the choir.

The choir became internationally known through online performances via YouTube, thus winning fans all over the world. Three years ago, the choir could not perform in Russia for the first time due to the pandemic but is still looking forward to such an opportunity.

Live and Virtual Choir

– How was the choir formed?

– It was launched in 2016. I got the idea to bring together singers and make the group centered around the diocese. We have many talented people with professional skills who sing voluntarily, although they all have their jobs to do. We held a choir rehearsal and then sang at the Divine Liturgy in our cathedral. People shared that they liked the way we sang. So, the choir was officially established with the blessing of our bishop in 2019.

The stories of the choir members are similar to mine. They are all descendants of Russian emigrants in the third or fourth generation. Currently, the choir includes about 20 singers with ages ranging from 16 to 60. We are all friends, and our parents are friends with each other, and our grandparents knew each other in China. There is one Greek person in our choir. When he was young, his family decided to convert to the Russian church. He learned Russian and practiced reading and singing in Slavonic.

– Where have you performed?

– Well, in December 2019, we went to New York. It was our first big project that made us known. When the pandemic started in 2020, I organized a virtual choir. The guys used to stay at home and forward me recordings, and I put them together. We posted those recordings on YouTube and other platforms. People from all over the world sent us feedback and messages, and many people liked our singing. We were invited to take part in the Moscow International Music Festival back then. We submitted our recordings and won the first prize and the Grand Prix. They invited us to perform in Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, we couldn't travel to Russia because of the pandemic. We do hope that eventually, everything will work out and we will be able to sing in Russia.

– What do you perform and are there any concerts taking place these days?

– We sing Russian spiritual music. If the concert takes place somewhere outside the church, we sing folk songs. I feel inspired listening to folk songs sung by the choirs of the Sretensky or Danilov monasteries. Nevertheless, I strive to make my musical arrangements to make us sound unique. We have performed in many Australian cities. Now we've got a lot of plans and many invitations to various places. Most recently, on December 15, we performed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Folk songs were performed there as well. The Ambassador and Consul General of Russia attended the concert. We were received well by the Russians, as well as the Australians who were thrilled to see a choir that sings in Russian, Serbian, Italian, Ukrainian, and English. Next year we are planning to fly to Serbia.

– Has your ensemble been affected by the policy of abolishing Russian culture that is in place in some countries?

– It has become more challenging for us as our choir is Russian. Furthermore, it is the first word in the choir's title. Times are hard now, and we do pray for peace and love. When it comes to singing in church, we face no issues. However, we have to remove some songs from our repertoire if we perform in the city halls. Yet, we do our best to keep going, to perform, and to travel to different cities. There are even plans to perform at the famous Sydney Opera House in the future so that the whole city can come to our concert.

"St. Petersburg moved me to tears."

– When did you visit Russia for the first time?

– I've been to Russia twice. My first time was in 2018. My family and I went on vacation. My father had traveled to Russia before that. I visited Christ the Savior Cathedral and met the regent Ilya Tolkachev during that trip. He invited me to sing in the patriarchal choir, and it was the best moment of my journey. A year later I was invited to record a CD in Saratov. We sang in the patriarchal choir again and participated in a service at the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin. It was a delightful experience for us.

– You used to hear about distant Russia from your childhood. Did it meet your expectations?

– Yes, it did. It was just as I had read in the literature and history books. We had certainly seen photos and videos from Russia, and yet we didn't know what to expect. Nevertheless, everything was wonderful. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg became my deepest experience. This temple and its mosaics moved me to tears. It is impossible to explain the emotions. There are also the Kazan and St. Isaac's Cathedrals there... I felt sad to leave. If I could, I would be happy to fly to St. Petersburg and live there.

Traditions of Russian upbringing

– How did your family end up in Australia?

– My parents were born in Australia, just like me. My grandparents and great-grandparents were all born in China where their parents had relocated from Russia. According to my family, our ancestors lived in Siberia and Ukraine, I don't know the details. As to China, they lived in Harbin and other places. My ancestors were all Russians on both my dad's and mom's sides.

– What was your upbringing like?

– I attended St. Alexander Nevsky Church School in Sydney for 10 years. My mom and dad did their best to speak to me in Russian. So, when I joined an English school, I spoke Russian only. I was assigned to a special class with children who did not speak English. We strive to preserve the Russian language in an English-speaking environment, and we speak Russian in our family and parish. I was born into a very spiritual family. We had icons all over the house. Parents taught us to sing prayers in Old Slavonic and made sure we knew the church holidays and saints.

My wife is the daughter of an Australian man who converted to Orthodoxy and became a priest. Her mother is Russian. We have just had a baby daughter. She is the fifth generation, and we will try to speak Russian to her as well.

Nektary Kotlyaroff. Photo courtesy of Nektary Kotlyaroff

– It seems that affinity to Orthodoxy helps to preserve the Russian language, doesn't it?

– It certainly does. We have preserved our language and culture through our faith. There are many priests in our family. My father is a protodeacon and my uncle is the rector of St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Sydney. My cousin is a priest in the cathedral and my grandfather was a priest. I didn't become a priest but I'm an elocutionist, I sing in the church and manage the choir.

– Your daughter is still a baby. Have you already thought of how to teach her the Russian language and culture?

– It's a complex question (laughing). Nevertheless, my wife and I do our best to plan everything. When she grows up, we will show her cartoons and movies in Russian. I hope she will be standing next to us when my wife and I sing in the cathedral. Besides that, I have grandparents and one great-grandmother who is now a great-great-grandmother. The most important point for our little girl is to communicate with us and her grandparents as often as possible. This way she will get good language practice and master the true Russian language, which we want to preserve.

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