Born in Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic, Peter Feranec is well aware that he is the first "foreigner" to head up the Bolshoi Symphony. But despite heightened ethnic conflicts in some regions since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the 31-year-old music director says he encountered no prejudice when he took over in June.
"First of all, I studied in the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, for five years with maestro Marriss Jansons," Feranec said Sunday by phone from San Diego, where he and the orchestra were starting a tour that includes different programs Thursday and Friday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
"I speak Russian fluently. I know the mentality of the Russian people and the members of the orchestra," he said. "I don't have any problems with communication."
Feranec succeeded Alexander Lazarev, whom the new music director met while preparing Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" as a guest conductor in February. "I met him only once," he said. "Then I left for Vienna."
The Bolshoi, founded in 1776 as the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, is the oldest group of Russian musicians. It became a state institution in 1806 and ultimately one of the premier orchestras in the country. The organization includes about 140 musicians, which allows one group to prepare at home for the Nov. 9 opening of Mussorgsky's "Khovanshina" under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich, while the other goes on tour with Feranec.
Despite the reputation of the orchestra and the theater, Feranec talked about the need to make changes at the Bolshoi to "make it comparable with other great opera houses in Europe or America. Last season, there was only one new production, and this was 'The Marriage of Figaro.' For such an opera house, it's shameful."
For the immediate future, he plans to add Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," Puccini's "La Boheme" and Verdi's "La Traviata"--all, in another departure from Soviet tradition, to be staged "in the original language."
"Everybody must try to think broadly," he said. For the 1996-97 season, his new productions include Berg's "Wozzeck," Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Strauss' "Elektra," Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges," Stravinsky's "Le Chant du Rossignol" and Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar."
"We play about 15 or 20 operas a year, about 25 performances a month," he said. "We have to work a lot.".
Several of these will be co-produced with other European houses. "Elektra," for instance, will be co-produced with the Frankfurt Opera. "We have some other plans, but the contracts are not signed yet," he said.
"What I tried to bring to the Bolshoi is to play a lot of things, symphonic music as much as possible, and operas, which were not played there. For instance, Italian operas, bel canto operas, 'Lucia,' 'Norma,' a lot of 20th-Century repertory which it didn't play."
Russian audiences won't be reading supertitle translations of the Italian, however. "I think they take away from listening and watching the opera," Feranec said. "Also, I think the foreign language has a kind of magic for the people, and if you try to translate everything, you lose this magic, especially if you really try to make literal translation."
Feranec lives in the Slovak embassy "because it's very difficult to find a place in Moscow. . . . I spend all my time in the Bolshoi Theatre. We have a lot to do."
Feranec's wife and their 3-year-old daughter Veronique live in Bratislava. "Yes, I try to get back there often. Travel life is like Gypsy life, but it's the artist's life. I know I will spend a lot of time in motels with suitcases. But I'll try to bring [my family] to Moscow in January for a month while I prepare 'La Boheme.'
His daughter may be cut out for a musical profession. "She sings. She conducts," he said with a laugh. "If she sees a conductor on TV, she brings out my baton and she conducts."
* Peter Feranec will lead the Bolshoi Symphony in different programs Thursday and Friday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 1990 Tchaikovsky gold-medal winner Boris Berezovsky will be the soloist in different concertos each night. $32 to $45. (800) 300-4345.