“Orango”. Unfinished Satirical Opera
The semi-staged world premiere of the opera was performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, USA (directed by Peter Sellars, lighting design by Ben Zamora). The opera was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Master Chorale (choir master Grant Gershon).
Piano score. DSCH Publishers, 2010. “Dmitri Shostakovich Archive” series; Piano score, score DSCH Publishers. 2014. Volume 57 of the New Collected Works.
Glinka All-Russia Museum Association of Musical Culture, rec. gr. 32, f. 2164
Unfinished Satirical Opera
Libretto by Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov
June — July 1932, Moscow — Leningrad
Instrumentation by Gerard McBurney
Piccolo, 2 Flauti, 2 Oboi, Corno inglese, Clarinetto piccolo (Es), 2 Clarinetti (B), Clarinetto basso (B), 2 Sassofoni (Soprani (B), Alto (Es), 2 Fagotti, Contrafagotto
6 Corni (F), 3 Trombe (B), 3 Tromboni, Tuba
Timpani, Triangolo, Sonagli, Legno, Castagnetti, Raganella, Tamburino, Tamburo, Piatti, Cassa, Tam-tam, Fischio di milizia, Claxon
Campanelli, Silifono, Flauto a coulisse, Flessatono
Banjo, Baritono (B)
Cast of Characters:
Renée, Armand Fleury’s daughter—contralto
Armand Fleury, embryologist—tenor
Paul Mâche, journalist—tenor
Orango, human-like ape—baritone
Voice from the crowd—bass
Veselchak (Cheery Fellow-Master of Ceremonies)—bass
Soviet Russia, caught up in a wave of enthusiasm, began preparing for the main red-letter day of the year, the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution, at the very beginning of 1932. All of the capital’s theatres and concert organisations were inexorably drawn into the vortex of the pre-celebration arrangements, and their ups and downs were diligently and regularly discussed in the press.
Shostakovich was engaged in this October bacchanalia in all genres at the same time. Judging from the announcements in the press, he had promised to commemorate the festive events with a truly impressive torrent of creative works.
An opera, an operetta, a massive multi-movement symphony with choir, incidental music, film music, and music for a TRAM march were the components of the lavish celebration bouquet Shostakovich blithely promised for the red-letter days (but did not deliver until the end of the year and in a ludicrously sparse version). Of course, the composer gave special attention to the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, his pet composition and main “trump card” of 1932. However in the spring, at the peak of the general pre-October hysteria, Shostakovich unexpectedly received a flattering offer which he could not and did not want to refuse.
Preoccupied with the upcoming October festivities, the Bolshoi Theatre began drawing up a celebratory programme at the very beginning of the anniversary year. On 31 January, the theatre’s administration and poet Demyan Bedny signed a contract on creating a heroic-epic play in five acts called The Key (based on a feuilleton by Bedny of the same name), which was to form the framework of “a musical composition for a performance to be put on at GABT (State Academic Bolshoi Theatre) in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution”. Shostakovich became involved in this massive heroic-epic idea generated from folklore-revolutionary propaganda more than a month later.
But the heroic-epic idea cherished by the Bolshoi Theatre never did come to pass. On 10 May 1932, five days before the deadline stipulated in the contract for submitting the script, Demyan Bedny informed the theatre in a letter of contrition that he was terminating the contract: “I cannot finish the work by the date I committed myself to. I am entirely to blame for the contract not being fulfilled.”
Demyan Bedny’s letter came as an unexpected shock to the Bolshoi’s administration, placing the anniversary undertakings in jeopardy. The play had to be urgently replaced with another and an author found whose professionalism and ability to meet the urgent deadline aroused no doubts. Theatre made an immediate and seemingly heaven-sent decision to ask prominent writer Alexei Nikolayevich Tolstoy (with his permanent co-author Alexander Osipovich Starchakov) to help out, and as early as 12 May 1932 received a written reply: “I hereby agree to write an opera with D.D. Shostakovich and A.O. Starchakov on the theme of human growth during revolution and building socialism.
The same day, 12 May 1932, Shostakovich also gave his written consent to participate in the new cooperation. But after dealing with Demyan Bedny’s sudden change of heart, the composer tried to safeguard himself against such force majeurs in the future with the assistance of a new mandatory item in the contract—that the deadlines for submitting the libretto should be insured against the arbitrariness of its writers. In his statement to the theatre’s administration, he wrote: “I hereby inform you of my consent to switch the contract I have already signed with GABT to write the opera The Key to a contract for writing an opera on a text by Tolstoy and Starchakov. The conditions remain the same. I consider it necessary to include an item in the contract on the deadlines for submitting the libretto to me, in particular: the first act by 20 June 1932. The rest, stage-wise, by 1 November 1932. DShostakovich 12 V 1932.”
Shostakovich could not actually begin work until after 20 June 1932, after he received the first act of the play from the librettists. The Bolshoi’s administration, seeing no new difficulties with the long-suffering anniversary performance and wishing to draw special attention to it and provide the theatre with a full collection, hastened to make an announcement about it in advance: “The Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR will show a new satirical opera Orango in the upcoming season [1932/33]. The opera libretto is being written by Alexei Tolstoy and A. Starchakov. Music by composer D. Shostakovich. The opera Orango has been conceived as a political lampoon against the bourgeois press. The plot of the libretto has been borrowed from A. Starchakov’s story ‘The Career Rise of Arthur Christie’.”
The new performance Orango also promised to be “rousing” and “stirring”. And also, most likely, “lively” and “charging”. The loosely interpreted theme “on human growth during revolution and building socialism”, which was in keeping with the course of enlightenment being steered by the Bolshoi Theatre (“bringing up new proletarian builders of socialism”), made it very possible for the future opera to join the ongoing process of “cultural service”…
But unfortunately for the Bolshoi Theatre events careened out of control again and began to develop according to the already well-known and grievous scenario: the writers never did write the libretto and the question of an opera on a topical theme became redundant.
Still, termination of the contract on Orango was not as wrenching as it might have been, since at the same time Shostakovich and the Bolshoi Theatre entered a new contract, this time on the performance in 1933 of the opera Lady Macbeth, which both sides were equally interested in, and, as it seemed, compensated more than generously for the mutual moral and financial outlays. If it were a success, this opera premiere could indeed remove the bitter aftertaste left by the October fiasco.
By January-February 1933, after a two-month break, Shostakovich once again set feverishly to work composing the opera Lady Macbeth, preceding the beginning of the sketch work on the 4th act with the notes “4th Act / Scene 9”, his personal signature and the date: “DShostakovich 15 / X 1932”. At the same day he signed a rejection on the hapless Orango, for which there was indeed no longer either the possibility, time, desire, or moral strength to see through. The fact that Starchakov and Tolstoy had failed to write the libretto meant that the composer was entirely blameless for the aborted anniversary performance; the new agreement with the Bolshoi Theatre changed the vector of interests...