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3 May 2016

Mikhail Muginshtein: Opera is a passionate lady

Text: Arina Soboleva
Photo: Sergey Karpov

Opera is like a women. Full of life, restive, she always has to be accompanied by her counterpart, the stage play. This is the opinion of the musicologist, opera historian, critic, and and Merited Worker of Arts of Russia Mikhail Muginshtein. In April he presented the third volume of the encyclopedia “World opera Chronicles”, which was published with the support of the cultural charity fund U-Art. We asked Mikhail why such a book is needed in Russia and why Russian operas rank only 5th in the world by the frequency of being staged. You will find the answers to these questions in the interview with the author of the three volume publication, which covers 400 years of opera.

An avant-garde art

— So, the history of opera dates back to 400 years ago…

— Yes, some people think that opera is an old lady from the coffer, or, at best, her shoes that are back in style. In reality, opera is a passionate lover, and that’s how people have been viewing it from beginning. As the coolest avant-garde art of its time. Actually, the history of opera began with something astonishing. At the end of the 16th century, when the Renaissance was on the decline and all the greats were done creating their oeuvres (I mean Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael), music and theater were intensely flirting with each other. This reckless affair resulted in their marriage – and the birth of opera.

— Nowadays we often hear — as though it’s in the spirit of our times — that opera has had its days. Over and done with.

— The notion that opera is dead is utter nonsense. New works appear every year. For example, the Stanislavsky Electrotheater runs “The Sverlitsy” series created by Boris Yukhananov. This is a peculiar fantastical show, and a whole group of well-known composers collaborated in the production. Another example - composer Dmitry Kurlyandsky created the opera “Nosferatu”, about Dracula, for the Perm Theater and Teodor Currentzis. Although most people raised on classical music pieces might find this one hard to appreciate.

— What do you mean?

— I am convinced that the language of contemporary opera shouldn’t be totally disconnected from the classical origin. Obviously, I don’t mean writing melodies in Glinka’s style. But we should keep the genetic link with the predecessors. Otherwise we might witness something described in Hamlet: “The time is out of joint.”

The famous Russian semiotician [Mikhail] Bakhtin coined the term “genre memory”, and contemporary opera should keep this memory. But besides the “genre memory” there is the “genre outfit”, which changes from one historical age to another. Imagine a modern youth who looks totally different from her family predecessors, sticks to the unisex style, and wears those dreadful platform sneakers. However, she keeps the family traits of her grand-grand-grandmother.

— So what is the outfit of contemporary opera?

— You see, “contemporary opera” is a very relative notion. There are works created by contemporary composers, and then there are new interpretations. These are two different things. If you want to talk about contemporary literature, you won’t discuss Pushkin and Gogol, you will be interested in [Vladimir] Sorokin and [Viktor] Pelevin. In opera, however, one may also talk about a new staging of a classical work.

Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” staged at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, November 2014

You can treat any classical opera as a contemporary one. For example, Andrey Zholdack staged “Eugene Onegin” at the Mikhailovsky Theater and two years ago was awarded the Golden Mask. This is a very peculiar thing. He takes Tchaikovsky and creates his story based on his music. This story is brilliantly imaginative at times, but it trespasses brutally on Tchaikovsky’s story, up to changing the musical score.

If Tchaikovsky takes Pushkin’s Onegin, he also creates a totally different Onegin – we don’t have any doubts about that. This is quite natural. Any work of art is not unlike a museum. When you enter a museum, you have your 21st−century-person’s eye, and you don’t look at Rembrandt as his contemporary would. Theater is even more changeable. It has to be full of life, it has to develop, and we need to see new stories. But the most important and complex question is, how the contemporary dialogue with the work’s author will develop?

— It is hard to refrain from asking you here about your take on the Tannhauser scandal.

— When I analyzed this infamous play by Timofey Kulyabin, I was troubled by the fact that for some reason this creative issue became a political one. From one side, the opera was discussed by conservatives, who traditionally like to keep lid on the matter, from the other, by liberals, who like to rebel without looking at the matter. And the matter here is that the director created a story which at certain points disagrees with the music creator. Is this a contemporary opera? Yes. But how does it attain this contemporary quality? By developing a dialogue with the author? No, by peddling its story. I am more of an advocate of a subtle and deep, top to bottom exploration of the author’s artistic universe, of the artwork, and of discovering new mazes in it.

