Peter I. Tschaikowsky
Peter I. Tchaikovsky and Konstantin Shilovsky after Alexander Pushkin's verse novel
Première on October 31, 2007 in the Nationaltheater
CONFESSIONS, SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN.
A CONVERSATION WITH KRZYSZTOF WARLIKOWSKI
Tchaikovsky's opera is named after its male protagonist – as was Pushkin's novel in verse. Surprisingly, however, the more emotionally present figure is a young woman, Tatyana. The musical motifs connected with her accompany us from the overture and the famous letter scene through to the final encounter with Onegin. Is this not rather an opera about a girl's tragic love? What is our perspective of this work?
Naturally Tchaikovsky takes over the title from Pushkin without changing it, aware that he is working with one of the most important texts in Russian literature. Tchaikovsky's decision to give so much room to Tatyana in his dramaturgy and in his music may signify that this character was very important to him personally, and that he identified his emotional life with that of his heroine. For us, Tatyana is revealed far more by her confession: ‚No-one understands me here, I'm alone here, and I want to live with you!’ The girl is characterized by an environment, by her family. Also by her sister Olga, who demonstrates her superiority to Tatyana in matters of the heart. This is the superiority of an attractive woman, who is well aware of what she is worth, over another woman who has no such self-confidence, a woman who does not believe that she will ever experience love – and then suddenly does fall in love with a person she doesn't even know. With this confession she reveals herself to us, and to this person, in a completely unfiltered way.
Onegin only becomes a fully-fledged character in the story when he kills his friend in a duel. This becomes a wound that can no longer be healed. The duel becomes the leitmotif of his life, just as unrequited love does for Tatyana. Up to this moment we experience the work through Tatyana's eyes, as if she were closest to us. Tchaikovsky gives us a vivid image of this lonely girl, isolated from her surroundings, yet with a very rich inner life.
In fact, it's almost as if there were two operas: Tatyana's opera and Onegin's one. In this sense, the first part shows us the development of a young girl, and the second is the reconstruction of a man. At the beginning, nothing points to him becoming the hero whose story we will recount and whose inner life we will explore.
It's hard to grasp what motivates Onegin inwardly. His mere presence appears to trigger events to which he is compelled to react. Who is this man, and why does he involuntarily set so much in motion?
He could be characterized superficially as a survivor, a person who makes the best of things, but also someone who is blasé, callous and bored. There is something of the 19th century about him – that special spleen, and a certainty that one can do all kinds of things when prompted to do so by boredom. Despite this, it is still quite unclear what is going on inside him; we can only imagine it for ourselves, because the words provide us with no information.
The girl's confession of love unintentionally casts Onegin in a very negative light. The man who rejects this girl arouses no sympathy in us whatsoever – not only because he rejects her but also because of the words that are exchanged when he does so.
It also seems that those around Tatyana give Onegin no chance from the very start. Is this merely the contrast between people from the city and the province, and disapproval of a seemingly arrogant city-dweller? Or is it the curse of an anti-hero who already has something repugnant about him? A person who – as everyone seems to sense from the start – will bring ill luck?
So why does Tatyana find him attractive?
Perhaps this is the first time she has opened up to a man, or has noticed a man. She grows up in an environment where girls learn to quickly secure the few available men. Youthful years must not be wasted. If by a certain age a woman has still not secured a partner she may spend the rest of her life unmarried. Tatyana does not feel up to the chase, and perhaps she has no faith in her own charms. With Onegin we suddenly have an outsider who is quite unfamiliar with these rules or who rejects them, and she readily surrenders to him. Is this flight necessary, and is the passion a selfish one? Is it a passion that is preordained for Onegin because he deserves it? In her letter Tatyana says that her fate could just as well lie outside his life, and that she could be an orderly and exemplary mother. This happy feeling of security from a predictable future is something she is prepared to abandon for Onegin's sake. It may be an urge for self-destruction.
