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The Opera That Shook The Soviet Union Turns 80

Eleonora Andreyeva in the lead role of a 1964 production in Moscow of Dmitry Shostakovich's opera "Katerina Izmailova (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk)
Eleonora Andreyeva in the lead role of a 1964 production in Moscow of Dmitry Shostakovich's opera "Katerina Izmailova (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk)
Eighty years ago, on January 22, 1934, young Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich could not have been happier.

"Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," his first opera written at age 29, was premiering at the Maly Operni Teatr in Leningrad. And the composer, already the darling of the Soviet avant-garde, was the toast of the town.

And what an opera it was -- bending or breaking so many conventions of classic operatic art that one couldn't help but talk about it.

There was the music, for one thing, mixing melody with dissonance, shrieks with singing, until the emotion overflowed like an erupting volcano, or bubbling champagne.

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And then there was something truly daring: a sex scene that was startlingly graphic not because of the acting but because of the music.

As the heroine, Katerina Ismailova -- the Lady Macbeth of the opera's title -- allows herself to be seduced by her lover, Sergei, the slide trombones reach an orgasmic climax.

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In short, the opera was so full of surprises it was a triumph of imagination -- and a triumph with the public.

In the two years immediately following its premiere, it clocked up nearly 200 performances in the Soviet Union and was enthusiastically reviewed in New York, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Prague. Shostakovich became an internationally known name.

But then, in January 1936, the unimaginable happened. Three productions of his opera were running simultaneously in Moscow and Josef Stalin went to see one. He stormed out with his entourage before the final scene.

Two days later, the state-controlled Soviet press delivered what amounted to an artistic death sentence for the young composer. In an editorial entitled "Muddle Instead of Music," "Pravda," the official mouthpiece of the Soviet Communist Party, listed all the opera's musical, artistic, and ideological faults.

"Singing is replaced by shrieking," the editorial said. "The music quacks, hoots, growls, and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible."

There was more. The opera was slammed for its success abroad and for "tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming, neurotic music." And, "Pravda" warned not only Shostakovich but the Soviet avant-garde in general that "such games can only finish badly."

It was never clear just what so annoyed Stalin about "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," which itself was based on an 1865 novel from the tsarist period titled "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," by Nikolai Leskov.

Some Soviet artists thought Stalin might have felt he was being subtly lampooned in the character of Katerina's domineering and hypocritical father-in-law, Boris. Others thought he might have seen an attack in the figure of the tsarist police chief, who arrests people because of their beliefs.

Most people, however, simply assumed he was outraged by the sex scene or, more specifically, the ejaculatory trombone slides.

But whatever the offense, Stalin clearly felt it was time to crack down. His outrage over "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" ushered in the crushing regime of Socialist Realism, in which art's purpose was to be a medium for the state's ideology.

To be successful and win support from the Soviet Union's professional artists' unions, composers and writers were limited to the triumph of the proletariat as their only subjects.

The new gag on the avant-garde was total because under the Soviet system no artists outside of the professional unions could be publicly exhibited or published. Shostakovich himself had no choice but to comply or disappear from the art world completely.

Other prominent names of Soviet culture, also faced restrictions during Stalin's ideological battle with artists, among them the composers Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, to name a few.

Shostakovich -- who never intended his opera to be controversial and was surprised and frightened by the Kremlin's outrage -- gave up on opera and wrote only musical scores.

His music continued to be wonderfully innovative but without offending the state's idea of good taste. The same official organs that once slammed him now lauded his new works as the true flowering of his genius.

It was not until 1963, with Nikita Khrushchev's thaw after Stalin's death, that Shostakovich was able to finally return his "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" to the Soviet stage. But even then, it was in a safer, rewritten version of the original and under a new name: "Katerina Izmailova."

Until his death in Moscow in 1975, the composer maintained publicly that "Katerina Izmailova" -- the new version -- was the definitive one.

But privately he remained as irrepressible as ever.

He asked his friend, conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, to record the original score of his opera if he ever managed to get abroad.

Rostropovich did get abroad and in 1979 did as his friend wished. Almost immediately, most opera houses in the West switched back to using Shostakovich's original 1932 score and it is that first and unbridled expression of his genius that continues to be staged today.

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