Eugene Onegin: A Dangerous Love Letter

The following is written by guest blogger Kylie Toomer. Kylie is the new Artistic and Office Manager for Madison Opera. She received her B.A. from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and her M.M. in Performance from the University of North Texas, where she studied with renowned American Tenor Richard Croft.

Many of us may reminisce on our adolescence and fondly (or not-so fondly) remember our “first love” and the tumultuous feelings of excitement, expectation, and doubt. “Should I confess how I feel?  What if they don’t feel the same? But, what if I say nothing? I have to say something!” Then the moment comes: you finally get up the nerve to bare your soul. Your palms are sweaty, you cannot stop fidgeting, you forget to breathe, and you lose all ability to form a coherent sentence. You finally blurt out: “I-like-you-will-you-go-out-with-me?” Good thing you spent all that time rehearsing in front of the mirror!
Tatiana with a romance novel (Lidia Timoshenk)
In Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, Eugene Onegin, we meet an adolescent who is discovering her first love. Tatiana, a young country girl who always has her head in a romance novel, meets and instantly falls for the mysterious Onegin. Tatiana resolves to tell Onegin exactly how she feels in one of the most celebrated scenes in the opera, the “Letter Scene.”  Tchaikovsky brilliantly portrays Tatiana’s feelings of exhilaration and hesitation as she pours out her heart to Onegin. Tatiana is young, but she understands the possible consequences of telling Onegin her true feelings. Nevertheless, she is compelled by a stronger force—that of fate— and ultimately succumbs to her emotions.
As the scene begins, Tatiana speaks with a passion and dramatic fire that mimics what she reads in her romance novels— a sign that her fantasies of love are far more real to her than reality (listen for this music again in Act II).  Finally, she begins to write. Tchaikovsky cleverly uses the orchestra to depict the scene: the syncopation (off-beat rhythm) of the low strings represents her erratic heartbeat, the oboe and the flute mimic her writing, and the arpeggiation of the harp paints the image of Tatiana dipping her quill in ink.   
Tatiana contemplates love (D.A. Belyukin)
Unsatisfied with her words, she tears up her letter. Tatiana is overwhelmed with frustration and fear of rejection, yet the hand of fate drives her to confess her feelings. Once again, the same interlude is heard and Tatiana begins another version of the letter, but ultimately discards it. She is convinced Onegin is the man destiny has chosen for her, despite her obvious fears and doubts; recklessness and rationality are fighting against each other. Eventually, Tatiana takes a moment to ponder the wisdom of her actions, and it is here that Tchaikovsky invokes some of the most sentimental and luscious melodies in the opera as she contemplates her as yet unknown fate. Tatiana asks herself: “Are you, Onegin, my guardian angel or my fatal tempter? Perhaps this is all trivial, an illusion of an inexperienced soul.” The simple rhythm and beautiful chromaticism (pitches not belonging to the primary tonal scale) evoke an overwhelming sense of honesty and hope; she is tempering her heart’s passions with a touch of caution. This is Tatiana’s first rational moment in the entire scene and is a glimpse of the woman she is to become. 
However, this moment of rationality is brief and Tatiana decides to commit her life to the hands of destiny. In a musical outburst of elation, this same sentimental motif is transformed into a more dramatic and fanciful state, as if Tatiana’s dream and her reality are at last intermingled. Notice the melody begins with the trombones and interweaves with woodwinds, while the flourishing of the strings mimic Tatiana’s elation. Without hesitation, she signs the letter and before she can change her mind, sends it to Onegin. Anxious but hopeful, she must now wait for an answer…
Tatiana and Onegin years later, with
Onegin’s letter to Tatiana at their feet (Lidia Timoshenk)
As you listen to soprano Maria Kanyova sing Tatiana’s beautiful letter scene, you will hear motifs that Tchaikovsky uses throughout the opera. These motifs are Tatiana’s thoughts and emotions, but Tchaikovsky cleverly weaves these motifs into Onegin’s music as he rediscovers Tatiana and this time falls in love with her. Tatiana’s youthful motif reappears in her final scenes with Onegin, where they serve as a symbol of what Onegin once scorned and will never have: a love as pure and honest as Tatiana’s love for him.   

