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Blog entries posted during September 2011

Tales from the Costume Shop

Fur hats for "Eugene Onegin" (photo by Robert Millard)

Our costume shop is always full of fascinating things to see and equally fascinating, highly skilled artisans. Here’s a great interview with one of them, Hallie Dufresne, our Senior Craftsperson, who has created fur hats for Eugene Onegin, baroque confections for Prince Poppycock, and more masks for the Ring cycle than anyone could possibly have imagined. Click here to read it.


An Insider’s Guide to the Costume Sale

Do the clothes really “make” the man or does the man make the clothes? We literally made these costumes in the LA Opera costume shop, and now we are giving you the chance to let them “make” you.*

With Halloween fast approaching, you may be in the market for a unique costume. Why not make yours a one-of-a-kind handcrafted piece from the LA Opera costume sale ? We will have many different pieces ranging from whole costumes and accessories to shoes, wigs, masks, and more.

In fact, you might like yours so much, why not just make it a general “holiday costume”? Make holiday parties extra special for your family and friends this season and really give them something to talk about when you arrive dressed like you stepped out of the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. You may even choose to make it a year-round costume. Maybe your idea of “casual Fridays” means an entire outfit from Turandot rather than just plain old khakis. We will have a variety of pieces ranging from the modern to the fantastical. It could be the perfect way to add a little “pomp and circumstance” to your everyday life.

Come turn heads and be a part of LA Opera history!

Sale will be held Sunday, October 9, from 11am to 4pm or until we sell out.

* Note: costumes do not affect your ability to sing. It may be best to leave the arias and the drama to the professionals.


Raves for Così fan tutte

There are only three more chances to see one of the most delightful Mozart productions you are ever likely to see! The critics have weighed in on our Così fan tutte , and they loved what they saw and heard (click on the links to access the full reviews).

“Sexy, red-blooded…something special. The young cast of this Così is cause for celebration.” ( LA Times , Mark Swed)

“This Così fan tutte is vocal dynamite… The orchestra delivered a world class Mozart performance… great singing, superb musicianship, and first-class comedic acting chops.” ( Out West Arts , Brian Holt)

“Smart, elegant and cohesive; all the components are top quality… James Conlon’s conducting is par excellence. Nothing can top this Così fan tutte . A ‘must see.’” ( ConcertoNet , Christie Grimstad)

“Fantastically entertaining… we are hard-pressed to imagine a more perfect apotheosis of Mozart’s exuberantly cynical opera… If you’re at all inclined to go see Così fan tutte—anywhere, ever—this is the one not to miss.” ( LAist , Lyle Zimskind)


Costume Shop Sale!

On Sunday, October 9, just in time for Halloween, LA Opera will clear out its overstuffed costume racks with its second ever costume sale: “Revenge of the LA Opera Costume Shop Sale!” Trick-or-treating connoisseurs looking to stand out in a crowd of Snookis, Charlie Sheens and Captain Americas will have the opportunity to snag one-of-a-kind items that have been seen on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Prices range from $20 for individual accessories including masks, wigs, military items, plumed hats, belts and shoes, to $300 for complete costumes.

The sale will take place in the Costume Shop’s parking lot, 330 South Alameda Street, Los Angeles CA 90013. Street parking is available, and there will be secured pay parking in the Little Tokyo Galleria parking structure, directly across the street from the sale at 333 South Alameda.

The gates will open to the general public at 11am. Customers who have bought tickets to LA Opera’s November production of Roméo et Juliette can show their tickets at the gate for early entry beginning at 10am; each ticket shown will admit one person. The sale will continue until 4pm or until the stock is sold out (whichever comes first). Cash or credit cards will be accepted.




Food stands are back!

Coming to Eugene Onegin or Così fan tutte? Come hungry! We’ve teamed up with the Patina Restaurant Group to present a new outdoor dining option at the southeast corner of the Music Center Plaza (inspired by the huge success of our Ring cycle beer garden).

For Eugene Onegin, enjoy Russian-inspired grilled beef “shaslyk” skewers with Anaheim chili and sweet onion relish. For the set-in-Naples Così fan tutte, you can savor grilled Italian sausage, olive salad and a roasted garlic asiago roll. There will be an assortment of beverages available for purchase as well.

You can even beat the crowds by pre-ordering before the show for intermission dining. Food stands will be available for every performance except the Saturday, September 24 performance of Così.


Open House on November 5

Help us celebrate LA Opera’s 25th anniversary at an Open House from 9:30am to 5pm on Saturday, November 5. We’ve planned a day-long series of fun, free activities  to showcase the fascinating world of opera, taking place in every part of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Events include Young Artist concerts jointly conducted by Placido Domingo and James Conlon, family operas created with younger folks in mind, backstage tours, screenings, and up-close looks at scenery, props and costumes. All ages are welcome! All events are offered free of charge, although selected events will require a ticket for entry due to limited availability. Advance tickets to the two concerts, the family program Sing Out Loud, and to the backstage tours are available now and can be reserved online by clicking here or by phone at (213) 972-8001. (There will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household.)

Scheduled Open House events include:

Art Workshops for Children
9:30am to 2:45pm, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall, Hope Street side
Two different hands-on art workshops will be offered throughout the day to children ages 4 to 10. Using opera as inspiration, children can make their own opera-themed finger puppets or decorate a postcard to send to a loved one.

 

The Prospector
10am and 3pm, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall
Two performances of the 30-minute children’s opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks, inspired by Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West. The opera is geared toward children aged 4 to 10 and their families.

 

Scenic and Costume Presentations
10:30am and 3:30pm, 3rd Floor Lobby
Get a 20-minute, up-close look at the elaborate costumes and scenic elements that transform the stage into a magical world.

 

Young Artist Concerts Conducted by Plácido Domingo and James Conlon11am and 12:45pm, Main Auditorium, ticket required
Conductors Plácido Domingo and James Conlon share the podium for two concerts with the LA Opera Orchestra, featuring soloists from the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program in excerpts from favorite operas. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to anticipated demand, advance passes (free) should be reserved to insure admission into the auditorium. There will be a live simulcast in the downstairs Green Room for overflow audiences.

 

Post-Concert Q&A
11:45am and 1:30pm, Main Auditorium, packaged with Young Artist Concert ticket
What is it like to perform in the world’s great opera houses? Find out in two post-concert roundtable discussions with Plácido Domingo and James Conlon.

 

Sing Out Loud
11:45am and 1:30pm, Founders Room, ticket required
Sing Out Loud is a 30-minute, interactive introduction to opera for children and their families, featuring some of opera’s “greatest hits.” The performance is geared toward children aged 4 to 10 and their families. The Founders Room is located on the Hope Street side of the theater, one floor above the main level. Seating is limited; passes (free) should be reserved in advance.

 

Screening: La Damnation de Faust
1:30pm, Downstairs Green Room
LA Opera’s 2003 production of Berlioz’s grand-scaled masterpiece, featuring Paul Groves, Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves, in a one-of-a-kind staging by director Achim Freyer.

 

Meet the Artists
2pm, South Lobby (Grand Avenue side)
Plácido Domingo and James Conlon will be available to autograph programs, CDs and DVDs. Items will be available for purchase in the main lobby’s Opera Shop.

