By the time a production finally opens, Edmonton Opera staff can usually recite the storyline forwards, backwards and sideways. But what about all the context talking about the time period the opera was written in, the nuances of the language used and insight into how Edmonton Opera will put the work on stage?
That’s what Opera 101 is for.
Moderated by Stephan Bonfield, musicologist, the panel on Wednesday, April 10, featured panelists including Edmonton Opera artistic administrator and chorusmaster Michael Spassov, Edmonton Opera CEO Sandra Gajic, and two Russian language and literature professors at the University of Alberta, Dr. Jelena Pogosjan and Dr. Peter Rolland.
Is love an illusion?
It was the first question Bonfield posed to the panel, and Spassov countered that the whole opera is about this set of characters and their relationship to love. Plus, maybe it’s not necessarily an illusion, but fate at work — an idea that Tchaikovsky was obsessed with. Sometimes the right person comes along at the wrong time in your life, Spassov continued. He asked, what if it’s maybe the wrong people who are together? Would things have worked out differently if Lenski’s fiancée was Tatiana, and Onegin fell in love with Olga?
As a neuroscience researcher, Bonfield explained that neurons in the brain can be programmed to do two completely different tasks. “You can fall in love with two different people, stay with one person, be in love with that one person, but the memory of decades ago will come back,” he said. This explains why Tatiana feels that when she re-encounters Onegin at Gremin’s ball, “it’s as fresh as yesterday,” because she still remembers being in love with him, which we saw in the first act.
The duelling tradition
Every opera has a love story, and Bonfield compared the storyline to that of Verdi, with an added twist — duelling. It just ups the ante that much more. At this time in Russian history, duelling was an important and common practice, and not always deadly. Pushkin was involved in 29 (known) duels before he was killed in one himself, but the intent of duels was to defend honour, to wound or to miss, not to kill. Before he died, Pushkin had never killed anyone in the duels he fought.
A crash course in the Russian language
There are 42 different English translations of Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse that is roughly 150 pages long. Pogosjan’s favourite version, however, is four volumes in English, as each piece of vocabulary is defined with all the possible variations and meanings. Still, she, as a native Russian speaker, described English versions as flat and two-dimensional, adding that “I don’t have enough language (in English)” to talk about the poetry of the original text. The general feeling of the panelists was that despite the number of translations of Eugene Onegin available, there is invariably something lost in translation. There has been a lot of talk (understandably) lately about learning the Russian language — though the majority of the principal singers are native Russian speakers, there are still some cast members and the entire chorus who have had to learn the language for this opera. And there are just some sounds that aren’t made in the English language that are common in Russian.
But if you don’t have time to learn Russian in the next week, don’t worry. We always display English supertitles above the stage, so that everyone knows what’s going on. For what it’s worth though, reading every slide isn’t essential — the cast is that good that if you’ve read the synopsis beforehand, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. And as Sandra Gajic paraphrased director Tom Diamond: “All of these singers have Onegin in their DNA.”