No opus number: Orango (early 1930s; incomplete) — UNAVAILABLE

Orango, sans opus (early 1930s; incomplete) — Unavailable

It’s unrecorded, but then the piano sketches for Shostakovich’s planned satirical opera, Orango, only resurfaced in 2004.  Gerard McBurney, who arranged Declared Dead among other Shostakovich works, has since orchestrated the existing eleven numbers.

This article on G. Schirmer’s site is the best source about the nature of the work that I’ve found so far, and includes a comprehensive outline of the planned work’s story.  This past October’s issue of the journal Tempo also ran an item about Orango by McBurney, though in my non-scholarly haste I haven’t found the full text of the article yet.

It is rather mind-blowing to me that Shostakovich had started work on a previously unknown opera about an ape-human hybrid — the first news that I read of it sounded more than a little rumorous, like the old canard about Shostakovich having shrapnel embedded in his brain that made him hear music when he tilted his head.  But the opera’s premise, by the writer’s Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, parodies the actually-stranger-than-fiction hybridization experiments of Ilya Ivanov and fits a believable agitprop profile:  Orango, created by a French biologist who impregnated his ape mother with human sperm, tracks down his creator in France as a young man, becomes an anti-Communist journalist, and rises in the bourgeois press as his non-human features become more and more pronounced.  The project seems to have died much the same way The Big Lightning did, falling behind schedule and then petering out.  (Ultimately, too, Ivanov was arrested and died in exile, and Starchakov was arrested and shot in 1936.)  Shostakovich did complete a draft for piano of a forty-minute prologue, though, which was to be followed by three acts.

The Schirmer overview notes that the prologue incorporates music from The Bolt and Declared Dead, so I expect the newly found work fits right in with them, not to mention with Poor Columbus, The Big Lightning, Rule, Britannia!, and Hamlet, all of them stage works from the same few years that similarly inhabit the stylistic shadow of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Some Chicago Symphony program notes from this spring state that McBurney’s completion “will be premiered in Lost Angeles in 2011-12”.  I can’t find any other information or press release about that anticipated performance online but I hope it does happen; L.A. is close enough to PDX for a pilgrimage.  I don’t want to run on speculatively about the music sight unseen (or “sound unheard”?), or without reading the couple of scholarly articles on the subject that are out there already, but I have modest expectations for Orango, given its unfinished state, the noted instances of recycling, and the example of the many seemingly similar works above.  (I also hope that the work mostly steps around the landmines of overt racism strewn throughout its premise.)  But even incomplete or fragmentary ideas are ideas I’d like to hear, and the planned plot is just to wild to pass on.  To very loosely paraphrase Bart Simpson:  Finished, shminished; I want my monkey-man opera.

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