 

Backstage Tours
2pm and 3:30pm, tickets required
Take a closer look at the sets and costumes for Roméo et Juliette with 45-minute guided backstage tours.

 

Screening: La Traviata
4pm, Downstairs Green Room
LA Opera’s 2006 production of Verdi’s beloved tragedy, starring Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón, in a sumptuous production by Marta Domingo.

 

Scenery and Prop Display
All day, 3rd Floor Lobby (Grand Avenue side)
See how a designer’s vision makes it to the stage through set models, designers’ renderings and photos.

 

Costume and Wig Displays
All day, 3rd Floor Lobby (Hope Street side)
Regular clothes may make the man, but highly detailed costumes and wigs help singers make magic. Some of our best will be on display throughout the day.

 

LA Opera History Project
All day, 4th Floor Lobby
Share your LA Opera story. What was your first opera? Who are your favorite performers? Your reminiscences will be filmed as part of the permanent history of LA Opera.

 

Welcome Booths
All day, Main Lobby
Hosted by the Opera League of Los Angeles and Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera

 



Another Opening, Another Show

The curtain has risen on the 2011/12 with a fantastic performance of Eugene Onegin. How about some Mozart to keep the celebration going? Cosi fan tutte opens tomorrow at 2pm. If you can’t be here with us in the theater, join us at home by listening to our live radio broadcast at KUSC 91.5 fm (or online at www.kusc.org).


We’re number one!

With our season opening this weekend, we’re #1 on the “Los Angeles Downtown News” list of top five things to do this weekend. Click here for your weekend entertainment to-do list.


Ten Questions for Aleksandra Kurzak

When our Fiordiligi, Aleksandra Kurzak, took on the Out West Arts questionnaire, we found out that she was destined from birth to be an opera singer. Click here to find out why.

Photo by Andrzej Swietlik




Joy for “Gioia!”

 

There’s a terrific review at Parterre Box for soprano Aleksandra Kurzak’s solo CD debut. (She’s our Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte.)

 

“By any measure, this disc is a feast of great singing…a triumphant offering from an artist whom I believe to be most important vocal discovery of the past five years.” Click here to read the full review.



Meet Alexander Prior

Alexander Prior has been commissioned to compose LA Opera’s new opera for families, Jonah and the Whale, which will have its world premiere  in March 2012 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, conducted by James Conlon. The fast-rising, London-based composer/conductor has had a number of high-profile engagements with major orchestras and ensembles around the world in recent season. You can check out excerpts from a number of his works at his website: www.alexprior.co.uk.

“It is such a privilege to be collaborating with one of the world’s great opera companies and one of the world’s most inspirational and outstanding conductors on Jonah and the Whale,” says Mr. Prior. “When Maestro Conlon initially approached me with his idea, it spoke to me directly and immediately. I have long had the idea of an all-encompassing opera like this in the back of my head, and now I have a most amazing opportunity to fulfill it. I am really enjoying my collaboration with librettist Velina Hasu Houston as we create a way to involve everyone present at the performance, drawing them into the music and hopefully touching their hearts. I hope that this will offer a wonderful opportunity for people from all walks of life to experience opera and I’m so happy to share my music with the people of Los Angeles. One of the major themes of this opera is the great power of love, both from God and between humans, and how it can overcome great obstacles and distances to reunite. It is my hope that this just might become a work that will come to mean something special to children, and to those of all ages and backgrounds, for many years to come.”

A remarkable young talent, Mr. Prior was born in London in 1992 of English and Russian parentage. (Interesting trivia: he is the great-grandson of renowned theater director and reformer Konstantin Stanislavski.) He graduated with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition and conducting. He was a prize winner in the 2008 International Prokofiev Composers Competition during which his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, Northern Dances, was performed by the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of St. Petersburg.

Other performances of his works include his opera-ballet The Jungle Book at the Kremlin in Moscow, his Quadruple Concerto with the Northern Sinfonia and Royal Philharmonic, the symphonic poem Stalin’s March by the City of London Sinfonia, The Prince’s Feast by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, conducted by the composer, and Svyatogor’s Quest by the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio at London’s Wigmore Hall. In 2008, following successful performances in St. Petersburg, the Rossica Choir toured the UK with performances of his choral cycle Sounds of the Homeland and parts of his All Night Vigil. The St. Petersburg Concert Society commissioned his choral symphony based on Gogol’s Diaries of a Madman, which was premiered in the Smolniy Cathedral in 2009, with the composer conducting the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra.

Most recently, in August 2011, he conducted the world premiere of his Triple Concerto, entitled That which must forever remain unspoken, with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. In April 2012, he will conduct the world premiere of his 6th Symphony with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by the Fluor Corporation.

In his career as a conductor, Mr. Prior has performed with the Royal Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra (U.K.), Northern Sinfonia and St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony. Conducting engagements for the 2011/12 season include performances with the German Chamber Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Royal Danish Opera Orchestra and Helsingborg Symphony.

“I feel that Alexander Prior, an extremely gifted and prodigious young composer, is the right person to realize this project,” says James Conlon, who will conduct the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale. “His collaboration with one of Los Angeles’ most talented writers, Velina Hasu Houston, should prove rewarding for all of us who are devoted to bringing the classical arts closer to everyone in greater Los Angeles.”


LA Opera Commissions “Jonah and the Whale”

Alexander Prior, the composer of "Jonah and the Whale"

LA Opera has had enormous success with its annual productions at the Cathedral  of Our Lady of the Angels, bringing together Angelenos of all ages for community performances of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and The Festival Play of Daniel. This spring, we’ll offering something completely new, the world premiere of a delightful work commissioned by LA Opera, Jonah and the Whale, by composer Alexander Prior and librettist Velina Hasu Houston. Conducted by LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director, James Conlon, Jonah and the Whale will be performed at the Cathedral on March 16 and 17, 2012. The production will be directed by Eli Villanueva. Tickets to Jonah and the Whale will be free to the public and will become available at the beginning of the year.

Alexander Prior was born in London in 1992 of English and Russian parentage. The fast-rising composer/conductor recently conducted the world premiere of his Triple Concerto, entitled That which must forever remain unspoken, with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, and he will conduct the world premiere of his 6th Symphony with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in April 2012. He graduated with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition and conducting. “One of the major themes of this opera is the great power of love, both from God and between humans, and how it can overcome great obstacles and distances to reunite,” said Mr. Prior. “It is my hope that this just might become a work that will come to mean something special to children, and to those of all ages and backgrounds, for many years to come.”

Librettist Velina Hasu Houston is an internationally acclaimed, Los Angeles-based playwright of over 20 plays as well as a published poet and essayist, and screenwriter.

Click here for the full announcement.

For more information on the composer and librettist, please visit www.alexprior.co.uk or www.velinahasuhouston.com.


Love and its Discontents

By Basil De Pinto

Of the three operas which Mozart made from librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte has always been the most problematic. It has neither the sheer musical grandeur of Don Giovanni nor the expansive humanity of The Marriage of Figaro. It shares their comic element — it alone is called an opera buffa — but until recently it has not rated highly in audience appreciation. Happily that has changed, and in our day not only music critics but the public at large have taken it to their hearts. And rightly so.

