ST. PETERSBURG — A scant 15 minutes remain before curtain time on “Parsifal” at the Mariinsky Theatre here and Valery Gergiev, the Herbert von Karajan of Russia, is still running the orchestra through rehearsals.

Outside, the foyer is packed. But Gergiev, notorious for keeping audiences waiting, hasn’t gotten what he wants.

With the dramatic hand movements that are his signature, the maestro draws the orchestra to attention and waves the musicians on, the lush music of Wagner’s opera filling the gilt hall, empty but for a handful of journalists and staff.

“I wanted to get the musicians deeper into the spirit of ‘Parsifal,'” he explains about an hour later, sipping tea in his office backstage during intermission. “There are certain parts in this score that one has to work hard to find.”

Gergiev, 51, is the absolute master of his house, wielding the power, rare in the world of administrative protocol, over all business and artistic matters at the Mariinsky.

That control has earned him the reputation of opera’s last great autocrat, especially after Riccardo Muti, another reputed control freak, resigned in a huff from Milan’s La Scala.

“I don’t think I’m very autocratic,” counters Gergiev, a regal tapestry hanging from the wall behind him. “But I can be very determined.”

Gergiev is a force in his homeland, one of post-Soviet Russia’s biggest artistic stars and in demand by orchestras and opera companies around the world.

This July, for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra appointed him as its new director, effective January 2007, the latest addition to the schedule of a man who has been known to conduct seven operas in a week, a pace almost unheard of.

Meanwhile, rumors are floating he also wants to take control of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. But Gergiev insists he remains devoted to the Mariinsky, which he helped to revive after the Soviet collapse.

“I’m interested in what’s good for both of these companies,” he says.

Despite his hectic timetable, Gergiev is engaging, impressive and friendly. And he loves to talk about the White Nights Festival he founded in 1993, the extravaganza that every summer makes St. Petersburg an international cultural destination. “We’ve made it into one of the symbols of this city,” he says. “We try to push tastes.”

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Gerard Mortier, the director of the Paris Opera, who came to hear Gergiev in several White Nights Festival performances, says, “He’s amazingly charismatic. It’s amazing, because he can bring everyone in the world to St. Petersburg to hear his orchestra.”

Gergiev’s latest goal is to make the theater a refuge for young people. “Young people have this feeling that they are part of building something up,” says Gergiev. “People join the Mariinsky with one hope: that they will belong to something.”

Gergiev also wants to increase the Mariinsky’s prestige, acting as the guiding force behind plans to build a new concert hall with state-of-the-art acoustics.

“I would never say that we were the most gifted people,” he says, as the phone rings a third time to inform him the audience is waiting for the second act. “I would say, though, that we are absolutely the hardest working institution in Russia. That’s why we produce so many talented people. There’s something mystical here.”

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