When true crime takes the stage: Opera Philadelphia premieres 'Denis & Katya'

PHOTO: "Denis & Katya" stars mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller (seated) and baritone Theo Hoffman.PlayDominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
WATCH Opera Philadelphia premieres 'Denis & Katya'

"At ten minutes into the broadcast, she asks the Periscope viewers: should we stop shooting? Should we give up?"

Opera has long told stories inspired by true crime and grisly murders and suicides aren't exactly unusual to see onstage, but it's unlikely even Pagliacci could have imagined "Denis & Katya," which is having its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia Wednesday.

The world premiere of an opera at a major house is a rare occasion given the costs and risks associated with it, and it's thus rare for an opera to mention, let alone focus on, modern factors like the internet. Across the United States, while dozens of operas are performed, "Denis & Katya" joins an extremely limited group of internet-focused operas, including Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" -- which premiered in the U.S. in 2013 -- and Mason Bates' "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" -- which premiered in 2017.

PHOTO: Denis & Katya is scored for four cellos and a mezzo-soprano and baritone who switch between six different roles throughout the opera. Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
"Denis & Katya" is scored for four cellos and a mezzo-soprano and baritone who switch between six different roles throughout the opera.

"Denis & Katya," the new opera from British composer Philip Venables and American director Ted Huffman, who wrote the libretto, tells the real-life story of Katya Vlasova and Denis Muravyov, 15-year-olds who ran away from their homes in Russia in 2016 apparently after a family fight, staged a dramatic standoff with police and then died by apparent suicide.

It could have been just another strange story of violence, but for one factor: the internet.

PHOTO: Theo Hoffman stars in the world premiere of Denis & Katya. Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
Theo Hoffman stars in the world premiere of "Denis & Katya."

Throughout the standoff about three hours south of St. Petersburg, the teens livestreamed themselves on the platform Periscope, calling themselves "Bonnie and Clyde," discussing their number of viewers and at times even asking their audience what they should do next.

The teens fired for hours at responding police as the officers surrounded the cabin where they were holed up. According to the BBC, Russian police said they did not return fire and the teens showed "clear signs of suicide."

"Katya and Denis...they put themselves on the internet, they started to broadcast themselves. It's very theatrical movement and gestures," Ksenia Ravvina, a Russian theater creator brought on as co-creator for "Denis & Katya," told ABC News. "They somehow became artists by doing this."

Huffman first came across the story when he was scrolling through his newsfeed while home for Thanksgiving shortly after it happened, he told ABC. Fascinated, he forwarded the story to Venables.

"It felt like something new, like a different kind of level had been breached in this relationship between a user of technology and other users in this kind of actor and audience that was established between Denis and Katya and the Periscope viewers," he said.

PHOTO: A neighbor who witnessed the real-life incident on which the opera is based, and who was interviewed by the creative team during the creation of the piece, is one of the voices performed by mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller in Denis & Katya. Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
A neighbor who witnessed the real-life incident on which the opera is based, and who was interviewed by the creative team during the creation of the piece, is one of the voices performed by mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller in "Denis & Katya."

That sparked a three-year effort to bring Denis and Katya's story to the stage -- with Venables, Huffman and Ravvina traveling to Russia to meet the people involved, including a Russian journalist who immediately reported on the tale and Denis' best friend.

Unlike a traditional opera with a full orchestra and chorus, "Denis & Katya" features just four cellists and two singers. The cellists perform from each corner of the stage, without a conductor, but with the offstage guidance of a music director, Emily Senturia.

The singers, meanwhile -- mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller and baritone Theo Hoffman, for the premiere -- play a variety of overlapping characters like a Greek chorus, including a journalist and a friend, classmate and teacher of the teenagers, singing in Russian and English.

"Picture a documentary with cuts between each interview rapidly," Hoffman told ABC.

PHOTO: Denis & Katya uses verbatim text from the real-life event in the world premiere opera. Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
"Denis & Katya" uses verbatim text from the real-life event in the world premiere opera.

The "characters" of Denis and Katya never actually appear onstage. Rather than be a story explicitly about them, "Denis and Katya" intends to explore questions around people's responses to their actions and livestream.

"One of the themes of the piece is voyeurism and exploitation and also how we consume information online and what kind of information we're consuming and what that does to the people who are the news items," Huffman said.

The staging features projected words, including comments from viewers on the original Periscope stream and, in a twist, real WhatsApp conversations between Venables and Huffman discussing how to put on the very production the audience is watching.

Among the discussions projected are the creators' conversations about their research, like going down the internet rabbit hole on the couple and how it felt to see videos and photos of the teenagers.

But you also see them discussing what's acceptable to show onstage, including an ongoing conversation about whether or not to show the Periscope video within the production.

PHOTO: Denis & Katya stars mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller (seated) and baritone Theo Hoffman. Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
"Denis & Katya" stars mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller (seated) and baritone Theo Hoffman.

"We're pointing the finger at ourselves as much as anything else by saying we all consume this kind of information and asking why we are consuming it and what are the ethical responses to this kind of information," Huffman said.

For the creative team, it's not really an "internet" story -- it's a story about how we live today, which necessarily includes the internet, and it's a story about storytelling itself: How did Denis and Katya tell their own story? How did people who knew them tell it? How did the news tell it? How did voyeurs tell it? How is this opera telling it?

"What I've been really interested in in opera is generally how we tell stories, how we represent people onstage, how things are kind of dramatized and told, and this has been a really, really great kind of exploration for us," Venables said.

As interest in true crime documentaries, news stories and podcasts continues to bubble up and tech companies are increasingly questioned over their responsibility for livestreamed violence, the questions "Denis & Katya" poses are pressingly relevant.

Venables said the creators were aware of "the role that the internet potentially plays or played in glorifying, sensationalizing what [Denis and Katya] did and how that might have influenced the outcome, and whether -- had this happened 30 years ago -- whether the outcome would've been the same. We can't say either way, but I think we have a strong idea that it perhaps wouldn't have the same outcome."

PHOTO: Denis & Katya uses verbatim text from the real-life event in the world premiere opera. Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
Denis & Katya" uses verbatim text from the real-life event in the world premiere opera.

It's had an effect on the creators already -- Huffman said he's pulled back from social media and news consumption, which he considers "the healthy choice."

And as for Venables? "Funny enough, I feel like in the last few months I've been using Facebook a lot more."

The opera runs through Sept. 29 as part of Opera Philadelphia's Festival O19.