The Giant Conductor

February 14, 2024

On the 115th anniversary of Isidor Zak


This year, February 14 marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of the outstanding conductor Isidor Arkadyevich Zak, People's Artist of the USSR (1976), a founder of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre. It was he who was involved in the formation of the Company of the new Opera House in 1944, becoming its first chief conductor. Finally, it was he who became the music director and conductor of the first legendary performance – Ivan Susanin by M. Glinka in the theatre's hall counting two thousands seats and filled to capacity on May 12, 1945. That brightest, highest note was the beginning of communication between the conductor and his creation – the theatre. It was absolutely not superficial or insincere, despite the departure of the leader four years later, in 1949, and parting for a couple of decades. But there was also a return. And that period, since 1968, has been called the “golden age” of the theatre. He gave almost thirty years to the theatre, twenty of them as chief conductor. Today, the sign of this unity is the name of I. Zak assigned to the Small Hall of the theatre. And already his very first works in Novosibirsk got high awards. Ivan Susanin brought him and the performers of the main parts the titles of Honored Artists of the RSFSR. Igor Morozov's ballet Aibolit, staged in 1947, received the Stalin Prize.

The outstanding conductor also contributed to the development of theatres in Lviv, Kharkov and Alma-Ata, was one of the founders and chief conductor of the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Chelyabinsk. But he still considered working in the Novosibirsk Theatre to be the most important thing in his life.

Based on the works of Borodin, Dargomyzhsky, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Napravnik, Rubinstein and other composers, Isidor Zak staged about 40 productions of opera and ballet performances at various times. But his main love and concern was the Russian opera. His operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov sounded as if they had appeared, if not that day, at least the day before, as if time had stopped and all the past decades had not happened. The tenth performance of The Queen of Spades under the direction of I. Zak was exciting and thrilling in the same way as the first one, there was nerve and awe in each. The familiar music was new every time, it concentrated all the collisions of action, the inner life of the characters, everything that was not said, and sometimes cannot be expressed. At the same time, that was an accurate, expressive gesture, a will that cannot be disobeyed, the ability to lead. “If we talk about a very high quality, of course, The Queen of Spades was a performance of I. Zak. Everything here was subject to his will,” conductor Arnold Katz said of his colleague. “He was a man to whom everyone involuntarily or freely obeyed.”

It is clear that behind all this there was much work, constant self-development. The maestro's brilliant erudition, encyclopedic knowledge, and sharp mind were noted by everyone who worked with him. They called him a giant conductor. So did Vladimir Galuzin, who received invaluable lessons from Zak in his youth. From the singers, in whom, indeed, there was a lot invested (up to parsing every phrase of the aria text), I heard more than once: I will sing the parts that I prepared with Zak even if someone wakes me up at night. This knowledge and understanding is for life.


Zak was able to discover something new, something very personal, intimate in the familiar, established things, which had become a reference.

He was able to discover talents and loved to do that. So, at the audition of candidates for joining the emerging Company in 1944, after hearing Lydia Myasnikova, he immediately said: “We really liked you. You have a good voice. You are musical. I want to stage Carmen with you.” The star of the future prima donna lit up.

For the first time in the country, he staged several operas by Czech composers, the French opera Madame Bovary by Emmanuel Bondeville (he knew French well, could read and write fluently; in 1981 he was elected an Honorary Corresponding member of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts), the Siberian opera - becoming the music director and conductor of the vivid satirical performance An Extraordinary Adventure, or The Government Inspector by Georgy Ivanov. And this list can go on and on.

Let's not forget about the opening of the Chelyabinsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, also realized by I. Zak. This happened in 1955, ten years after the creation of the theatre in Novosibirsk. For 13 years, he led his second big project. He had staged about 50 performances. In memory of the outstanding musician, a competition named after him was held here.