What bothered people in the past? Certainly not the music, which is typical of the fully mature Mozart. By the time Così appeared in 1790, the composer had finished his last three masterful symphonies and quantities of chamber music and concert arias. He was at the height of his powers with, among other masterpieces, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito and the Requiem still to come. But the libretto of Così aroused a good deal of Victorian prudery; infidelity in love and partner swapping raised self-righteous hackles in 19th century society. In our time, the title itself (translatable as “women are all alike”) sent out feminist alarums with the suggestion of the intrinsic flightiness of female emotion. Of course we can counter that with abundant evidence of the wanderlust of the male of the species.

Then there is the question of the theatrical form: can such matters be adequately treated by an opera buffa? We know well enough that descriptive tags in Mozart can be deceptive. Don Giovanni’s “dramma giocoso” tries to have it both ways; Figaro is just “an opera in four acts,” although it was well known that its source was Beaumarchais’ comedy of the same name. But in both cases there are serious undertones that do not merely supplement the comic aspects but are woven intrinsically into them. So in Così: the genre is plainly comedy, with a basically amusing plot and many hilarious moments. Add to that elements like Fiordiligi’s almost camp parody of opera seria in “Come scoglio” and there is no doubt that we are firmly planted in the Shakespearean world of “What fools these mortals be.”

But the real point of the story lies elsewhere. The central tenet of the opera is the need to discard illusion and embrace the reality of human weakness — not to extol it but to live with it courageously. When the opera begins, the two sets of lovers are absolutely convinced that nothing could mar the purity of devotion that unites them. Don Alfonso claims to think otherwise and challenges Ferrando and Guglielmo to test the claim of total fidelity. To prove that their ladies cannot be unfaithful, the two lovers engage in the nasty plot devised by Alfonso and Despina, and Fiordiligi and Dorabella eventually fall, if ever so briefly, into the trap laid for them.

So there is a purposeful ambiguity that founds and sustains the flow of events and the actions of the characters. The two men say that they believe in the firm commitment of their ladies, but they still agree to put them to the test. Are they as sure as they claim to be or is there a hidden uncertainty they cannot admit? We have to be alert not only to what is going on, but to what is suggested, what is concealed behind what is revealed. The initial wager is an apparently cynical claim by Alfonso that all women are easily misled, emotionally undependable. The two young men make no ideological disclaimers, they just insist that such a statement could never be true of the women they love. Already we may suspect that neither party to the claim is fully devoid of illusion: both Alfonso’s broad generalization and the indignant reply of the lovers are open to question. Basic knowledge of human nature would incline the listener to say, wait a minute — how about some balance here.

But that would stop the opera before it has hardly begun. Illusion has to be nourished on all sides, and cynicism must have its say. The outcome is so wonderful because both sides in the dispute will have to play out their designs, there will be dissatisfaction and disappointment all round, and the conclusion will refuse to tie up the whole thing in a neat package, but will force the recognition that reality is always the only if not the best thing we have.

This is quite a bit to chew on but it is not enough; it only touches the surface of the opera. The only way to plumb its depths is to immerse ourselves in Mozart’s scintillating and highly expressive music, which is the living soul of Così. The music is able to act as a hidden commentator on the action. When the surface shows a comic face, the music often tells us that something else is going on. An apparent calm may well disguise turmoil underneath. For Mozart has not simply alternated cleverness and frolicking with hidden gravity, but actually reveals two things at once, through both the voices and the orchestra.

Take the Act 1 quintet for the lovers and Alfonso, “Di scrivermi ogni giorno,” (Swear you’ll write me every day). The two couples about to part sing in meltingly lyric tones; the melody pulsates with romantic ardor as the singers attest to the unbreakable bond that unites them. This is music of deeply felt passion and it is easy to be swept up in its sweet sorrow. But along with it we hear Alfonso’s aside, “Io crepo se non rido” (we’d say, “I’m cracking up here”). He knows that the whole thing is a ruse of his invention. The orchestra betrays his self-satisfied cackle with short, tripping notes that contrast with the suave, lilting flow of the lovers’ music.

Mozart also knows how to provide contrast between the purely comic scenes and moments of contemplative calm. As the engine of the plot is accelerating and the two men are warming to their task, Ferrando pauses to sing “Un aura amorosa” (The breath of love will feed our souls), surely one of the composer’s most meltingly lyric tenor arias, rivaling if it does not surpass, the tenderness of Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Tamino’s portrait aria.

There is considerable contrast, too, between Fiordiligi’s high flown “Come scoglio” and her second act “Per pietà” in which she acknowledges her infidelity. Again there are big jumps from high to low, suggesting that the same basic character is in play, but the whole tone of the aria is one of a more gentle and placid frame of mind, an attempt to approach honest self-recognition.

To return to the central puzzle of the plot: will the ladies stand firm in their commitment to their lovers or will they be seduced by the disguise the men have put on to test them?

Ferrando and Guglielmo twice play on the soft hearts of Fiordiligi and Dorabella, claiming that they are so smitten with love that they are going to die if they are rejected. In the first act, poison (and a fake cure by the wily Despina) is the ploy, and in the second act the men need nothing more than the power of their amorous persuasion. Things begin to move very fast towards the end, so that the bounds of credibility are somewhat strained. First a phony marriage contract signed by the women; the return of Ferrando and Guglielmo sans disguises; horror of both couples at the breach of faith; and a hasty reconciliation followed by general rejoicing.

To tell the truth, the music at this point may be more of a hindrance than a help. As in any Mozart finale, the score is brilliant, sparkling and makes a total claim on the attention. But we have to ask, how do the couples finally pair off, as it was in the beginning or are they newly conformed? There seems to be no definitive answer. What’s really important is declared by Alfonso in his final words: I deceived you so that you would be undeceived, so that you will be “più saggi ormai” — wiser in the future. Wisdom, therefore, is the goal towards which the whole action of the opera is aimed.

This is a focal point in much of Mozart’s work for the stage. In that sublime moment at the end of Figaro when the Countess bends down to her faithless husband and pronounces her words of forgiveness, what do we see but an overflowing wisdom that comes from a truly magnanimous heart. The Magic Flute as a whole, but especially in Sarastro’s two great arias, is an expression of the search for the truth and goodness that constitute the highest human wisdom. In Così, the conventions of opera buffa veil but never obscure the central contention of the work, that illusion is the enemy of true happiness, and that love is worthless unless grounded in reality.

For all the fun there is to be enjoyed in this opera, we are never far from pain. The men, in tricking their loved ones, know that if they are successful, they face irreparable loss. The women, battling the lower angels of their nature, struggle with forces they know can overcome them. But the end of this struggle is the beginning of wisdom. What the couples want is total love, complete fidelity; they have to face the reality of human beings who cannot give them exactly what they want. Will the men collapse in despair, will the women die of shame — or will they listen to Despina who says at one point: “Così fan tutti” — men are just the same. Don’t look for a romantic ideal that doesn’t exist; everybody bears the same burden. We have to carry the load with and for one another.