Eugene Onegin: Artists Interviews

Eugene Onegin opens next Friday, and our artists spent this past week giving interviews about the breath-taking production. If you missed any of the fun, catch up on it now:

Soprano Maria Kanyova on WPR’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland
Listen here

Soprano Maria Kanyova and baritone Hyung Yun on NBC-15’s “The Morning Show” with Amy Carlson


Tenor Scott Ramsay and General Director Kathryn Smith on WKOW’s “Wake Up Wisconsin!” with John Beard

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck and Stage Director & Choreographer Candace Evans on WIBA’s “Outside the Box” with Mitch Henck

Eugene Onegin: Our Artists in the Press

Eugene Onegin opens next Friday, and this week has been a whirlwind of rehearsals, photo shoots and interviews! The end of this week will round-off with live radio and TV interviews. If you want to hear the cast and artistic staff of Eugene Onegin talk about the production, opera, and maybe even the Green Bay Packers, tune in:


6:20 am: Tenor– and Green Bay native– Scott Ramsay (Lenski) is live on Wake Up Wisconsin! with host John Beard. Have your morning coffee while Scott and Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith spill the beans about Eugene Onegin. Well worth getting out of bed extra early! Turn the TV channel to WKOW ABC.

10:00 am: Keep your morning going with mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (Olga) and stage director Candace Evans. These talented ladies chat with “Outside the Box” host Mitch Henck about Eugene Onegin and life in the opera. Tune in radio station 1310AM.

12 noon: Soprano Maria Kanyova (Tatiana) joins host Norman Gilliland on WPR’s “The Midday.” Set your radio to 88.7FM.



6:40 am: Baritone Hyung Yun (Onegin) and soprano Maria Kanyova (Tatiana) will jump-start your weekend! Amy Carlson of The Morning Show Weekend Live hosts on NBC-15. Stay up extra late or get up a little earlier to hear the artists discuss love, life and Tchaikovsky.

Keep checking in with MadOpera blog for more insightful and entertaining musings on Pushkin, poetry, life, death, Tchaikovsky, the rehearsal process, the art of production and the production of art, and why our office staff needs bowl after bowl of chocolate candies. 

The Madison Opera candy bowl, around which is often heard the phrase:
“Wasn’t this full on Monday?”

Eugene Onegin: Art Imitates Life Imitates Art, Part I

A statue of Pushkin at Tsarkoe Selo, Russia
Pushkin in Eugene Onegin
Pushkin spent much of his adult life either in banishment or under house-arrest for his political views, which challenged the validity and competence of Russia’s Tsarist autocracy. Although the poet eventually reined in his polemic in trade for permission to publish (some of) his works, Eugene Onegin was, in many ways, a scathing commentary on Imperial Russia’s aristocracy and their social norms. As one Russian immigrant explained to me over a cup of tea last week: “The truth of Pushkin is in the verse, is in Onegin.”

The poem is told entirely through the viewpoint of a narrator, a thinly-veiled raisonneur of Pushkin himself. The Tatiana and Onegin of the poem are based on individuals from the poet’s life. Onegin is said to be fashioned after Pushkin’s friend Pyotr Chaadaev, and Tatiana after Chaadev’s friend Dunia Norova (both Chaadaev and Norova are mentioned in the original Russian verse). Lenski, the romantic young poet with lofty ideals, embodies many of Pushkin’s beliefs about truth, honesty and purity of art. Despite these real-life connections, Pushkin treats his characters with little sympathy: he despises Onegin for his cynicism, ridicules Lenski for his naïveté, and bemoans Tatiana’s preoccupation with fictional romance. Pushkin explains their behavior as the inevitable fallout from being forced to abide by social conventions, which Pushkin viewed as stifling and destructive. Pushkin spent his early years in rebellion against the confines of his social sphere through copious consumption of booze, drugs and women. Yet he, too, eventually fell victim to the expectations of his society. For Pushkin, like Lenski, it proved fatal.

