The first few years after the Soviet collapse in 1990 were extremely rocky for the Mariinsky Theatre, in part because government subsidies to the arts were slashed, and in part because political enemies tried to sabotage the theater. But Gergiev found a way forward, and today the theater is expanding on all fronts. Its revenue has been swelled by the huge increase in visitors to St. Petersburg - which is much more open to the world than it was during the Soviet era - and by the money generated by its touring companies, which regularly pack auditoriums in the United States, Europe, and Asia. And Gergiev has proved to be something of a master at finding corporate sponsors, a practice that wasn't necessary during Soviet times. The result is a theater - and a city - that is bustling as never before.

Few people who are not politicians, rock stars, or athletic heroes dominate a city's landscape the way Gergiev does in St. Petersburg. His picture is on hundreds of billboards and posters advertising his next performance and the popular annual International Stars of the White Nights Festival, which celebrates the summer season, when St. Petersburg's northern skies stay light all night. Gergiev is using his stature to shepherd the construction of an opera house and a concert hall, as well as renovations to the 220-year-old Mariinsky. They should give St. Petersburg the world-class venue he seeks to stage festivals rivaling those in New York, Salzburg, and Paris. He sees no reason why the success of Manhattan's Lincoln Center cannot be matched in St. Petersburg. In Gergiev's view, St. Petersburg's trove of rare artistic and architectural treasures - including, of course, the mind-boggling collection at the State Hermitage Museum - should make it one of the most visited cities in the world.

"I think there will be several million people a year to add to what today is already a moderately successful tourist city," Gergiev says. "We don't yet compete with Paris or Rome, but we certainly compete with Paris and Rome with our cultural offerings."

He knows St. Petersburg's infrastructure, long neglected by the Soviets, is frayed, and that the choice of quality hotels is somewhat limited, but he finds an energy here, a sense of possibility. That's what keeps him based in St. Petersburg, even though he could earn more money by moving permanently to the Western capitals where his work is in constant demand.

"When you walk here, you immediately feel there was a strong will by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great to build a miraculous city, and one can say it was fulfilled," Gergiev says of the unique metropolis founded on a series of bogs and marshes in the far north some three centuries ago. "It's not one building, it's an ensemble, and they found harmony. You feel the power and the mystery of art behind it. It makes the city a huge attraction. I see so many people in the boats on the canals these days, and everyone is like a child. It makes you happy like a child, which is a fantastic thing that should not be excluded from your life. The city amazes you."