Once again the famous question: do the couples rejoin their original partners or not? If we are all alike, what would be the point of switching partners? This is not to suggest a cold, calculating resignation, but a mature willingness to face our common weakness and support one another with love, the true love all concerned were looking for in the first place. Maturity comes from wisdom, which recognizes the basic flaws in our human makeup and the struggle we must constantly maintain to live with it.

The music of the finale crowns these sentiments without, even at the end, making definitive declarations — a good idea considering what has happened and the people involved. The women swear in the sweetest of tones to be faithful and the men promise vigorously not to test them again. And everybody joins in the concluding peroration: always look at the bright side of things and, in the sturdy tones of Enlightenment philosophy, let reason be your guide. The result, bella pace (lovely peace) will be your reward. The music for these words manages to convey both suavity and fierceness together, and the inevitably bright allegro brings things to a close.

Both Mozart and Da Ponte are supreme realists. They have clothed their vision of life and of human behavior in the bright colors of comedy. They know that to be at play, like the characters in this opera, is a deep human need and also a great achievement. After them came the flood of 19th-century romanticism, another high-water mark in the annals of art, but of another stripe; Beethoven and Wagner could never be called playful. They also dealt with love and its discontents, but in a very different way.

Mozart’s genius was his power to look at the serious, even tragic aspects of life and clothe them in the raiment of joy. If, as Auden says, “In the real world…no love is totally innocent,” Mozart’s reply is: even so, it is redeemed by sincere good will and the honesty of self-renewal. There is no ideal solution, only the joyful, peace-filled embrace of the real.

Basil De Pinto has written for the opera companies of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.


The Dark Side of the Age of Reason

By James Kincaid

Twist it how you will, Così fan tutte is a squirm-inducing opera. It’s been suggested that one is best served by blocking out the lyrics, blinding oneself to the supertitles. Short of that, we seem to be faced with a bitter fable that asks us to regard as comically satisfying a set of humiliations and betrayals,  set up to illustrate the universal truth that women are faithless and stupid.

So challenging is Così fan tutte [Women Are Like That] that, after some initial success, it all but disappeared from opera houses for 200 years. American opera houses were the most resistant, avoiding this collaboration of Mozart and Da Ponte until 1927. Mozart’s first biographer, Niemetschek, called it “a trashy text.” Later composers were even harsher: Beethoven called it “immoral” and Wagner dismissed it as “unworthy.”

How do we understand such fury? One way is to mount our usual high horse: those Romantics and Victorians were unable to understand the opera as we do. Claiming to be more sophisticated and insightful than a whole century is a dangerous game to play, but it may be a game worth playing, for all that. The 19th century was not very well attuned to comedy of any sort, much less the worldly, pragmatic comedy that Così fan tutte sets out. Reacting as the century did to the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment, they pressed idealistic figurings of human capacity as far as they could be stretched. An opera which ridicules such idealism could not sit well with an age so hell-bent on perfection, and this opera may be more attractive to us battered 21st-century sorts when it is urging us to take the world as we find it, live in it, fluff up our own pillows and make others comfortable too.

This atmosphere of easy tolerance can be emphasized in some productions, especially if Don Alfonso is made more avuncular and whimsical than cynical when he pointedly swears not “by heaven” but “by earth.” It is “earth” which rules here in Così, a warm ac-ceptance of things and a willingness not to calculate too closely others’ wrongs. In that vein, it makes us think of golden comedies of accommodation, of Shakespeare’s romances, of Groucho and Mae West. It’s not a small thing when such glorious music allows us to laugh at our limitations, flightiness, and deep frailty.

Yes, but the flightiness, frailty, the ready capacity to betray, the mindless selfishness we may possibly be cajoled into welcoming into our hearts is, in Così, pretty much confined to women. “Tutte” is feminine, after all, and to be “like that” means, apparently, to be capable to vowing eternal love to one person in the morning and to another in the after-noon.

How do we escape the feeling that we are wallowing in the darkest side of the Enlightenment, that Age of Reason which almost always denied that faculty to women? This dark misogyny amounted sometimes almost to sadism, as in the fierce comments of Diderot and Voltaire and the milder but no less certain ones of Thomas Jefferson and, memorably, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote “When women cease to be handsome they study to be good.” As Così concludes, the women are unmasked, humiliated and left to pick up what crumbs they can.

And what is left at the end? We may not even know who marries whom. It is here, in this strangely poised, open ending that we may find a way out of our dilemma, explain to ourselves the great pleasure we have experienced in Così fan tutte. After all, the men have been instigators in the betrayal and have found it as easy as the women to change partners. Does it, then, matter if the final couplings are the original ones or the alliances that spring up (and seem somewhat deeper) with “the Albanians”? Recent productions have made different choices about the marriage pairings, and some have been content to have all four young people laughingly part with no hard feelings, but also no commitments, no marriages, no idealistic pledges to feel tomorrow what we think we feel today.

That may be cynical or it may be liberating: Così fan all of us.

James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.


James Conlon: Lessons from the School for Lovers

Errare humanum est… (To err is human)

“Così fan tutte le belle…non c’e alcuna novita” (That is the way all the beautiful women do it, there is nothing new), exclaims Don Basilio, when he discovers the apparently unfaithful Susanna alone in her room with the young page Cherubino, in the first act of The Marriage of Figaro. 

It is pointless to ask who is the best composer, or painter or sculptor. There is no “top ten” in art. At best we can imagine an arc at the highest levels of accomplishment rather than the point of a pyramid. But were I forced to choose one composer above the rest, it would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). There is none better. Beyond the perfection of his music, there is an intangible, mysterious cosmic dimension. He intuited laws of the universe and human nature. His operas portray humanity in all its foibles. He wrote with an understanding of the human heart that defies explanation as and transcends the age in which he lived.

Mozart’s collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte (born in Vittorio Veneto in 1749; died and buried in New York City in 1838) produced three Italian operas which are, in order of their composition: The Marriage of Figaro, 1786 (drawn from a French five-act play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais); Don Giovanni, 1787 (based on multiple sources of the Don Juan myth); and finally Così fan tutte, 1790, whose sources are diverse and ambiguous. Together, these three operas bring to life the battle of the sexes more vividly than any comparable set of works.

Among its many virtues, the trilogy contains sharp satiric elements. Satire is “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own…” wrote Jonathan Swift. I wonder if the same can be said for the creators of those satires. Does Mozart see himself in this imbroglio? Or is it possible to infer a moral standpoint from which Mozart structured his works? Can we say what were his beliefs, his politics or his value system? Can one deduce any of this from the many personalities in his operas? It is no more possible to do that anymore than it is to derive a personality profile of Shakespeare, the man, from his works. Knowing the person behind the art is interesting, but not relevant when we experience the work.

Although each of these Da Ponte operas is a universe unto itself, the three are interconnected. In Figaro and Giovanni, the men fare poorly, the women much better. That balance is redressed in Così. Subtitled La scuola degli amanti, “The School of (for) Lovers,” it is a rich (and serious) comedy which questions women’s fidelity, after the male bashing in the two previous operas.

What does the title—which defies easy translation—signify? Così (thus); fan, the poetic form for fanno (they do); tutte, the feminine plural (all women). What do they do? It. What is it? We shall see. (Please note that the last letter makes more than an iota of difference: it means ALL WOMEN. The masculine and collective plural is tutti, which would mean “all men” or “all men and women.”)