Lenski and the Duel
Nathalia Goncharova
At Tatiana’s name-day celebration, Lenski and Onegin quarrel over Olga. Although Onegin is only teasing his friend and means no real harm, Lenski angrily challenges Onegin to a duel. A few days after the ball, the men gather at the appointed dueling space, Lenski with his second, Zaretski. In the poem’s duel scene, Pushkin describes the multiple breaches of social etiquette. The second in a duel has two responsibilities: to enforce the rules of dueling, and to try to prevent the duel from happening in the first place. Zaretski has three honorable opportunities to stop the duel without causing either Onegin or Lenski to lose face; he does not do so. Social convention does not allow for either Lenski or Onegin to withdraw from the duel of their own accord and, in the end, Onegin kills his friend.
Pushkin was intimately familiar with dueling rules that permitted everyone to walk away alive. Pushkin fought 29 duels in his life generally as the offender rather than the offended and 20 of those ended with an apology rather than bloodshed.

Pushkin and the Duel

Like Lenski, Pushkin died in a duel over the woman he loved. His wife, Nathalia Goncharova, was much like Eugene Onegin‘s Olga: a beautiful, rather simple-minded young woman who enjoyed living in high society and had no interest in Pushkin’s poetry. Besides driving up Pushkin’s debt and saddling him with the expense of her two unmarried sisters, Nathalia regularly roused his jealousy by flirting with her many admirers (including the Tsar). Pushkin was embarrassed and saddened by his wife’s behavior, Nathalia’s rumored relationship with Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès finally forced Pushkin to act. On November 4, 1836, Pushkin and several of his friends received a “certificate” nominating Pushkin “Coadjutor of the International Order of Cuckolds.” Pushkin immediately accused d’Anthès of the insult and challenged him to a duel.

And here is where art and life truly intersect.

Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès

Pushkin’s desire to fight d’Anthès may well have been inflamed by the fate he had written for Lenski in Eugene Onegin. In the poem, Pushkin’s narrator predicts that Lenski’s marriage to Olga would have resulted in a wasted life, in which Lenski ceased being a poet and instead became a gouty, cuckolded landowner. Pushkin’s literary output had declined significantly over the course of his marriage, and by the time of the fatal duel he was producing almost nothing. He spent most of his time managing his family’s land-holdings while his wife gallivanted all over St. Petersburg.

Even as Pushkin fumed over the prospect that he was careening toward a socially respectable middle age, he might well have considered another parallel between his life and Eugene Onegin. In the poem, Tatiana has   a terrifying dream in which Lenski, attempting to defend her honor, duels with Onegin. The poet is killed.

Whether or not Pushkin was affected by the possibility that he predicted the manner of his own death, he did not press the duel. He postponed it twice at his opponent’s
request, and retracted his challenge altogether when d’Anthès proposed to one of Nathalia’s sisters (though Pushkin refused to attend the wedding or permit d’Anthès into his home). That might well have been the end of the story, save for d’Anthès continuing to pursue Nathalia in such a blatant fashion that Pushkin had no choice but to reissue his challenge. As in Eugene Onegin, social convention drove Pushkin’s behavior.

In the poem, there is a lapse of only a few days between Lenski’s challenge to Onegin and their dawn duel beside a picturesque mill. Nearly two months elapsed between Pushkin’s initial calling-out of d’Anthèd’Anthès. After Pushkin issued his challenge to d’Anthès, Nathalia made efforts to distance herself from the Frenchman despite his attempts to trap her into being alone with him.


In the poem, Olga marries a soldier following an acceptable mourning period. Nathalia remarried six years after Pushkin died. In both cases, there is debate over whether these women loved their men.
Scholars have argued for more than a century over Nathalia’s true feelings for her husband, one side blaming her vanity and selfishness for Pushkin’s death, the other conceding that she was vain but not so self-absorbed she couldn’t recognize Pushkin’s greatness. Whatever conclusions we might draw of her, it is worth noting that Nathalia preserved every letter Pushkin wrote to her during their tumultuous life together.