If it really is 'two operas in one', what connects these two perspectives? What connects this man and this woman, both of whom are characterized as outsiders? At first glance we're dealing with a story of two people who fall in love with each other at different times. Years later, after Onegin re-encounters the girl he rejected, his emotions are entirely transformed. Between the two encounters there is the duel, when Onegin shoots his friend. What is the connection between these experiences?
Perhaps the encounters can be seen as a kind of frame around the drama of Onegin: first he and his friend Lensky visit a family, and a young woman confesses her love for him. She does this with a vitality that makes it difficult for him to properly react. Then, having received and rejected this love declaration, he finds himself face-to-face in a duel with his friend. The unbelievable experience of killing someone close to you without any reason is something that also affects Tatyana.
Even though the duel does not involve her directly.
One can say that Tatyana's love declaration knocks Onegin off balance so much that he wants to destroy everything around him. A feeling of unease arises within him at having been humiliated, and at having had to humiliate Tatyana. She touched an unwelcome nerve. He has probably given up the topic of love altogether. Then, years later, he meets the same woman again. In his memory she is still associated with that terrible and perhaps most vivid moment of his life that he cannot forget – the duel. Suddenly this woman, who is almost a stranger, becomes someone very close to him, and he confesses his love for her. Is this a kind of masochism, or a vicious circle from which he cannot escape? Is he condemned to living with people who witnessed the duel and who knew Lensky? Can they somehow make him innocent, deep inside? Tatyana understands what he could scarcely explain to any other woman. One could imagine Tatyana saying 'yes' and the two of them beginning the task of forgetting the past and building up a new and happy future – as if it were simple to regain humanity at the side of a person to whom one is connected by a dark secret. For me, in this regard, Onegin in under more strain as a dramatic figure than Tatyana, although one should never think for a moment that Tatyana is free of the darkness of past events either.
Tchaikovsky subtitled his opera ‚Lyrical Scenes'. He wanted to compose an opera that depicted everyday life, and was far removed from historical drama or myth. Yet these dark secrets are surely anything but "everyday"? With one person wanting to surrender herself entirely to another, and two friends shooting at each other, is Tchaikovsky being ironical here?
It's reminiscent of the way that David Lynch treats Blue Velvet. He entitles the first scene ‚...once upon a time in America’ and starts off with a normal happy day, when the citizens get up in the morning and water their front lawns. Every day is "everyday" in this community. Yet hidden behind it is something dark and unlived that gradually comes to the surface. The small town continues its everyday existence and no-one suspects that anything terrible could occur. And then we find a finger, and that's the start of the nightmare. Tchaikovsky may be saying the same here: that our everyday life ultimately consists of a series of tragedies. A weekend visit to the country is an everyday scene, and so is a ball in St. Petersburg. Even an early-morning duel had something everyday about it at one time, at least for the seconds. Again it's a question of perspective. Onegin and Tatyana experience this everyday life very differently. Onegin pays a neighbourhood visit to his friend, and nothing points to the fact that it will end so tragically and dramatically. Nevertheless, the innocent trip and the encounter with the girl lead to him killing his best friend.
How do things reach such a pass? What kind of darkness is hidden below the surface? Is the duel merely a tragic blunder? A piece of bad luck?
Lensky challenges Onegin to the duel out of jealousy. It may be unjustified, but in any case he reacts to Onegin with oversensitivity. What's important for me here is to what degree I turn this story into a story about mature adults. There are no teenagers in the opera. If it were a contemporary underground movie about teenagers who made some serious error and had to pay for that error until they were 40 years old, the fact that they were young at the time could explain everything that happened. In the case of the singers we have adults aged thirty or forty. Now, should we follow convention and make them younger? Or should we go deeper, and look for a kind of maturity in the characters from the very first moment on?