Do the women in Così look as bad as the men in Figaro and Don Giovanni? If one were to survey opera enthusiasts’ opinions of each character, there would be as many perspectives as respondents. Passionate and contentious opinions would emerge as each character—Figaro, Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, the Countess, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, Fiordiligi and Dorabella—could serve as a Rorschach test for opera lovers everywhere.

In Figaro, the men show themselves to be self-centered. The Count is arrogant, petulant, jealous and manipulative, all in the service of maintaining le droit de seigneur (a nobleman’s presumed “right” to spend the wedding night with any bride in his dominion). Figaro, despite his celebrated shrewd mind, lags behind the curve of events. They both are out-smarted by their virtuous women. The young Cherubino, charming as he might be, is nothing more than a Count in training. Don Basilio, a corrupt intriguant and Don Bartolo, pompous and vengeful, fill out this masculine rogue’s gallery. The Countess is the most evolved figure. In her act of forgiveness, she elevates the comedy to the sublime. Susanna, representing the servant class, is a dynamo, loyal to both the Countess and to her fiancé Figaro, even when his behavior doesn’t merit respect.

Don Giovanni’s misdeeds are fathomless, epic. They require divine intervention, and he is suitably sent to eternal damnation. The story of this mythical character continues the critique of the male. The other men—Don Ottavio, Masetto and Leporello—are weak or victimized. None is heroic or a positive male image. The women, far more complex, are portrayed in a more favorable light. Donna Elvira is the most evolved, showing a capacity for love, sensuous and passionate, fiery and strong, and ultimately capable of forgiveness and devotion.

What will we learn in Così’s School for Lovers from its professor, Don Alfonso? We learn that women, too, are unfaithful. Or is there more to the story? By hatching an intricate plan to prove to the young men that their fiancées are imperfect, does Alfonso open a Pandora’s Box? Or does he merely lay bare a reality, allowing the four young lovers to marry with a levelheaded understanding of human nature? Are the women as culpable as Giovanni or the Count? Are the men wholly innocent victims of a scheming mentor and their women’s flightiness? Is Così a complete departure from the earlier operas in turning the tables on the women?

No. In deceiving their fiancées, the young men, masquerading as exotic visitors, are duplicitous. When they realize that they are in competition with each other to prove their seductive prowess, the boys redouble their efforts. Is Don Alfonso motivated by generosity or cynicism? Does he revel in destroying their illusions? Is he an avuncular therapist, positive and practical disciple of Swift’s aphorism: “Blessed is he who expects nothing… for he shall never be disappointed”?

In the epilogue, the moral is drawn: “Happy is the man who looks on the bright side of things, and lets himself be guided by reason. That which makes others weep, will make him laugh, and amidst the terrestrial whirlwinds, he will find a beautiful calm.”

In the end, don’t the women do what Mozart’s men have been doing all along? Why shouldn’t they, asks Despina, the sisters’ servant and Don Alfonso’s accomplice. Dorabella, the more lighthearted and sensuous sister, gives in to this erotic adventure more readily. But is she any less loveable than Cherubino? Fiordiligi, far more serious and passionate, resists longer and suffers before she surrenders to her new feelings. She has emotional depth, like the Countess and Donna Elvira. Is Despina, in encouraging the sisters to carpe diem, any different from Leporello, who helps his master’s conquests for the price of a daily meal? What about Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter in Figaro, who, at a tender age, has already learned to use her feminine charms to obtain what she wants from the Count? And Zerlina, who sets a speed record in falling for Don Giovanni on the morning of her wedding?

The list of could go on. Neither the men nor the women are completely innocent in any of these operas. Mozart eschews moral judgments and presents his characters for our delight and recognition, accepting them all as a part of the universe. Mozart and Da Ponte, like Swift’s looking glass, show the behavior of others, not for condemnation, but for instruction. And we will be wiser when we see ourselves in this marvelous and motley troupe of characters. Mozart, by peering into the microscope, holds up the mirror to us as well.

Mozart envelops each character in his sublime music with acceptance and affection. The rhythmic dynamism, the transcendent harmony and lyricism, the sensuous, evocative voices of the orchestra, the perfectly structured architecture of his music provide equilibrium encircling the characters and their tumultuous emotions. He takes them apart, but then puts them, us—and the universe—back together again.

His music lives in an idealized Enlightenment world, but is equally at home in the real world of human passions and imperfections. The battle of the sexes can never be won, nor can a lasting cease-fire be expected. Vive la différence! It has always been that way; there is nothing new, as Don Basilio told us.

At the end, Don Alfonso says to the boys, and all of us: “Everyone accuses women, but I excuse them, if a thousand times a day they change their love. Some call it a vice and others a habit, but to me it seems a necessity of the heart. The lover who, in the end, finds himself disappointed, should not condemn the error of others, but rather, his very own; Inasmuch as women young and old, beautiful and ugly……”

And, leaving his sentence incomplete and his thoughts to the imagination, he adds: “Repeat with me: Così fan tutte.” Or rather, implies Mozart: “Così fan tuttinon c’e alcuna novita!”

James Conlon, the conductor of Così fan tutti, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.


Salvatore Licitra (1968-2011)

Opera has lost one of its brightest stars, tenor Salvatore Licitra, who died at the age of 43 on September 5 after suffering head and chest injuries in a scooter accident in Sicily on August 27. Los Angeles audiences were fortunate to experience his artistry in three productions. His LA Opera debut came in 2005 as an impassioned Cavaradossi in Tosca (top left), and he returned the following season to sing the title role in Don Carlo (center). His final LA Opera appearance came in 2008 as a powerhouse Luigi in Il Tabarro (right), the dramatic opening chapter of Puccini’s Il Trittico.

“The untimely passing of Salvatore Licitra is a great tragedy for those of us who knew and loved him, and a terrible loss for opera lovers around the world,” said Placido Domingo. “Not only was he was one of today’s finest Italian dramatic tenors—a truly rare breed—he was an absolute joy to work with, a man who never took his enormous gifts for granted. I will treasure the memories of his wonderful performances at LA Opera and elsewhere, with great sadness to have lost such an artist in his prime, and profound sorrow to have lost a treasured friend and colleague.”

After notable early successes in Italy at the Arena di Verona and at La Scala, he had an international breakthrough at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002 when he was flown in on short notice to substitute for Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi, singing not only to a sold-out house expecting to see Pavarotti in what was to have been his farewell operatic performance, but also to some 3,000 people watching a live transmission on the Lincoln Center Plaza. He was instantly welcomed to the major stages of the world as one of the rare tenors who excelled in the dramatic Italian repertoire of Verdi and Puccini. His final operatic performance was as Cavaradossi, in a Ravinia Festival performance of Tosca under the baton of James Conlon.

