It´s timely that right now in Bergen we are preparing an opera based on a Pushkin poem about Russian imperialist ambitions. Rimsky-Korsakov´s Gullhanen (The Golden Cockerel) – which tells the story of a mythical Tzar who invades a neighboring country, and is pecked to death by a golden bird charged with warning him of danger – was completed in 1907 as a thinly veiled satire on Tzar Nicholas II´s abortive conflict with Japan. Banned by the censors, the composer never heard the work in his lifetime.
Meanwhile, here in Bergen, we have our own international collision: a mainly Russian cast all of whom are distinctly tight-lipped on the subject of their present aspiring Tzar´s activities, and a distinguished American director (who also has an acclaimed Wozzek currently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York) who is fearless in the face of controversy, and from whose lips flip ironic asides which most certainly pay scant attention to political niceties. So, while Rimsky-Korsakov´s gleaming swirling romanticism soars around us, a certain amount of muttering goes on in corners. The price of vodka in Norway perhaps does not encourage bi-lateral conversation to flow.
All this, however, does call to mind a peculiar editorial in a recent edition of the monthly magazine Opera Now,which stated re: composers´ choice of material that “(opera is not).. a suitable vehicle for reductive political messages or social commentary.” How bizarre. One would have thought that Gullhanen´s success at its premiere in 1909 – as for today – is exactly that the opera is sharp and topical, delicately poised on the fragile axis of wit and tragedy. Rimsky-Korsakov manages all this beautifully, sliding savage, terrible comments behind the most jovial musical lines, and providing a postlude where the Astrologer – a major and sinister mischief-maker – tells the audience in silky tones, that actually all they have seen is ‘just a story…’
One wracks one´s brains to think of a successful opera which doesn´t address some kind of social or political issue, from class differences and poverty in La Boheme, sexual politics in Don Giovanni, terrorism in Klinghoffer, to the endless theatres of war in Handel. So perhaps what ON´s editor intends is to criticize regie-led productions, where Madama Butterfly is dressed in vinyl and lives in a waterfront Florida apartment, or Leporello appears as a transvestite. For that, one can hardly blame the composer.
But what is disturbing here in Bergen is the reminder of our privilege. We smirk and think how lucky we are. But as artists and as citizens surely we should be activists for our near-neighbours against the present day Tzars – be they political leaders or cultural bureaucrats – who literally and metaphorically call the tune and the words which it sets. Perhaps in presenting Gullhanen today we should be aware that behind a ‘funny’ opera lurks not satire but a shocking story about leadership and corruption in 2014. The pecking golden cockerel should be a warning to us all.
Published in Aftenposten 24th March 2014