Tchaikovsky and His Operas

With Pyotr Ilyich, it’s not just about ballets.

Tchaikovsky's graveI grew up with Tchaikovsky. Well, not literally, but as my parents were Russian émigrés I was born with Tchaikovsky’s music in my DNA. Growing up I heard his symphonies, ballets, concertos and tone poems seemingly constantly, at home and in performances.

As a true child of Russian parents, I couldn’t wait to start studying ballet when I was five. At age six I attended my first live Nutcracker, and Swan Lake shortly thereafter. My violin solo debut at age nine was the Sleeping Beauty waltz, and I’ve always considered the Tchaikovsky violin concerto the most fun to play. I also was lucky enough to perform with the American Ballet Theater orchestra at the height of their Barishnikov-Makarova “Russian” era.

Though my mother used to tell me stories of her girlhood attending operas at the Magnificent Odessa Opera House, I never heard any of Tchaikovsky’s operas until I performed at the Met. One morning, not knowing what we were going to rehearse (probably bleary-eyed from a long Wagner performance the night before), I heard the harpist practicing the most beautiful piece I had ever heard. I asked a colleague what it was. She replied, “Eugene Onegin. You’ve never heard it?” I hadn’t, but since then this masterpiece has held an important place on my “most beloved operas” list.

Before Tchaikovsky wrote Onegin, he tried his hand at Undina, a little known opera based on French writer Friedrich de la Motte-Foqué’s popular novel Undine, about a water sprite who sacrifices her immortality for the love of a mortal human (Rusalka, anyone?). Tchaikovsky completed the three-act work in 1869, expecting it to be performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. The theatre rejected the opera, and as Pyotr was only twenty-nine and quite humble at that, he figured he didn’t know enough about opera to successfully compose one. Over the next few years, he destroyed practically all of the music; thus the opera was never performed in its entirety. Fortunately, four pieces are still extant, including an aria that Tchaikovsky reused in his Symphony No. 2, and a soprano-tenor duet (watch the video) that he brilliantly retooled in a later work. (I will leave it up to the reader to identify the latter. Trust me, you’ll recognize it immediately.)

In 1877, famed Russian soprano Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya approached Tchaikovsky about writing an opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky felt intimidated at first; Pushkin was then, as he is now, a national treasure in Russia. But Pyotr quickly grew excited about the project, especially when his brother Modest presented him with a libretto he had penned with Russian writer Konstantin Shilovsky.  Tchaikovsky himself edited the libretto, added some of his own lyrics, and succeeded in keeping much of the original poetry and lyricism intact. In fact, he initially titled the piece a “Poetic Vision in Lyrical Scenes.” Onegin premiered to raves at the Moscow Conservatory in 1879, then at the Bolshoi in 1881 and in Hamburg in 1892, with Mahler conducting. The opera was not performed at the Met until 1920, and was sung in Italian.

Pique Dame - TchaikovskyModest tackled the libretto for Pique Dame solo, but he still had to convince his brother to compose the opera. Based on a Pushkin short story, Pikovaya Dama takes place during the reign of Catherine the Great, whose rule from 1762-1796 essentially encompassed Mozart’s entire life. Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s “musical god,” and he seized the opportunity to pay homage to Mozart by writing the Act 2 fête in Mozartean style. Modest as always, Tchaikovsky attributed the opera’s successful 1890 Mariinsky debut to the “true miracles” created by esteemed tenor Nikolai Figner and the Saint Petersburg orchestra. In reality, the piece is sheer genius. Mahler conducted the 1902 Vienna and 1910 Met Opera premieres; Sergei Rachmaninoff wielded the baton in Moscow in 1904.

By his early 50s Tchaikovsky already had serious health issues; nonetheless he experienced an amazing period of creativity when, in addition to Nutcracker and his Sixth Symphony, he penned his final opera Iolanta. He was exhausted after spending two years on Pique Dame; yet, with a mere sixteen months to live, he poured heart and soul into Iolanta, the tale of a father’s unconditional love for his blind daughter. Perhaps Tchaikovsky had presentiments that his time was running out, and chose this story to express his belief in the transformative power of love.

Tchaikovsky protraitOriginally commissioned in 1891, the opera premiered at the Mariinsky in 1892 as the first act of a festive Christmas holiday double bill with Nutcracker. It was an amazing year for opera, with premieres of such classics as Pagliacci and Werther; stylistically, Iolanta issaid to have inspired Puccini’s Turandot thirty years later. Iolanta’s setting in fifteenth century Provence gives it a very French atmosphere, but its passionate music echoes that of Pique Dame. As with Onegin, Tchaikovsky contributed to the libretto by Modest, based on the Danish verseplay Kong Renés Datter (King René’s Daughter) by Henrik Hertz. Again Tchaikovsky had great support from the pit, with Mahler conducting the first non-Russian premiere in Hamburg in 1893 and the Vienna premiere in 1900.

At the end of his life, Tchaikovsky believed love was powerful enough to bring back someone’s sight. Seven decades later, The Beatles echoed that sentiment.

Love is all you need.