“It is very difficult to discuss Salvatore Licitra’s untimely death,” said Mr. Conlon. “I met him before his rapid rise to prominence, and I delighted in news of his successes all over the world. He sang with me twice at LA Opera (Don Carlo and Il Tabarro), as well as at the Met, the Cincinnati May Festival and at the Ravinia Festival. It was there that, on July 30, we collaborated in a concert performance of Tosca, together with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was to be his final performance. It is hard to believe that the very young man and friend who stood near me that night, will never perform again. I was always confident that, with his magnificent natural endowment, he would grow into greatness, but his tragic death cruelly prevented him from fulfilling his ultimate potential. His genuine warmth, generosity and capacity for friendship were his trademarks, and for those of us who were close to him, this is a moment of great sadness.”

We will never forget his thrilling performances, his clarion voice and his generous, outgoing personality. He was a delightful colleague, liked by everyone, whom we will miss greatly. Our hearts go out to his family, his loved ones and his many fans around the world.

Click here for more information on the life and career of Salvatore Licitra.

(Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera)


James Conlon: Lyrical Scenes from Pushkin’s Poems

Stripped to its bones, the dynamic energizing 19th-century Italian operatic melodramas can be said to be drawn from one enduring myth: that of Romeo and Juliet, observed Italian writer Massimo Mila. In tragedies and melodramas, a hero and heroine (usually lovers) struggle with rivals or inimical forces that thwart their love until death separates them forever. 

Not so in Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse of the same name. Its protagonists are alive in the end, their love is never fulfilled, and the only villains or forces are those within themselves.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is tragic, whereas Pushkin recounts his story with detached irony. The genius of the novel is in the style of the telling, the triumph of the music is the way in which it stirs emotions. Selecting only the tragic narrative from Pushkin, the composer fulfilled his stated intention: “set to music everything in Onegin that demands music.” Nothing more. He transforms a larger than life portrait of an era into a personal tragedy of failed love.

This fall, LA Opera produces two operas drawn from great literature: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, taken from Pushkin. It seems the right time to return to an enduring question. Must a composer be faithful to the original when setting an important work of literature to music, rendering both spirit and text? Or can the source be used solely as a point of departure for the composer’s muse?

Music and literature are not and cannot be the same thing. Musical notes and words evoke emotions through opposite means. Music, received through the senses, stimulates an emotional response which then can be analyzed in turn by the intellect. The written word, grasped initially by the intellect, can, if so intended, move us. The oft-repeated maxim is “Music starts where words stop.” Attempts to reduce music’s “meaning” to words are futile.

Most composers, while insisting on free adaptation, stay close to the source, altering it to fit their needs and those of their era. For example, most of Europe and Russia only knew Shakespeare through rough and often inaccurate translations and willful “rearrangements.” At worst, there are glaring examples of abuse (Rossini’s Otello has a happy ending). Every opera based on a literary source must reduce words, plot and length.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has endeared itself to a large international public. He called it “lyrical scenes in three acts,” avoiding the word opera. He was profoundly aware that he was setting to music one of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, if not the greatest. Pushkin’s novel defined a new age. Onegin set the standard for, towered over and inspired the future of Russian literature. Tchaikovsky, cognizant he could only select a part of the work, approached his source with humility and reverence. He was criticized for fundamentally changing the nature of the work, diluting its cerebral irony in return for heightened sentiment. His defenders argued that the coherence and inner strength of the opera merits admiration rather than censure. He has, like most composers, followed his muse. He was more successful than most in creating an enduring and compelling work that justifies itself and needs no apology. He has spoken to us through music what Pushkin’s words had spoken to him.

Pushkin’s novel is an all-embracing view of Russian life and society, written with ironic distance from its characters. Cerebral, witty, satiric in turns, he never allows the reader to feel too deeply for its protagonists, nor weep or rejoice with them. The skeptic in him, and in Onegin himself, prevents this.

Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, identifies with his characters, first and foremost Tatiana. Pushkin speaks in the first person through verse as rich in editorial comment as in narrative. Tchaikovsky does not narrate from afar, but empathizes deeply with each of the richly drawn personalities. Tchaikovsky is primarily a Romantic who pours out his own heart through his music. His orchestra is not like Wagner’s, which is an omniscient universe surrounding the drama in time and space. It only “knows” the emotions at the moment they are expressed, singing, yearning and raging with its counterparts on stage.*

Unlike Tchaikovsky, Pushkin is only a Romantic in the sense that he reserves the right to improvise and wander out of the narrative when his fancy dictates. Otherwise, he is a Classicist, to which his disciplined use of form and poetic symmetry attest. For example, he created the Onegin Stanza, a unique rhyming scheme which unifies this extensive work. Tchaikovsky, conversely, was a Classicist when he wanted or needed to be, and his admiration of Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and, above all, Mozart is evident throughout.

Onegin’s character is not one to evoke sympathy. Although he is Pushkin’s invention (and said to be Pushkin himself), he has literary predecessors in Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) Childe Harold and Manfred. Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s erstwhile lover, coined the term “Byronic Hero” to describe characters “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. A critical description of his peculiar type of hero includes:

Arrogant, cunning and able to adapt, cynical, disrespectful of rank and privilege, emotionally conflicted, bipolar, moody, having a distaste for social institutions and norms, intelligent and perceptive, jaded, world weary, mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, seductive and sexually attractive, self critical and introspective, self destructive, socially and sexually dominant, sophisticated and educated, treated as an exile, outsider, outcast or outlaw

This exhaustive list renders any further description of Onegin’s character superfluous. It is he. Clearly Tchaikovsky is attracted to him and his “type,” so much so that shortly after Onegin, he turned his gaze on Manfred, finishing a symphony that bears his name, in 1885.

The composer also identifies with Onegin’s best friend, the young, un-Byronic poet Lensky, betrothed to Olga, Tatiana’s sister. He dies in Act Two, having been shot to death in a duel (a premonition of Pushkin’s own death) by Onegin; not, however, before pouring out his (and Tchaikovsky’s) heart in an aria that has found its place in the pantheon of the tenor repertory. His relationship with his charismatic and fatally self-absorbed friend is complex, beautifully rendered in Pushkin’s words: “wave and stone, verse and prose, ice and flame.” Lensky’s youthful, ardent poetic character appeals deeply to the composer.

But it is Tatiana who has completely won the composer’s heart. He was so attracted to her that, no sooner had he sketched a scenario for the entire work, he immediately wrote the letter scene, in which Tatiana gives voice to her passion for Onegin, in a flash of fevered inspiration as intense as Tatiana herself. So perfect and inspired, this scene could stand by itself, and often does, on the concert stage. The daughter of a “pomeshchik” (landed estate owner), she became the most famous and beloved heroine of Russian literature. She could not express herself in Russian, Pushkin tells us (the famous letter was written in French, the lingua franca of the Russian aristocracy) yet she embodies the Russian soul.

Tatiana derives her heroic status from her metamorphosis. She begins life as shy, modest girl, who loves ardently if not wisely, defies convention by confessing that love in a letter, and resigns herself with dignity when humiliated. She becomes a sophisticated princess of high society, who defends duty and commitment, denying herself the very love she so craved.

So: no hero, no villain, except perhaps half of both in Onegin’s conflicted Byronic character. At the end, neither of the two principal characters dies, nor are they reconciled. Their tragedy is that they must live, albeit a diminished, loveless life. Tatiana renounced her great love when it was finally reciprocated. Onegin killed his best friend and ignored his chance for an authentic, enduring love. The tragedy is that of bad timing, unfortunate choices and missed opportunity. It is the tragedy of the passing of two ships in the night, not once, but twice.