Eugene Onegin: The Element of Dance

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is filled with beautiful music, replete with complex musical motifs and well-defined character relationships (more on that later this week). But also of importance are the dances that pepper the opera. At first glance, the dances in Eugene Onegin appear deceptively decorative, a way for the composer to paint the backdrop of farming life in the Russian countryside or the lush social lives of the haut monde in St. Petersburg. While the dances do accentuate the locales of Eugene Onegin, they also have a cultural and narrative function.

Matryoshka dolls, a famous
aspect of Russian culture

Cultural Identity
Much of the higher culture of Imperial Russia was imported from France and Italy. In the 19th-century, Russia turned its focus to establishing and supporting a strong national identity, and composers like Tchaikovsky incorporated clearly identifiable aspects of Russian culture into their works. These elements helped connect all of Russia’s social spheres to the literary and theatrical arts of Imperial Russia’s cultural Golden Age. Tchaikovsky, who believed that Russian culture and Western culture could meld, employed both Russian and European dance traditions in most of his works.

 Narrative Voice
The dances in Eugene Onegin are particularly important because they mark a historic moment in which dance became a dramatic plot-point rather than a musical interlude. Pushkin’s novel was told entirely through the viewpoint of a narrator, and Tchaikovsky uses music and dance as a substitute for Pushkin’s narrative voice. Let’s take a look at some of the dances from Eugene Onegin and how they relate to the action.

The khorovod
The first dance we see is a traditional Russian folk dance, the khorovod. It is a circle dance performed by the peasants at Madame Larina’s command. Culturally, the khorovod fulfilled the needs of many occasions: weddings, harvests, deaths, complete happiness or utter despair. Tchaikovsky uses it as foreshadowing. The peasants, who have just completed the harvest, are sprightly and joyous with the simple delight of a job well done. As they dance, though, they sing of a young but hopeful maiden about to encounter a stranger carrying a cudgel. The innocence of the dance meeting with the menace of the song parallels sweet Tatiana’s following encounter with the dangerous Onegin.

The waltz
At Tatiana’s name-day celebration months after her rejection by Onegin, he has the poor taste to not only show up at her party and ask her for a dance, but the gall to abandon her in the middle of the dance floor. The waltz here is a “countrified” version of the ballroom dances performed at the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg and the palaces in France. The waltz is cultured but a little clumsy, reflecting the youthful Tatiana’s adult determination to remain civil to Onegin despite his mistreatment of her and his embarrassing behavior.

As the name-day scene continues and Onegin incites Lenski’s jealousy over Olga, note the presence of lively Russian dance characteristics such as circles, raised arms and quick foot movement, and contrast those with the sedate European influences of lowered arms, straight lines and elongated steps. The music brings both elements together, underscoring Onegin’s “devil may care” attitude and Lenski’s rising anger.

A version of the polonaise (by Kornelli Szlegel) 

The polonaise
There is some irony in the fact that the polonaise began life as a rustic Polish dance, quickly rising to the heights of popularity in the ritziest circles of European society. Russia once occupied one-third of Poland, and the nation’s composers were entranced with the polonaise. The dance came to signify royalty and uncommon destiny. It became a staple of Russian operas and ballets, and appeared in countless symphonic and chamber pieces. In this way, the polonaise has become connected with Russia.

In Eugene Onegin, the slightly rigid but nonetheless elegant polonaise is reflective of the now married and socially elevated Tatiana. The dance is constrained in its movements, yet each step and sweep hints at a wildness just waiting to break free. Married to a Prince and part of St. Petersburg’s Imperial society, Tatiana is much like the polonaise: she is poised, regal…but the passions of her youth still smolder within her. When the jaded Onegin is inflamed at the mere sight of her, the musical strains of the polonaise seem to underscore the question: Will they, or won’t they?

Our first dance rehearsal
Stage director Candace Evans is also the choreographer for Eugene Onegin. This past Saturday, she brought together the production’s professional dancers, principle singers, and the Madison Opera chorus in their first all-cast dance rehearsal. Take a look at some of the highlights below, and be sure to get your tickets to see it all come together: