Eugene Onegin: About last night…

As you may (or may not) know, the MadOpera staff has undergone a changing of the guard. In addition to General Director Kathryn Smith, MadOpera also has new faces in marketing, patron services, and artistic and office management. This past weekend marked the first production for the new crew, and it was quite a weekend!

Eugene Onegin proved to be a hit with the audience!

Scott Ramsay (Lenski) and Hyung Yun (Onegin) just before the fatal shot.

The critics seemed pleased, too:

  • 77 Square – “Madison Opera’s rich Russian gamble pays off” 
  • The Isthmus – “Madison Opera’s Eugene Onegin tells of love and regret”
  • The Well-Tempered Ear – “Madison Opera breaks new ground with…Eugene Onegin
  • – “Old Friends Return to Madison Opera”
The palace ballroom in St. Petersburg

The Russian Folk Orchestra and Russian Educational Association were very popular, as well!

Patrons arrived early to listen to the Russian Folk Orchestra.

Artifacts and cultural facts from Russian natives.

It was an exciting weekend of great opera. Thank you to everyone who came out to Eugene Onegin— some of you to both performances!   and to those who stopped the MadOpera staff in the lobby to express your appreciation. We encourage you to email your comments and let us know your thoughts.

Eugene Onegin: Art Imitates Life Imitates Art, Part II

It is perhaps no surprise that Pushkin’s life so closely resembled the events in Eugene Onegin, right up to and including the fatal duel. The poet wrote himself as the narrative character, and his fingerprints are evident in every verse. For Tchaikovsky, the composer of the opera, it was not art imitating life, but rather the other way around.
Tchaikovsky and Eugene Onegin
When it was first suggested to Tchaikovsky to adapt Pushkin’s poem into an opera, the composer was appalled. In a letter to his brother, Tchaikovsky called the idea “wild”. How could he dare take such perfect verse— and nationally treasured verse, at that!— and transform it into an opera?

The very same night the suggestion was made, Tchaikovsky re-read Pushkin’s work and was inspired to sketch out the structure of the opera. He wrote Tatiana’s famous Letter Scene in one sleepless night, and used it as the basis for his operatic vision.

As Tchaikovsky delved deeper and deeper into Eugene Onegin and its characters, he found that he was moved most by the young, passionate Tatiana. As the book and libretto took shape, the composer found in Tatiana a muse and a heroine. Her sincerity touched him, and he abhorred Onegin’s cruel mistreatment of such an innocent and courageous girl.

It is undeniably Tchaikovsky’s infatuation with the fictional Tatiana that led him to make a mistake that nearly ended his life.
An Unfortunate Marriage
Little is known of Antonina Miliukova’s life before her marriage to Tchaikovsky. She was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where she and Tchaikovsky met briefly, and spent much of her adult life working in Moscow and Kronstadt as a music teacher. 
Although Tchaikovsky could not recall having met Antonina, the brief interlude made quite an impression on her. Twelve years after their first meeting, Antonina sent Tchaikovsky a letter confessing her love for him. Tchaikovsky rebuffed her, stating that he could never return her love and that their life together could only be one of sorrow and resentment.

Tatiana was a girl of 17 when she encountered Onegin and fell in love. Antonina had been 16 when she first met the man she would marry, though by the time she wrote her own confessional letter she was nearly 30-years-old. Nonetheless, Antonina’s letter contained a similar sweetness, turmoil, and intermingling of hope and despair to that which characterizes Tatiana’s letter.

The parallels between Antonina and Tatiana did not escape Tchaikovsky. Neither, to his horror, did the parallels between himself and Onegin. Appalled at his own behavior, Tchaikovsky rushed to set things right with Antonina, proposing to her in an effort to convince himself that he was nothing like the selfish, jaded Onegin. Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his friend and patron, Nadezhda von Meck: “It seems to me as if the power of fate has drawn to me that girl.”
Tchaikovsky and Antonina married a few months after she sent her letter. In the following weeks, the composer finished Eugene Onegin, suffered a deep depression, and attempted suicide by throwing himself into a river in the hopes of catching pneumonia. He wrote letter upon letter to his friends and family of how he despised his wife, and the temporary fever induced by his opera that had led him to make such a regrettable choice. 
After only a few months of marriage, Tchaikovsky and Antonina separated. They never lived together again.
The End of the Tale
We can imagine many scenarios for what became of Onegin after Tatiana’s rejection of him. Perhaps, awakened at last to love, he moved on from Tatiana and found it with another woman. Maybe he spent the rest of his life a bitter man. The same is true of Tatiana. She could well have found true joy with her husband, despite Onegin’s presence in her heart. Or, the second encounter with Onegin may have soured her marriage for her, and the lonely years that passed left her a shadow of her former self. 
In the opera, Madama Larina tells her bright-eyed daughter that life is not like a novel, a lesson that Tchaikovsky, like Tatiana, failed to heed. And though the end for Tatiana and Onegin was bittersweet, it was nothing but bitter for Tchaikovsky and Antonina. They remained married until the composer’s death, but Tchaikovsky felt nothing for his wife other than resentment and hatred. It is recorded that the mere mention of Antonina’s name could send him into a panic attack.
Antonina’s tale ends sadly. She spent several years in a live-in relationship that produced three children, all of whom Antonina was forced to surrender to orphanages and all of whom died in childhood. The last twenty years of her life were passed in an asylum, where she eventually died. Though history has often been harsh to Antonina, framing her as a stupid and selfish woman, some sympathetic scholars describe her as warm and sincere, and utterly bewildered by how her powerful love could end in such sorrow. In this light, it is possible that Tchaikovsky was never mistaken about her similarities to his beloved Tatiana.