The fabulous five

— Do you think that the things which happen today on Russia’s opera stage go beyond it?

— Yes, both our composers and performers are in demand worldwide.

Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien in “Eugene Onegin” on the stage of Metropolitan Opera

— Is Russian opera still a brand?

— Russian classical opera is not as popular as the Italian, the French or the German one. We need to understand this. If “Eugene Onegin” is staged worldwide, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Russian opera. Actually, there are several Russian titles that do quite well globally. “Eugene Onegin” is at the top of the list, followed by “Boris Godunov”, “The Queen of Spades”, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Shostakovich, “The Love for Three Oranges” by Prokofiev, and, last but not least, Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina”. Essentially, if we were to speak of national operatic schools, Russian opera ranks fifth in the world, since the Czechs are also ahead of us.

— This is a surprise.

— People in Russia simply don’t know about it. The operas of Leos Janacek, for example, are played more often than all Russian productions taken together. However, there are only five opera schools in the world. We cannot speak about an English opera school, as there are only two composers, which cannot be regarded as a national school. One can’t speak of Polish, Hungarian, or other schools. So ranking fifth is actually an honor.

Actually, there are several Russian titles that do quite well globally. “Eugene Onegin”  is at the top of the list

— Why do you think Russian ballet is better suited for export than Russian opera?

— It just so happens that Russian audience is more inclined to attend a ballet performance than opera. In the West, however, the situation is different. In Germany, Austria, Italy you will never find more than two ballet performances on the call-board in one week. I wouldn’t say it’s the mentality, it’s something else. Ballet is a representative art. Classical ballet is luxurious and absolutely spectacular. I, for one, love ballet very much, but opera… Try comparing the number of great ballet plays with the number of great operas, and you’ll see they are worlds apart. There might be, well, ten or so great ballets, but in my book there are 400 great operas. 

400 years, 400 operas

— Let’s change the subject to your book. Why a new opera encyclopedia? To be sure, many had attempted such a fundamental study before…

— “Many” is a huge overstatement. I can say that my encyclopedia is the first one of its kind in Russia. And our country’s circumstances, especially those concerning the economy, don’t give any guarantees of continuation. So my first encyclopedia may become the last one. If not for the U-Art fund’s aid, which actually came at the very end, the publication could have been postponed for an indefinite time.

— Your encyclopedia is an authorial one. What does this mean exactly in relation to your “Chronicles”?

— The most important and precious section in the encyclopedia for me is the commentary, a far-ranging and subjective examination of the opera at hand. This is a distinctive characteristic of my book. Besides, most well-known encyclopedias are compiled in the alphabetical order, while this book follows the chronological principle, based on years: starting from 1600 and ending by 2000. This principle turns the three-volume book into a brief history of opera course.

The third volume of the book covers the whole 20th century

— The span is vast, fantastic!

— Yes. But never mind the six hundred pages. The three volumes weigh six kilos, now that’s worth something! (Laughs.) In truth, I can say this effort was needed. Any self-respecting opera country must also have a book about opera, a universal, systematizing one… And that niche was vacant. Obviously, this kind of job is more suitable for a team of authors or a university. Well, it didn’t work out that way in Russia, so someone had to pull this weight on his own.

— The first volume was released in 2005. How much time did the project require?

— Twenty years. But in reality I have been working with opera since my university studies. I can tell precisely — it began with a term paper during my fourth year in the conservatory.

— In Russia your encyclopedia became one of its kind. What about other countries?

— In this respect the leader is Germany, with more than a dozen reference publications. I must say German encyclopedias are more on the technological side of things. They typically feature elaborate work on details but are somewhat lacking in the artistic, culturological approach. Art studies itself is a centaur, a half-breed of science and art. So when you manage to convey in your text the spirit of the artwork, find a way into its depths – you are happy.



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