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Sado Opera: ‘The police attacked us at our first big concert in Russia’

Roisin O'Connor

Known for their extravagant and colourful live shows, queer performance band Sado Opera have an incredible story.

The Berlin-based troupe have roots in St Petersburg, Russia and are made up of Colonel, Katya, drummer Icky and bassist Licky.

They made their UK debut performance just last year at The Great Escape festival, and are now hosting a special night at Standon Calling festival (25-28 July) on The Independent's stage.

For them, serious political action and serious fun can – and should – co-exist. Their music is a thrilling mix of disco, boogie and electro-funk, all fused into a high-octane live experience.

Sado Opera (Andrey Kezzyn)

From being rounded up by police in Russia to enlisting Conan O'Brien as a guest band member during a particularly raucous concert in Berlin, they've come a long way – always promoting messages of love and acceptance.

Read a piece by Sado Opera, below, on their journey so far and how they tackle oppression and bigotry in various forms.

Our first big concert was in St Petersburg, in the defunct Stereobar club. Right before entering the club, the police attacked us – apparently, they didn’t like our make-up. Or, maybe they did but were frightened of how it made them feel.

They twisted our hands and dragged us into a cage in the police car. The director of the club, who went outside when he heard the cries and the noise, had to negotiate our release. We thank him for this, and for not being afraid to organise our concerts back then. It was exactly 10 years ago, so this is our #10YearsChallenge.

Why did we decide to start our band? We just decided to do the party, which we lacked in St. Petersburg back then. We wanted to unite like-minded individuals and get visible. And let each other know that we are not alone.

When the Colonel was very young, he wrote an essay about a nut that grew up with the other nuts on a tree but was different from them. By a surprising coincidence, this essay was named the same as the first ever film entirely dedicated to homosexuality: Different from the Others (Anders als die Anderen), filmed in Berlin in 1919. One hundred years ago (this is already a #100yearchallenge) yet the film questions the topics that are still as relevant today.

At first, we called ourselves a punk band. Going on stage with guitars, in stockings and miniskirts and mocking homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and machismo. It was our Russian queercore.

The main theme of our songs and our shows is the love and beauty of people in all their diversity. We believe that the borders between countries and the division of people by them have lost their relevance. We sincerely believe that it is important to remember that we are united as humans and that we are all connected.

Despite the fact that the band moved to Berlin in 2014, we have a very active bond with the Russian queer community. We curate regular events and work on giving opportunities for Russian acts to get visible abroad. Our residential clubs Wilde Renate and Ficken3000 help us a lot in this direction and we deeply appreciate all their help and support on that. We believe that it’s an important mission to build bridges between our Russian community and our international community.

We are also doing benefit events and raising money for Russian queer and femme organisations. One of them is a non-governmental inter-regional LGBT rights organisation – the Russian LGBT Network, led by Russian activist Igor Kochetkov. The network was created to rally public support for the elimination of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, to spread the idea of tolerance in Russian society and to help LGBT people lead public lives. They started working in 2006 and develop regional initiatives, advocacy groups (at both national and international levels), and provide social and legal services. Needless to say, this is a very important and brave organisation.

If people are wondering how they can possibly help, the Russian LGBT Network allows people to make donations online. Or just spread the word about them and their activities.

Sado Opera during a live performance (Silvija Valeisaite)

Each and every way of support matters indeed. We talk about this in each of our interviews and are very grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to the work of this organisation and to this topic. During our concerts, we also often announce this right from the stage. After all, those who have heard about what is happening there in Russia are very alarmed and want to help, but often they know very little about such opportunities.

The only thing we can do in these circumstances is to create our own little world using social networks and general networking involving people from all around the world to make sure that more like-minded people are in touch with each other. We believe that it is extremely important to let queer people in Russia or countries with similar political regimes to know that they are not just part of some isolated country, but they are members of the international queer family.

Actually, we are quite impressed that despite all the restrictions and hate and homophobia in the background of everyday life of queer people in Russia, in the past couple of years more and more wonderful things are happening. And we feel ourselves as a part of a big community of many different people working together in the name of love and equality.

Katya and Colonel (Levi T)

You’ve probably heard of the Russian federal law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values. It was introduced in 2013 as federal “gay propaganda” law that effectively prohibits any positive information about “non-traditional sexual relations” from public discussion and basically prohibits any public demonstration of LGBTQ in a positive context. But have you heard of O-zine – the new internet magazine for Russia’s LGBTQ+ youth?

We also want to mention wonderful activists like Lolja Nordic, Bella Rapoport, Boris Konakov and Nika Vodvud to name a few. The biggest misconception is that the "gay propaganda law" is the only problem in Russia. Yet misogyny and sexism are also very big problems in Russian society, as well as violence against women and girls. There’s even a law that decriminalised domestic violence… so there is a lot to talk about and a lot to fight for.

Here is an article we recently made for Kaltblut magazine where we talked with them about the contemporary queer feminist activism in Russia for example.

We also started to throw the evening “pre-party” workshops. We had already two amazing guests: Sasha Kazantseva – a sex blogger from St. Petersburg was presenting a workshop on safer queer sex. And just recently another blogger and artist Nika Vodvud did a lecture where she shared her experience in activism.

We are absolutely sincere: what we do on stage and what we sing in our songs is a reflection of our real life. Often, what shocks people in one culture seems to be the absolute norm in another. Sexual energy and the freedom of sexuality are very important to us.

Usually we have 4-5 people on stage. There are other people who do not go on stage with us, but we still consider them to be full on members of the group. The more we travel with performances, the more siblings and lovers we around the world. This is our SADO-family.

Conan O’Brien is one of the most famous people in the world with whom we were fortunate enough to perform on stage, and we were on his TV show. But for us it was way more important that he turned out to be is also a very kind person. We were selected for his special TV show about the German capital, because we are extravagant, preaching love and are residents of one of the most iconic clubs in Berlin – Wilde Renate.

We surprised him with our sexuality, and he surprised us by joining us on stage and transforming fully into a SADO OPERA band member. While Conan and the Colonel were singing our song “Kissing The Gay Guy” together, in front of the packed room and those giant American television cameras, they managed to get very, very close.

'We surprised Conan O'Brien with our sexuality, and he surprised us by joining us on stage and transforming fully into a SADO OPERA band member' (Andrey Kezzyn)

We are open for collaborations and are always excited about meeting new colleagues. Often some of them become members of the family. And we believe in the power of a chosen family a lot. We made a collaborative project recently – a music video for our track "Patriarchs".

We made an open call on our Instagram and found lots of really amazing artists thanks to that. The video is a ‘stronger together’ collaboration with feminist and pro-feminist activist artists that takes in stop-frame animation, bold CGI, plasticine and zines. The production duo Klingi developed “the idea of art as protest and action, and the desire to change the narrative of reality. Therefore, unfriendly objects and sculptures representing the older patriarchal presence in the clip are transformed into new contemporary art installations”.

By the way, if someone who is reading this now wishes to collaborate with us – drop us a line, we’d love to talk.

Sado Opera perform at Standon Calling on 27 July