In romantic tradition a duel like this has no legal consequences. The romantic hero departs, no-one pursues him, and no-one brings him to justice for the murder. In Pushkin's time this was a bizarre aristocratic sport that was engaged in daily and on a huge scale. Every one of these survivors had several duels and deaths on their consciences that were not seen logically as the murders they were but instead brought them fame. What counts for Tchaikovsky, however, is not this convention in itself but the fact that a person cannot forget the groundless killing of a person who is actually their friend. A duel is nothing I regard as in any way routine for me, either. So this scene has to be about something deeper.
From the very start, Onegin describes the world around Tatyana as negative. So is he assuming this role and confirming the image we have of him? Because he knows that he cannot correct it anyhow? Is this a struggle between an individual and his environment? Is it an urge to do evil? Can we find the ideas of Dostoyevsky here, with their insoluble existential entanglements? Is it only our own heightened sensitivity that adds all these questions to the story?
Tchaikovsky writes the only proper duet in the opera for the two friends. They are both stunned and shaken by the situation that has arisen, but instead of admitting their feelings, i.e. their friendship, for each other, they fight a duel with the most dogged persistence imaginable...
Certain insults have already been exchanged. Who is supposed to forgive whom in this situation? Can things be remedied? Are they two ferocious youths or two insulted male adults, or is it just the convention of the time? The moment they meet for the actual duel, what hitherto seemed to be a mere matter of honour suddenly becomes horribly real. A pistol fires a shot, and the next moment someone is writhing on the ground in a pool of blood. Any romanticism relating to a duel instantly vanishes.
Tchaikovsky had time on his side in this regard: his epoch already regarded duels as idiotic. However, if one believes the legend about his suicide he, too died as a result of inhuman concepts of honour. So again, the idea of a code of honour relating to duels becomes immediately interesting.
That legend of Tchaikovsky's death is disputed, but the sheer possibility of it is of course interesting – that he had to face a court of honour after a love affair with a young man and was given the ostensible choice of public shame on the one hand, or death on the other, by drinking a glass of poisoned water provided. A code of honour like that is the result of social pressure that leads to people destroying themselves or those close to them, to negating themselves. There is a supervisory authority that is perhaps not even aware of this supervision. This gave me the idea of having the part of Zaretsky, whose only function is providing the equipment for the duel, sung by the same singer as Gremin – thereby giving the function a kind of "human" face. This is a man who has a wife at home, a man whose life follows accepted social norms, and who does not carry the same problems around with him, a man who is involved in this murder, but hasn't even sullied his fingers let alone his conscience because everything takes place according to clear and pre-defined rules.
The question is: how can the duel be understood in the context of Pushkin, the context of Tchaikovsky, and in our own context? We know far more about the psychology; we know that a human being can carry out certain actions that are totally opposed to what he inwardly wants and yearns for. The tragic result is that Onegin has killed a person he felt affection for, and affection turns into destruction. Onegin is a character who is hiding something. Possibly, passion for another man. An unspoken love. That's one possibility.
Tchaikovsky wrote that Tatyana's letter in particular moved him so much when he read Pushkin's Onegin that it was instrumental in his decision to turn the novella into an opera. Why was he so emotionally affected by such a desperate and simultaneously limitless confession to someone who was a complete stranger?
I feel that the homosexual Tchaikovsky was well aware of what the word 'confession' meant. His own life probably contained only few such confessions. Tchaikovsky was unable to tell people why he was so personally affected by Tatyana's confession: it reminded him of the impossibility of his own deepest inclinations.
For Tchaikovsky, a confession is something far graver and more far-reaching than it is for Pushkin. In fact I think he added something to Pushkin that went beyond the conventions of the Romantic era. Tchaikovsky portrays a struggle with himself: Tatyana experiences a strong wave of liberating happiness when she decides to make her love declaration, yet it is combined with a feeling of defeat and shame at the same time. It is an exposure of her innermost self. She doubts whether she has the right to make such a confession at all, and is plagued by hesitation and uncertainty. The letter, therefore, is not only a love declaration but is also connected with a feeling of shame and humiliation.
Tchaikovsky teaches us to sympathize with Tatyana and to understand that this scene involves a great deal more than the writing of a love letter, which was something common in those days: it also involves certain exhibitionist tendencies. The feeling of shame and self-humiliation is there from the very start. The whole of Tchaikovsky's life was played out in this dilemma: could he or couldn't he admit to his own deepest feelings, should he or shouldn't he? For Tchaikovsky a confession is not just a confession of love but always a confession of his secret. There are spoken and unspoken confessions.
Can the letter scene be regarded as the scene of a confession, while the duel scene is that of a confession that was hindered?
If we continue to remember that Tchaikovsky was homosexual, all the stories that are played out here instantly become ambivalent. Because Tchaikovsky understood them in his own way and they had a different significance for him.
But what can this knowledge of Tchaikovsky's life provide?
The story of Onegin moved him personally because it reflected certain experiences in his own life, and he gives us much of himself in certain themes and at certain moments of this story. He left others aside. The way I see it, he introduces things, smuggles thing in that are primarily important to him alone. So he wrote something here that was for himself, and also about himself.
I often thought of Ang Lee's film Brokeback Mountain. On the one hand it's a film about two men who love each other, and on the other – which makes it universal – it's also a film about the tragic consequences of not being able to admit one's love. There's a moment in the mountains when the two men, remote from the world and protected from their own shame through alcohol, go to bed together. But life doesn't only happen in protective and remote mountains. Back in their everyday provincial lives they're incapable – or at least one of them is – of admitting to their feelings and saying: "I'm gay, you're gay, let's live together". Then one of them gets killed, and any possibility of living that love is lost irrevocably.
Tchaikovsky was an artist of the 19th century; he succeeded in formulating a kind of confession for himself, or in expressing certain things by not formulating them. Now, 130 years on, certain confessions are perhaps easier, and can be more directly expressed.
Nevertheless, works such as Tony Kushner's Angels in America are being written today too, and they arise from the same need to say and to formulate something. The important thing here is that a topic interests someone. We have a gay composer or author who wants to get something off his chest, who feels an urge to express himself through art, on a topic that is close to his heart. The fact that we live differently today doesn't mean that certain things no longer have to be discussed. And can people today really live without a feeling of shame and guilt towards their peers, their family, their mother, God, the state, and humanity in general? Are people already free from apportioning blame to each other?
One day Tchaikovsky confessed to his family that he was homosexual. He was also able to indulge in his sexual preferences, but combining them with a love relationship that was officially sanctioned was impossible at that time. It remained a sin, behind closed doors.
Now it is possible. But one could also call it a great curse. Firstly, of course, even in this day and age one has to acknowledge to oneself that one lives with a person of the same sex. At this stage one is a fighter. It's a terrible strain, but also provides a great deal of adrenalin. One has to fight oneself, one's own anxiety, one's partner's anxiety, and then one's environment, and colleagues at work. Once a person has come out, all this tension disappears. The neighbour says: "Okay, you're a gay couple, I accept that and I'd like to invite you to dinner." That's when normal civilized life begins, in the style of heterosexual couples. And then? Either you become asexual, or you have affairs on the side while your partner doesn't. Or both have affairs, either together or separately. Or you start putting on weight, you get a belly and seek pleasure in other things: in cooking and eating, in furnishing a slightly larger apartment, or buying antique furniture. So I don't regard us as being a step further when it comes to problems involving love, nothing could be simpler these days. But only when homosexuality is tolerated and one comes to terms with it oneself will it become clear that it offers no recipe for happiness either. Of course neither Onegin nor Tatyana get to make this discovery because very different obstacles make them fail beforehand. Nevertheless the words of the old women – Larina and the Nurse – about the transitory nature of passion and happiness are very universal and moving. They represent an unsolved human problem – and a highly unromantic one.
Recorded and translated into German by Miron Hakenbeck
English translation by David Ingram
© Bavarian State Opera