Onegin: the Perfect Libretto

This essay appeared originally in the Huffington Post on 30 July 2014. To read it there click here.

Lecturing on Onegin's libretto to Ghenady Meierson's Russian Opera Workshop at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in summer 2014.

Lecturing on Onegin's libretto to Ghenady Meierson's Russian Opera Workshop at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in summer 2014.

“Dear Maestro,” dazzled, seven-year-old-Daron wrote to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, then music director of the Milwaukee Symphony. I bit the end of my pencil, wracked my brain for the perfect word: “Your performance last week was simply superfluous!” Decades later, over lunch, I asked Kenneth if he remembered the boy who couldn’t find a word big enough to described how impressed he was. As he shook his head, laughing, I marveled at how indispensible Kenneth had made himself to the Nashville Symphony, what a noble example of service his career represented. We laughed until we wept. Afterwards, we wiped our eyes, and sighed. I called him “an indispensible man.”

We raised our glasses. “To Art,” I began. “To Life,” he replied. “To the collision of the two,” I said. “Ah,” he sighed, smiling, “now there is where the trouble begins.” And, to that, we drank.

And then, as one does, I fished for his opposite. I immediately thought of Eugene Onegin, perhaps the most famous “superfluous man.” The eponymous, Byronic hero of Alexander Pushkin’s magisterial novel — a man who had it all, squandered it, and lived to regret it. No arriviste he, Onegin was a man of substance, well-educated, with access to culture, power, and the easy cynical ennui of one who understands firsthand that power corrupts. Poor Onegin, and his generation of noble young 1840s Russian men — so like the young Ivy-educated Masters of the Universe with whom I rubbed elbows as a young composer in 1980s Manhattan!

1879. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb. AT&T and Bell Telephone divided up telecommunications, creating the framework for todays’ information-driven world. One hundred years after the “shot heard round the world” in Concord, “A Doll’s House” opened in Copenhagen, and Henrik Ibsen’s Nora perpetrated the door slam heard round the world. Her proto-feminism was also embodied in the character of Tatyana, as brought to life by Tchaikovsky in his great opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel. Another woman struggling to be herself in a male-dominated society, Tatyana, once her heart has been broken, evolves from her youth as a romantic, empathetic introvert into a coolly glittering, wise, ruthless, mistress of society.

Tchaikovsky subtitled his work “an opera in lyrical scenes.” This was to highlight the fact that, in fashioning the libretto from Pushkin’s 389 stanzas in iambic tetrameter with Konstantin Shilovsky, Pushkin’s dialectic was so ironclad that it made it possible for them to excise all the narrative linking material in order to focus on the dramaturgical “hot spots,” the nuclear reactors powering the drama. This distillation to the story’s essential human drama is (or should be) the aim of every poet-librettist, since brevity is only his visa at the opera world’s border, and getting directly to the point (without drawing attention to oneself) is his passport to greatness.

Pushing the idea of art mirroring life, the “Pushkin Sonnet,” or “Onegin Stanza” form is itself a tightly restrictive scheme that strikingly manifests the binding structures of society, of “social convention.” Form—in this case the characters—mirrors function—their symbolic and dramatic transits. Only sixty years later, in “Wozzeck,” the wretched disconnect between society and its denizens are made achingly manifest in the music often going in one direction as the drama moves in another.) Pushkin’s rhyme scheme, comprised of alternating “female” and “male” rhymes, is a suave poetic correlative to the characters’ gender dance.

Here’s one reading of the structure of Pushkin’s story, and of Tchaikovsky’s opera, a rough sketch of the interrelationships between characters and themes. It’s why I think the structure’s so—for lack of a better word—perfect.

A diagram used for the lecture to the Russian Opera Workshop on which this essay is based.

A diagram used for the lecture to the Russian Opera Workshop on which this essay is based.

At “true north” in the diagram is Tatyana, a deeply caring person who learns not to care. At the opposite, southern pole is Onegin, a selfish extrovert who learns to care. In the east is Olga, Tatyana’s biological sister, a party-girl, young, extroverted, fully alive in the moment. She is affianced to Lensky, Onegin’s metaphorical brother, at the western pole. Lensky is a smart, introverted poet, living a life of the mind. Between Lensky and Onegin, at the southwestern pole, is the subsidiary, Judas character of Zaretsky. Repeatedly, he betrays Onegin by depriving him of an opportunity to apologize to Lensky, thereby forestalling the duel in which Onegin kills him.

Now, draw a line from the southwest up to the northeast and call it the border between Art and Life, with Lensky and Tatyana on the Art side, Onegin and Olga on the Life side, and Zaretsky, the explosive catalyst, straddling the two.

Now, draw a line from the northwest down to the southeast and call it the demarcation between Female and Male, with Tatyana and Olga on one side, and Onegin and Lensky on the other.

Draw a line due south from Tatyana to Onegin; draw another west to east from Lensky to Olga. The east-west line between Olga and Lensky intersects the north-south line of Tatyana and Onegin. The slantwise lines delimiting Male and Female, and Art and Life, also intersect at the axis of the compass.

That axis, the core of the drama, the point where all the lines meet, is the existential cauldron for which there are countless names. To attach one, like Society, or another, like Sanity, is to miss the point.

I imagine that Tchaikovsky, when introduced to the idea, at first reacted negatively to its rather banal superficial story of a dandy’s rejection of a young country girl. My hunch, as a working opera composer, though, is that the famous sleepless night Tchaikovsky is said to have had prior to sketching out, again in a single night, the entire structure of the opera, was the sort that a working opera composer has when they realize that a perfect dramatic structure is in the offing.

I’d like to think that Tchaikovsky, a dramatist extraordinaire, recognized in Pushkin’s formal engineering a “perfect libretto.” He grasped that he had in his hands a structure, or a cauldron, or a nuclear reactor, so durable and perfect that Life and Art could be brought into collision. A vessel in which could take place the fusion of the two into a wise and useful new opera that confronted issues that he and his audience could only intuit. A living work of art that could help us to make sense of our lives, which so often seem to be a messy, seemingly futile fission of the two.