Genetically modified Mozart

Vadim Prokhorov

It’s rare for a new opera to get the kind of controversial publicity associated with rap artists and Hollywood movies. But that’s what’s happening at the Bolshoi. As soon as it was announced, three years ago, that the Bolshoi was going to produce its first Russian contemporary opera in a quarter of a century, all hell broke loose. The shadowy anti-communist youth group, Moving Together, whose members wear T-shirts featuring Vladimir Putin as a sign of their support for the Russian president, began staging noisy demonstrations in front of the theatre and the residence of Alexander Vedernikov, the music director.

They’re protesting at the fact that the opera, Rosenthal’s Children, by the cult composer Leonid Desyatnikov, has a libretto by the avant-garde author Vladimir Sorokin, a controversial figure well-known in Russia and Europe. Moving Together had already filed a criminal complaint — prompting a police investigation of the writer — over Sorokin’s alleged promotion of pornography and homosexuality in his 1999 novel Blue Lard, which deals with cloning and, among other things, depicts a sadomasochistic encounter between the clones of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. During one of the demonstrations outside the Bolshoi, the members of Moving Together ripped apart copies of Blue Lard and threw them into a huge mock toilet bowl, while demanding the country return to traditional moral values.

The demonstrations prompted a political debate over freedom of expression and censorship — historically hypersensitive subjects in Russia. The Kremlin distanced itself from the events, criticising the criminal investigation. Sales of Sorokin’s books soared, and the Bolshoi’s project received promotion nobody could have dreamed about.

The criminal investigation quietly fizzled out in court, and eventually the demonstrations died down — only for passions to flare up again this month, ahead of Rosenthal’s Children’s premiere on March 23 on the Bolshoi’s New Stage. As a result, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament, passed a resolution ordering its culture committee to evaluate the content of the opera and assess whether it was morally acceptable. The Bolshoi countered this resolution with a statement that the opera contained neither obscene language nor pornographic scenes. And the Bolshoi’s director, Anatoly Iksanov, thanked the Duma’s members for the extra promotion.

Rosenthal’s Children has managed to capture the attention of the press and audience at a time when Russian culture in general, and classical music in particular, has been going through an aesthetic and financial crisis. Soviet classical music — in contrast to Soviet literature — left a significant and lasting heritage. It was part of the state ideological machine, and, as employees of the state, composers were compensated for their labour. (Of course, this financial security was offset by a system of censorship and punishment.) When communism collapsed in 1991, artists were left on their own, without sponsorship — but also independent from the state. With Soviet realism no longer a religion, artists could now work freely and openly.

Desyatnikov and Sorokin have adapted well to the wild-west-likepost-Soviet society. They acquired a cult following individually, making it only a matter of time before they became a creative team. They first met during the production of the film Moskva (2000), for which Sorokin wrote the script and Desyatnikov the music. The film’s producers were sued by a Moscow newspaper for the negative depiction of the city as a capital of filth, lust and profanity. Desyatnikov and Sorokin, meanwhile, forged a close friendship and began to think of a new collaboration. «Desyatnikov’s complex compositional method is similar to my sensibility," says Sorokin. «Also, he is a natural and original melodist." Opera seemed a logical choice. «At first, I wanted to write an opera based on one of Sorokin’s plays," says Desyatnikov. «But eventually, we decided in favour of an original libretto.»

They came up with the idea for a story of five cloned composers living in Soviet and post-Soviet time. «The subject of cloning is very close to me," says Sorokin. «I’m sure human beings should not be cloned. However, from an artistic point of view, the idea of cloning is rich with possibilities and implications, allowing us to travel in time and meet long-dead classics.»

In Rosenthal’s Children, we meet clones of Wagner, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Mozart. They have been created by a Jewish-German scientist, Alex Rosenthal, who, with the rise of fascism in the mid-1930s, has had to leave Germany for the Soviet Union. With Stalin’s help, he establishes a secret laboratory where he harvests and raises clones for labour and military needs. An ardent music lover, he creates the composer clones for himself, raising them in total isolation as his children.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, his laboratory is closed due to lack of state funding. He dies, and the composers, who have no sense of reality, are left homeless. They make their living by performing their music on the streets, in underground passages and railroad stations. They meet the prostitute Tania, and she and Mozart fall deeply in love. After paying off her pimp, the entire group celebrates the couple’s wedding. However, they are all poisoned by the jealous pimp. Only Mozart survives, because as a clone of a composer who was poisoned in his «previous» life, he has acquired immunity. The last scene shows Mozart in the hospital: in his hallucinations he sees the spectral shadows of his brothers.

«Our goal has been to show damaged, ridiculous heroes, who cannot adapt to modern society and are doomed to fail," says Desyatnikov. «This idea has grown into a syncretic combination of the tragic and grotesque.»

Rosenthal’s Children became a perfect vehicle for Desyatnikov and Sorokin to play their complex stylistic games. Both are masters of polystylism — of imitation, allusion, collage and pastiche. The entire structure of Sorokin’s Blue Lard is based on the comparison, confrontation and transformation of different styles, as he resurrects a multitude of literary giants who write their own diaries. Desyatnikov is similarly versatile in postmodern eclectism: in The Russian Seasons he modernises Russian folk songs, his Like the Old Organ Grinder is a commentary on Schubert, and he quotes Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky in his symphony Sacred Winter 1949.

«Rosenthal’s Children is based on the premise that each of five composers writes his own opera," says Desyatnikov. «They snatch a pen out of my fingers and create the opera themselves. I avoid direct quotes. Rather, I use some melodic and harmonic gestures that define their manner. So, each of the five scenes is written in the spirit of a composer — in a kind of mean-statistical style, so to speak.»

What results is a collision of operatic styles, transcended by Desyatnikov’s own sensibility. It becomes an opera about opera.

«I associate each composer with one of his characters," says Desyatnikov. «For example, Wagner is Brünnhilde; Tchaikovsky, Lensky; Mozart, Papageno. Also, each composer is linked to a particular musical instrument: Verdi, for example, plays the harp, and Mozart plays the flute.»

Periodically, Desyatnikov leaves the spheres of his heroes and enters the realm of official Soviet music to remind the listeners of the place and time of the events. The first act finale contains fragments from speeches by Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Even so, «there are no political allusions or meanings," says Desyatnikov. «To me, this opera is a ticket for a selfless artistic expression.»

On the stage, perhaps. Outside the theatre, however, the controversy around the production rages on, apparently and increasingly disconnected from the context of the opera itself.