I had a conversation about opera with Leonid Desyatnikov.Desyatnikov is one of Russia’s most prominent composers and since 2009 the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre.His opera Rosental's Children, based on the libretto by the highly controversial fiction writer Vladimir Sorokin commissioned and staged at the Bolshoi Theatre made an enormous and scandalous success.One of the opera reviewers described: ’’Here, Mozart is a clone brought to life at Doctor Rosenthal's laboratory. With the government subsidies for cloning and stem cell exploration, as well as for other areas of basic research, cut off during Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the early 1990s, clones of Mozart and other great composers-such as Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky - find themselves loose on Moscow's streets, exposed to the murky post-Soviet reality, memories whereof are still fresh for many Muscovites.’’The Russian State Duma accused the opera of being ‘pornographic’ and promted an investigation after its premier.Nevertheless, the opera received a Golden Mask Award.
Elena Langer:Can we please talk about opera?
Leonid Desyatnikov: Why opera?
EL: Because of your Rosental's Children, because you are the artistic director of an Opera House and because I have ulterior motives as I have just finished writing my own full-length opera and am very keen to discuss various aspects of the genre.Do you think you could describe what opera is in one sentence?
LD:This is too difficult!I can only offer a banal answer – a pinnaclein the history of European culture.
EL: Is opera a story told through music, singing and movement?
LD: No, it doesn’t necessarily need a story.There are many wonderful operas in which nothing really happens. Take Saint Francis of Assisi by Messiaen, or any baroque opera…If a composer uses mythology then the story lacks suspense.The development of the plot becomes unimportant as everybody knows what is going to happen.
EL: At least we now have established what is NOT important and that is the plot!
LD:Of course – look at Tristan and Isolde orSzymanowski’s King Roger….In any fiction film many more events take place than in an opera.
EL: What is important then?
LD: Well, what isimportant is that it creates some fit of passion, some metaphysical, otherworldly psychological human state expressed through music.Opera shows us characters in such emotional states that are otherwise impossible to express but through music.
EL: It is the only genre where we can hear the thoughts of several characters simultaneously…
LD: Yes, true, but we can’t hear the text in 95% of cases!Instead, we see a special moment, where a few characters are shocked. At least I personally always remember those kinds of bewitched moments.‘I’m frightened’ (‘Mne strashno’), for instance, from the first tableau of The Queen of Spades or the finale of The Marriage of Figaro.So after all, it doesn’t matter what they are saying, it matters what they all are feeling during those moments.Music is able to tell us more than the text in this situation.The characters are still, like in a child’s play ‘statue’.The depth of their feeling is interesting – the ensembles are not about what you see, but what you don’t see, about the inner side of life.
Excerpt from Desyatnikov's opera 'Rosental's Children'
EL: Could you name your 5 favourite operas?
LD: Five favourite operas for a professional composer would not be enough. Your favourite opera is the one, where you revel with each note, which you know by heart from beginning to end.There are music-lovers, who could sing each character’s lines from their favourite operas.
EL: True! My grandma could sing huge bits from Traviata and Eugene Onegin although she wasn’t a musician.
LD: Probably, you could only be so faithful to opera if you are a music lover, not a professional composer.Opera for me and should be for you, a kind of back garden, which you can’t regard with reverence. We have to cultivate this back garden because we are its owners.
EL: But I still regard Wozzeck or Lady Macbeth of Mtsens with reverence…
LD: As a matter of fact, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk doesn’t touch me much.Actually, the same could be said about Wozzeck. Although, the culmination moment in the d-minor invention couldn’t leave anybody untouched.The problem is that I know this opera from inside out - for a few months I was living with it.(Wozzeck was recently staged at the Bolshoi Theatre – EL).So it is really hard to be emotionally shocked by something that you know so well.My perception of it is not fresh enough.
EL:I’m always amazed by the German counterpoint, the intensity and richness of it.I don’t think you could find that level of counterpoint in Russian music.
I made a comment - and by mistake published it twice - which the webmaster found 'insulting'. So he removed it. Fair enough. He said that criticism was acceptible on these pages if it was constructive.