The conductor himself surely went through a good, strong, perhaps even unique school in his time. He began studying music at the age of five with the legendary teacher Berta Reyngbald. It was in Odessa, where at the same age he first saw and heard the opera A Life for the Tsar by Glinka (later transformed into Ivan Susanin in Novosibirsk). It made an indelible impression on the sensitive child, especially the scene in the forest and the aria “They scent the Truth”. At the age of 13, the future conductor entered the Odessa Conservatory, and at 19 he was already a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory. Famous Nikolai Malko was his professor; his class was completed by such great figures of conducting art as Alexander Melik-Pashaev, Evgeny Mravinsky, Ilya Musin, Boris Khaykin and others.

Today, the name of Isidor Zak is also in this row, he is called one of the icons of the Soviet opera house. At the age of 19, his professional conducting career began. In 1928, he became the conductor of the Leningrad Musical Comedy Theatre. From 1929 to 1944 he worked in theatres in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Kuibyshev, Dnepropetrovsk, Gorky. So when the 35-year-old ambitious, uncompromising conductor came to Novosibirsk, he had twenty years of conducting experience and extensive work standing.

He devoted his entire creative life to opera. And he never tired of repeating that the most important thing in this activity was unconditional respect for the will of the author. There can be no negligence, no “hit or miss”. “When I was professionally engaged in opera conducting, the principle of “hit or miss” was absolutely excluded for me,” he stressed.

And, in addition to absolute masterpieces, which must certainly be on any self-respecting opera stage, he believed, there should always be a place for not so successful creations by great artists of musical theatre. So, thanks to Zak, in the only theatre in the whole country in the mid-1970s, it was possible to listen to Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans and discover it for oneself. And Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal, staged in 1979, did not reign on the opera stages, it was only in Novosibirsk.

At the same time as working in the theatre, Professor Isidor Zak taught at the Novosibirsk Conservatory. But still, his most famous student studied with him in Alma-Ata. That was Fuat Mansurov. His student, the musical grandson of Zak, Rustam Dilmukhametov, works in Novosibirsk. The actual artistic director of the Chelyabinsk Opera, Yevgeny Volynsky, also calls Zak one of his main teachers, although he was never officially listed as one of his students. Starting his career at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre as a prompter (as it is often the case with novice conductors), the student who had not yet graduated from the Conservatory was constantly under the tutelage of his senior colleague. Without his benevolent help, professional tips, and mentoring, the young musician would hardly have been able to master the most complex opera scores so brilliantly, prepare for the first independent performances and become an opera conductor.

On March 31, The Tsar's Bride performance – one of the most significant recent opera premieres of NOVAT – is dedicated to the 115th anniversary of Isidor Zak.

Significant productions by I. Zak on the Novosibirsk stage (as selected):
• Ivan Susanin. Opera by M. Glinka (1945, 1969)
• The Queen of Spades. Opera by P. Tchaikovsky (1945, 1969)
• The Sevastopol People. Opera by M. Koval (1946, first production)
• Dr. Aibolit. Ballet by I. Morozov (1947, Stalin Prize)
• The Tsar's Bride. Opera by N. Rimsky-Korsakov (1949, 1975)
• Aida. Opera by G. Verdi (1948, revived in 1968)
• Sadko. Opera by N. Rimsky-Korsakov (1971)
• Romeo and Juliet. Ballet by S. Prokofiev (1972)
• The Maid of Orleans. Opera by P. Tchaikovsky (1974)
• The Night before Christmas. Opera by N. Rimsky-Korsakov (1975)
• Eugene Onegin. Opera by P. Tchaikovsky (1945, 1976)
• Yaroslavna. Ballet by B. Tishchenko (1977)
• Kashchey the Immortal. Opera by N. Rimsky-Korsakov (1979)
• Madame Bovary. Opera by E. Bondeville (1980, the first production in the USSR)
• Mazeppa. Opera by P. Tchaikovsky (1982)
• An Extraordinary Adventure, or The Government Inspector. Opera by G. Ivanov (1983, first production)
• Tales of Hoffmann. Opera by J. Offenbach (1986)

The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №1
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №2
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №3
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №4
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №5
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №6
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №7
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №8
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №9
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №10
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №11
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №12
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №13
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №14
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №15
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №16
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №17
The Giant Conductor - NOVAT - photo №18