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: 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: A labor of love (and a little fear)

Madison Opera opens the 2011-2012 Season of Dreamers with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, our first Tchaikovsky piece and our first Russian-language opera. The composer is most well-known for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and, of course, the 1812 Overture which is performed at every public Fourth of July celebration in the United States. If you’re scratching your head as to how an overture celebrating a Russian victory over Napoleon has become a staple of American independence…well, that’s a topic for another blog.

Tchaikovsky is one of Russia’s most important musical luminaries. He produced his extensive body of work during the Russian Romantic period, a volatile era spanning the 18th and 19th centuries during which Russia forged a distinct cultural identity. Russian Romanticism reflects Imperial Russia’s captivation with longing, love, and the nature of the human spirit, themes expressed thoroughly in Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky wrote an opera of passion and honesty, but he very nearly never wrote it at all.

Aleksandr Pushkin
1799-1837, seven years of which
were spent writing Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin was first penned as a novel in verse by iconic poet, Aleksandr Pushkin. Pushkin is of even greater importance to Russia than Tchaikovsky. An old Soviet joke goes that the winning entry in a national Pushkin monument competition, judged by Stalin himself, was a statute of Stalin reading Pushkin. The moral of the story: above all else, the legend and stature of Pushkin would withstand government tyranny, social upheaval, and historical revision. Pushkin is to Russia as Shakespeare is to England, and more. During a period when most of upper-class Russia denounced their own language and culture as vulgar in favor of French words and attitudes, Pushkin wrote in Russian from a Russian perspective. For this reason, he is the undisputed father of Russian literature.

It is therefore completely understandable that after someone else suggested Tchaikovsky turn Pushkin’s poem into an opera, Tchaikovsky dismissed the idea as “quite preposterous.” How could an opera capture the subtle, witty, glittering narrative of the poem? More importantly, how could he dare to subject the greatest national literary treasure to operatic conventions?

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

After one sleepless night, Tchaikovsky found the answer. A prolific letter writer (5,347 letters survive to this day), Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest:

“How pleasant to avoid all the routine Pharaohs, Ethiopian princesses, poisonded [sic] cups and all the rest of these tales about automata. What poetry there is in Onegin! I am not blind to its faults. I fully realize that it gives little scope for treatment, and will be poor in stage effect, but the richness of the poetry, the humanity and simplicity of the subject, embodied in Pushkin´s inspired verse, will make up for whatever it lacks in other ways.” (1877)

Modest, along with most of Tchaikovsky’s circle of friends and peers, criticized him for his choice of topic and urged him not to take the risk of infuriating Russia by adapting Pushkin’s beloved verse to stage. While Tchaikovsky’s letters express his own anxieties about molding Pushkin’s masterpiece into opera, they also chronicle his love for the story and his belief that the public would embrace the work (after careful exposure and a suitable warming-up period, of course). In the end, Tchaikovsky was proven right and the opera Eugene Onegin was embraced throughout Russian society from the poorest rural villages to the magnificent court of Tsar Alexander III.

The magic of Eugene Onegin lies not in its theatricality, of which there is very little, or its tragedy, which even Tchaikovsky described as banal, but in its emotional verity. Eugene Onegin is a story about the everyday occurrences that make up a human life: our impulsive desires, our longing for love and our need for friendship, the choices we make and how we live with our regrets. Tchaikovsky spent a year laboriously, lovingly, and a little fearfully capturing the universal emotions of Pushkin’s characters, in the end creating a masterpiece of music and poetry that is unique in the operatic repertoire.

Over the next few weeks leading up to opening night, MadOpera will explore the lives of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, the language of music and dance (yes, dance!) in Eugene Onegin, and our breath-taking production of the opera. Along the way, there will be brief photographic forays into Russian culture, courtesy of the UW Madison Russian Folk Orchestra and the Russian Educational Association, and a guest blogger will give you an intimate introduction to Eugene Onegin‘s famous Letter Scene. If you just cannot wait until the next post, have a look at our Eugene Onegin opera guide.

It’s going to be a fun and informative few weeks, so be sure to get your tickets to Eugene Onegin before the excitement overwhelms you.

Benjamin Taylor

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