I can accept that. I will try to be constructive, although this is hard when blog articles are by invitation only] and others have sole blog access to audio-video, graphics etc. [On another subject I spent a great deal of time unsuccessfully trying to find a format to upload a document...] This inevitably gives us ordinary paid-up members the feeling that the blog is not ours [which indeed it is not].
There are two grounds for my complaint. First, the general tone and priorities of the site: I too felt insulted that so much of our space should be taken up by public relations material on behalf of certain market-friendly personalities [ - and don't forget: we are not talking about some struggling dissident here, but the artistic director of the Bolshoi!]. This gives our site the all-too familiar ring of scratch-my-back careerism. In case anybody starts getting offended again, I am not suggesting that there is any kind of financial or other tit-for-tat deal going on. But our front page is beginning to look much like any publsher's publicity leaflet.
Secondly, the choice of who to publicise. Obviously tastes will differ. I happen to find the examples of this composer's work particularly bland and unimaginative. This lack of imagination may be mine rather than his. Maybe it is I who am missing something. A composer who reckons 'The Love of 3 Oranges' and 'The Flaming Angel' among his favourite operas must have something good about him - 2 of the most startlingly imaginative creations ever! Perhaps his shocking distaste for the great 'Wozzeck' reflects a certain stale 'social realism' about the production he was involved with?
Anyway that is all by the way. Neither Elena, nor the webmaster has actually told us what they think of this composer: why he is there. OK his ideas about what opera is could be interesting. This is something that could perhaps merit some serious discussion. But it doesn't. And then, he is going to get a performance in London soon and there's a CD coming out. But what is interesting about him in their eyes? Or in his own? What does he write and why? [I mean the musical ideas] and how? and why is that? What contribution does he think he is making to the art of music?
Without the ability to give examples it is hard for me to explain what I mean by all this, but I think the Prokofiev operas Desyatnikov admires pronounce very exuberantly and pointedly what they are there for musically speaking: they represent a unique fantastical, lurid and vivid and somehow 'true' picture of people and society in an amazingly heightened musical language which somehow seems to force a tonal direction out of very borderline atonal 'extreme' reaches. This was Prokofiev's major contribution to the musical langauge of his time - very different but yet strangely parallel to Berg's - a mastery that we can hear in development from his earliest juvenile piano pieces onwards.
I would like to know if Desyatnikov believes he has learned something from this example. I cannot hear it. But then we can't all be geniuses. But I do think our pages should be given over to people who are trying to find a path forward [I am not saying that LD is not} in such a way as to help all of us less-than-geniuses find ways of developing our skills and understanding. This could help us, could help the writers themselves and serve the cause of the art of music. What else is Composition Today for?
I am sorry if you found the interview uninteresting or the the clips umimaginative (what I could find online of Desyatnikov's music is actually unrepresentative). I have known Desyatnikov for a few years since when he was in fact more of a dissident figure rather than an officially accepted composer. It was a great surprise for me when I learnt he was Bolshoi's artistic director, but Russia's political and cultural life is full of surprises! And since I was asked to write these blogs to tell the readers about something outside of British music scene, I thought it was a good idea to publish my conversation with Leonid.
I also think that blog is not a genre through which you learn how to compose or what to compose or what contribution a particular composer makes to the art of music. At least my blogs will not discuss that. My blogs just offer the readers some information which they might not come across otherwise.
I personally didn't find Desyatnikov's music interesting when I was a student - I was more into new music crazy technique. As the years passed and as I got to know more of his works, I now realise that he has found his own musical language and his aesthetics and I always look out for his new pieces. But I appreciate that it is hard for you to judge this without the context or without knowing his best works.
I suppose my 'quarrel' is not with you but with the webmaster for having given such prominence to a new 'blog' instead of continuing and extending the possibilities for exchange of ideas etc. mong composers, which I took to be one of the original aims of this site .
Of course, he did provide facilities for posting mp3s and score extracts etc. on to our forums, and the fact that there had been little or no uptake of them is hardly his fault!
Perhaps it is like the British Imperialists used to say about 'newly developing nations' - that they are "not ready for self-government" - perhaps we CT members are not ready to take advantage of the resources at our disposal