Let's Make an Opera!

This January Moscow held a formal ceremony for the opening of the "Year of Pokrovsky" Festival.  A year is exactly the duration of the commemorative events in honor of the legendary opera director Boris Pokrovsky (1912-2009), who died not long before his one-hundredth birthday.  The celebrations are timed to coincide not only with the centennial of the maestro's birth, but also with the 50th anniversary of the Moscow State  Academic Chamber Music Theatre that bears his name. 


He lived a long, rich life -- 97 years; received every possible title and honor from the government: the Lenin Prize, three Stalin Prizes, the State Prize.  He staged over 180 productions, over 50 of them on the USSR's main opera stage, at the Bolshoi Theatre.  He staged quite a few productions overseas, which was something not every Soviet director was permitted to do.   He taught at the Russian University of Theatre Arts for many years; became a professor there; was fortunate with students -- virtually all of our country's leading musical theatre directors are among them.  He wrote five books.   

A blessed, successful life.  He was even fortunate during the Stalin years. He was the one who staged Vano Muradeli's opera "The Great Friendship", which greatly angered the authorities in 1948.  This long-forgotten and rather modest from an artistic point of view production resulted in an entire resolution of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). The poor composer got in trouble for "formalism" in music.  Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich -- two of the 20th century's greatest composers -- as well as many other cultural figures got in trouble along with Muradeli. They were defamed, deprived of work, and in those days that wasn't even the worst thing that could have happened to them. 

Yet the production's director was left unharmed.  Stalin held no grudge against the Bolshoi Theatre, which had always enjoyed his patronage.  In fact, in 1952, Boris Pokrovsky actually became the theatre's principal stage director, despite the fact that he has not joined the party.  There was a rumor that, when Stalin was told about this, he supposedly laughed the matter off by saying, "He's doing the right thing - strengthening the union between Communists and nonpartisans."  The Leader had a unique dark sense of humor. 

Having survived those terrifying times, Pokrovsky continued to enjoy the opportunity to work for the good of the art.  The government did not create any additional obstacles in his way, and, following Stalin's death, it ceased pestering him with ideological accusations.  On the other hand, he was always aware of the reality of things and never refused to stage Soviet operatic productions of not so great a quality for appearances' sake, timing them to coincide with state holidays.   Pokrovsky followed the rules of repertory formation of any Soviet theatre.   At the same time, nothing prevented him from working on true masterpieces of world classics and the best contemporary operas.   He was the first one to stage Prokofiev's "War and Peace" at Leningrad's Maly Opera and Ballet Theatre first and later at the Bolshoi Theatre as well.  Moreover, he was the one who convinced the composer to write Natasha Rostova's waltz, which became the opera's pivotal moment and its symbol.  He revived on stage Prokofiev's early opera "The Gambler", based on Dostoevsky's story.  And then on the stage of his very own Chamber theatre he gave new life to Shostakovich's "The Nose," based on a story by Gogol. 

Pokrovsky is not just a good opera director; he is, without exaggeration, the creator and author of our national musical theatre of the 20th century.  A luminary and a patriarch recognized during his lifetime.  But even for him things were not always so easy and simple.  It was no coincidence that he left the Bolshoi Theatre twice.   There was a reason why he eventually created his own, separate Chamber Theatre.  A director's life is inevitably full of emotions and passion.  It is, for all intents and purposes, an eternal conflict with actors.  This is especially true and frequent in a musical theatre.

Being an opera director is a dangerous profession.  Any deviation, a step to the left or to the right, is an equivalent of failure.  One wrong gesture, one awkward, clumsy mise-en-scène is enough to tear the fabric of the music that holds this profoundly relative art form together.  It is not enough that opera characters are always singing, which is something that never happens in real life. But sometimes they also sing in improbable, fantastic situations: delivering beautiful arias and duets, after having been strangled or shot to death.   Realism here is out of the question. 

There is an established opinion that classical operas do not require much staging; that there is nothing to direct.  All that is required is to hear the author and the composer correctly; and for that all one needs to have is a conductor, a musical director.   

Many singers, both male and female, secretly maintain this position.  The director and they have different interests, and that gives rise to conflict.  Singers need parts that work best for their particular voices along with spectacular mise-en-scènes, so they can receive a good helping of applause and screams of "Bravo" after each beautifully performed scene.  This inevitably halts the action, turning the production into some sort of a gala concert with solo numbers.  

A stage director -- provided he is a big artist, not a mere craftsman -- needs a holistic dramatic performance.   But he also wants to create, to invent, to attempt, to experiment.  Opera divas, prima donnas and stars do not always like to do that, to put it mildly.  And it is, in fact, difficult to find room for experiment within the framework of a classical opera without hurting the overall artistic impression.

These days this conflict of interests is relieved by the fact that male and female singers are not tied to one theatre and one director.  They travel all over the world, choosing productions and repertories in accordance with their own preferences.  Directors, in turn, invite soloists that they feel are the best fit for a particular production they have in mind.  And they experiment for all they are worth, moving the setting of their operas to the modern day, to different countries, even different continents. 

Within the context of any Soviet repertory theatre, musical theatre included, with a permanent, stable company of actors, such free rein was impossible.  And modernizations of classical works were strongly discouraged and were equated with desecration and sacrilege.   Looking at some of today's productions, one is forced to admit that such an approach had good reason behind it.

Pokrovsky, however, knew how to find a way out of such difficult situations.  It cannot be said that he didn't like staging classical operas. The Bolshoi Theatre presented "Eugene Onegin," "Ruslan and Lyudmila," "Tosca," and "La Traviata" under his direction.  They were strict and respectable productions.  He wrote in one of his books, "It is not a good thing when the audience likes the director in a production.  True theatre art is making the audience grasp the essence and the conception of musical dramaturgy."

In some way, Pokrovsky stifled his own creative potential in those productions, restrained himself and made concessions to renowned Soviet opera stars. In return, he "broke loose" whenever he staged Prokofiev and Shostakovich or searched for new contemporary operas.  He used the Chamber Theatre as an experimental platform.  He trained male and female singers, versed in composite art forms, who could both sing and act, could perform a classical aria even while doing a headstand.   

In 1982, Boris Pokrovsky seemed to have completely walked away from his job as a principal stage director at the Bolshoi Theatre.  Soon, however, it became apparent that there was no one to replace him with, and he made a triumphant return, though as a regular not a principal stage director this time.  And he created his most important masterpiece -- Giuseppe Verdi's "Othello" -- where he managed to combine classical austerity with all the nuances of psychological stage direction.   

This opera is unique.  It can be called the apex of the classical period in the history of this art form.  Verdi achieved complete unity of music and dramatic action. Pokrovsky managed to recreate this unity in a congenial manner in a brilliant production.  It was the ultimate triumph of his philosophy: "Opera is not only music, but also theatre and action."  And one thing did not contradict the other. 

All his life Pokrovsky fought to prevent operatic productions from turning into "concerts in fancy costumes", as he put it.  He didn't always prevail, but the path of a genius cannot be marked by invariable, obligatory success.  At the Chamber Theatre, where the director had a lot more freedom, he created a new genre of musical theatrical performance.  One of the most striking productions that remains part of the theatre's repertoire even today is even called "Let's Make an Opera."  And make it he did.  And more than one.  The "Year of Pokrovsky" anniversary festival is but a small tribute to the distinguished master.   The era of Pokrovsky continues. 


Nikolai Troitsky


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