*Note: By his own admission, Tchaikovsky was most comfortable writing abstract, instrumental music, in which there was neither an obligation to the word nor constraint to the extravagant emotional content of his music. His fourth symphony, a kindred spirit, was written virtually contemporaneously with Eugene Onegin. It shares the famous “fatum” or destiny motif.

James Conlon, the conductor of Eugene Onegin, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.


Pas de Deux: Tchaikovsky Interprets Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

By Leann Davis Alspaugh

It was just another Moscow dinner party. Madame Lavronsky’s dull husband was talking his usual nonsense. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was about to give up the evening as a total loss when the guests began to talk about suitable subjects for opera. What about Eugene Onegin, the gracious hostess suggested. Tchaikovsky said nothing—who would be bold enough to take on Russia’s greatest work of literature and translate it for the opera stage? 

“Then when I supped alone in a tavern, I remembered Onegin,” he wrote to his brother in 1877. “Then it gripped me, and before I had finished my meal, I came to a decision. I hurried off at once to find a Pushkin, found one with some difficulty, went home and read it with enthusiasm, and spent an entirely sleepless night, the result of which was the scenario of an enchanting opera on Pushkin’s text.”

Tchaikovsky delighted in Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel about Tatiana the dreamy country girl, Lensky the fatal romantic, and Onegin the heartless dandy. What drew his enthusiasm was probably not the story, a rather banal tale of unrequited love and passion. Rather, Tchaikovsky was intrigued by the details about everyday life and the way that the author fleshed out his characters. The way Pushkin tells his story is also compelling. He gives it a tone of intimacy as if he were regaling guests at a Russian country estate. Outside, dusk is dimming the lilacs in the allée, and the songs of the peasants are fading over the wheat fields. Inside, the lady of the house bustles around the tea table with its bubbling samovar, caraway cakes and jugs of bilberry wine.

Pushkin deftly evokes these kinds of homey details as well as the porcelain and amber richness of the St. Petersburg ballrooms. But unlike the genre pictures of another great Russian stylist, Turgenev, Pushkin’s world is condensed into sharp focus by the exigencies of poetry. He zooms in on his protagonist’s nasty disposition and his heroine’s fecklessness—“The flirt has reason’s cool volition;/Tatiana’s love is no by-play, she yields to it without condition/like a sweet child.” He uses wit and sarcasm—“one raves in verse like me!”—to keep his tone conversational. The result is a naturalistic portrait not of types, but of real people.

Tchaikovsky wrote that he approached Eugene Onegin warily, humbled by his audacity in tackling this sacrosanct work. Yet, he let his enthusiasm be guided by Pushkin’s example, namely, the poet’s use of tightly controlled structure and telling detail to achieve psychological insight. In the opera, Tchaikovsky aims to achieve something similar by focusing on how two of society’s most mundane activities, letter-writing and dancing, can be used to illuminate character.

 

The Letter
When he came to write the music for Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky began with Tatiana’s passionate love letter to Onegin. In Pushkin’s verse novel, this letter is a bald confession uninflected by any of the usual literary devices. Tatiana’s “careless language of surrender” is a mad gesture—only Onegin’s sense of honor can protect such a free, unaffected outpouring of emotion. He must return either her letter or her love. Re-reading his Pushkin, Tchaikovsky was struck by Tatiana’s courage and indignant at the unworthy object of her love.

He was immersed in composition, finding in Tatiana a muse and a sympathetic victim, when he received a letter not unlike the one written by his heroine. For several months, the composer and his former pupil, Antonina Milyukova, continued to correspond, and she offered him her heart and hand. He told her he could only offer her brotherly love, and she assured him that she was willing to accept that. They announced their engagement in May 1877. Already struggling with his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky promptly took off for his librettist’s country estate near Moscow.

By the end of June, Tchaikovsky had two-thirds of Eugene Onegin completed. He and Antonina married in July, but he soon realized that he had made a horrible mistake. They lived together for 20 days without consummating the marriage. Nervous and ill, he left for his sister’s estate in Ukraine, and then returned to Moscow. He stayed with his wife for 12 days and then left for good. He traveled to Switzerland and Italy where he completed Eugene Onegin in January 1878.

Tchaikovsky could hardly have failed to remark on the coincidence of a fateful letter appearing in both Pushkin’s story and his own life. His emotional susceptibility at this period no doubt led him to turn to his own musical language to depict the characters in the opera. One of the ways he did this was to associate different keys with certain characters and ideas. Early on in the opera, Tchaikovsky assigns Onegin the key of G. The peasants’ khorovod dance and folk songs are associated with B-flat major. However, Tchaikovsky does not give Tatiana a strong musical identity until the letter-writing scene in which she sings in the key of D-flat major.

Prior to that scene, Tatiana is depicted as innocent and romantic, suffering alongside the unhappy lovers in the book that she is reading. Her mother, who confesses to having once been an avid reader of Richardson’s novels (all epistolary), cautions her daughter not to believe everything she reads. Their neighbor Lensky then arrives and introduces Onegin to the family. Lensky is the fiancé of Tatiana’s silly sister Olga, and the love poetry that he writes to her isn’t (it must be admitted) any more original than the girl to whom it is directed. Between her reading, Lensky’s love poetry, and her own dreamy temperament, Tatiana is ripe for infatuation. So far, the written word has dominated Tatiana’s intellect—this and the essentially Russian resignation to the whims of fate. With her letter to Onegin, however, Tatiana turns the power of words to her own uses in a surprisingly bold and independent move.

In the aria he wrote for her, Tchaikovsky reveals Tatiana to be a far better poet than Lensky could ever hope to be. Her innocence is a guarantee for her authenticity. He also places Tatiana in a unique position, one often occupied by male characters in Russian literature. When she sings “I am alone…no one understands me and I must perish in silence,” she seems to be taking on the character of the “superfluous man,” the Russian literary type who is an outcast because he does not follow society’s values and standards. Granted, in Pushkin, this character is clearly Onegin, the aristocrat whose actions lead to senseless death and the tragedy of a purposeless life. Within the confines of the opera, however, Tatiana takes on that role when she pens a confessional letter to a strange man, transgressing all that society deems permissible for an unmarried girl. “Perhaps, I have an entirely different destiny,” she sings, invoking fate and honor in a declaration that is almost masculine in its clear-headed assertiveness. Later, Onegin will write a similar passionate letter to Tatiana, strengthening not only the construction of the narrative, but also adding dramatic significance to something as seemingly innocuous as ink on paper.

The Dance
With a composer like Tchaikovsky, so well known for his ballets, the element of dance in Eugene Onegin cannot be ignored. Like letter-writing, dancing was common but full of expressive opportunities. In polite society, dancing was the only socially sanctioned activity in which a man might hold a woman close in thrilling, synchronized movement. The opportunity to see and be seen, to gossip, or to flirt added to the excitement.

In Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky draws not only on European dance tradition, but also on Russian folk dances and songs. In Act I, a peasant chorus dances the traditional khorovod and sings about maidens and a lad as “fresh as a raspberry” who carries a cudgel and bagpipes. The foreshadowing of the arrival of Onegin and his effect on Tatiana is clear, but, as dance historian Roland John Wiley points out, to integrate a simple peasant dance dramatically into opera was a new idea. In the operas of Glinka, for example, dance served as an interlude, interrupting the action for a dash of local color. Dance, for Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, while it certainly allowed for musical shifts and eye-catching choreography, also reinforced the narrative arch and added dimension to the characters.

In Act II, Tatiana is chagrined to see that Onegin has had the temerity (and poor taste) to show up at her name-day party after having received her letter and rebuffed her. To add insult to injury, he then asks her to dance, but quits abruptly when he overhears people gossiping about him. He decides to show these bumpkins how it is done in Petersburg and begins a vigorous flirtation with Olga. Lensky is deeply insulted, especially because Olga has been dancing to all the most romantic music with Onegin rather than with her sensitive poet-lover.

While it is true that a ballroom scene allows Tchaikovsky to display all of his prodigious skill at waltz composition, it also serves a deeper function in the opera. The spectacle of the whirling dancers and the musical momentum lulls us into complacency—what can go wrong at a country dance? The dancing is then interrupted, first by Monsieur Triquet’s inept French verses and then by Lensky’s anger. His hateful words and the crowd’s reaction is a jarring stop to the delicious waltz. As Lensky throws down the gauntlet, it is impossible to forget that Pushkin himself died from wounds following a duel in 1837.

Tchaikovsky also used stylized movement in the duel scene. This “dance of death,” if you will, was dictated by what Lensky’s punctilious second Zaretsky calls “strict rules and old traditions.” Zaretsky instructs the men where to stand and when to aim their pistols. To reinforce the idea of coordinated movement, Onegin and Lensky sing not independently, but together of how they used to be friends, but must now kill in premeditated cold blood. The interruption of the “dance” here is the pistol shot that fells Lensky.

Act III opens several years later with a ball in the Gremin palace, where Tatiana now lives as wife to an old warrior, Prince Gremin. The waltz music here is richer and more complex than that heard at Tatiana’s name-day party. Tchaikovsky picks up the pace with a polonaise and an écossaise. These popular dances, ones that raced like wildfire through European high society, had simple folk beginnings, a Pushkinian irony that Tchaikovsky no doubt relished. In the middle of this brilliant scene, Onegin, once a top-flight dandy, is now seen as a moping eccentric and even “the glitter of society doesn’t dispel [his] melancholy.”

By the third act, both dancing and letter-writing have become more than just quaint cues to the distant past. Trapped in the heat and crush of the ballroom, Onegin belatedly realizes that he loves Tatiana. He writes her an impassioned latter (sharing the language of her letter-writing aria) and he is rejected. Tatiana refuses to take Onegin as a lover, keeping her sacred vow of marriage. Again, she is almost masculine in her sense of integrity and honor. Inexorable fate has prevented both Onegin and Tatiana from having the kind of life they imagined. All of their movements and all of their letters have led to nothing, a useless expenditure of energy.

Tchaikovsky could never have been satisfied with this note of pessimism. For him, as for Pushkin, creative engagement—with words and music—was an affirmation and an end in itself. The poet might have agreed with Tchaikovsky, who said of his opera, “If ever music was written with sincere passion, with love for the story and the characters in it, it is the music for Onegin…. If the listener feels even the smallest part of what I experienced when I was composing this opera, I shall be utterly content and ask for nothing more.”

Leann Davis Alspaugh is a frequent contributor to LA Opera’s performance programs.


Eugene Onegin: Duty, Absurdity and the Everyday

By James Kincaid

Tchaikovsky tells us he was, at first, alarmed at the idea of turning Pushkin’s beloved masterpiece Eugene Onegin into an opera. Luckily for us, he soon saw in that poetic narrative a chance to escape “Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings and stilted effects of all kinds.” Here, in a simple story of domestic screw-ups, the great composer also spotted a chance to “convey through music everyday simple, universally human emotions, far removed from everything tragic or theatrical.”

Fully aware of the risks he was taking in abandoning tried and true dramatic formulae, Tchaikovsky insisted what he had done was not an opera at all, simply “lyric scenes.” “The opera,” he said, “will, of course, be without any strong dramatic action; but on the other hand it will have an interesting everyday aspect to it.” Such low-mimetic realism, he also figured, would guarantee a flop: “it is insufficiently lively and interesting to be to the public’s liking.” So convinced was he that he had a loser on his hands, he trusted this “opera without any prospects” to the students at the Moscow Conservatory for its debut in 1879.

Now this not-quite-an-opera is part of the standard repertoire and much loved. Nor did it take long to establish itself: 1881 at the Bolshoi, Prague in 1888, and, settling matters for all time, a triumphant 1892 performance in Berlin, conducted by Gustav Mahler. The always modest Tchaikovsky attributed the success altogether to Mahler, clinging to the notion that his work was nothing more than a small thing suited to production in homes or small concert halls.

Not that everyone was thrilled at the time. Some disliked any meddling with this iconic Russian work. Some, more pointedly, disliked the particular meddling Tchaikovsky had done: Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy, praising the music (as all have since) but disdaining the story: “What a libretto!”

What a libretto, indeed! The form of the narrative circles round a central irony of missed opportunities caused by characters whose motives, if one can call them that, are derived from trashy novels or passing winds. Upright people still regard Eugene Onegin as an opera teaching us the importance of Duty, which it may well. Tatiana can easily be seen as the central character and her actions as exemplary of mature and responsible being in the world. Having thrown herself into a tempestuous but ridiculously artificial passion for Onegin in her youth, she later sees that what counts is not passion — there is no sign that she connects to old, grizzled Prince Gremin in that way — but moral rectitude, being true to one’s pledges. There is a little of this even in Pushkin’s tricky and poised poem. “Complete moral independence is taking control over all lusts,” he said.

Doubtless true but, speaking only for myself, I find opera most pleasing when it is willing to invade the lust area a little and ease up on the iron moralisms. Duty makes me think of Mother at her worst, of George S. Patton (“duty is the essence of manhood”) and Robert E. Lee (“duty is the most sublime word in our language”), and calls up a longing for Oscar Wilde (“our duty… is to revive the old art of lying”), Shaw (“when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty”) and Albert Camus (“our only duty is to love”).

Speaking of Camus, there is the chance we may take this opera not as a Victorian paean to dull responsibility but as a relentless portrayal of an absurd man. After all, Eugene Onegin, though central to the action, seems hardly ever present to us and, even less, to himself. Tatiana steals the first act from him, Lensky the second, and Gremin the third. Onegin postures, causes lots of damage, but never makes contact with a real motive or cause. More than Prufrock, he is the Hollow Man. He rejects love, kills his friend, does a poor imitation of Byron, and then is abandoned, as lost as ever. And why? He has done none of this for any reason, his murder of his friend making Meursault’s shooting of the Arab in Camus’ The Stranger seem deeply motivated. Worse, Onegin is not even the victim of any external forces. We’ve known Oedipus, and Gene here is no Oedipus, not even a Willy Loman. Just what we tough post-modernists recognize and thrill to: he’s so like us.

James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.