The release of Naked Revolution: A Socialist Realist Opera on a CD was the product of several years’ worth of effort.
This almost hour-long work composed by Dave Soldier to a libretto by Maita di Niscemi is billed as “a socialist realist opera drawn from immigrant dreams.” It was originally composed and produced in 1997 at the Kitchen in New York City, and recorded at the time. Additional vocals, however, were recorded in 2017-18. The Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, a small ensemble that sometimes sounds like a gamelan orchestra, is conducted by Richard Auldon Clark. Mulatta Records issued the album in 2018.
There’s nothing in the libretto, nor in the information provided on the CD packaging that gives us the story of how the opera was conceived, but judging from the Slavic names of most of the solo performers and of the well-known design team of Soviet exile artists Komar & Melamid, we may presume that most of them grew up in the USSR, whose dominant esthetic was Socialist Realism. Perhaps in their day they had the opportunity to attend any number of Socialist Realist operas produced in Soviet opera houses.
The CD is the record of a significant milepost in the creation of a new hybrid art in America by former Soviet immigrants who are enriching our culture fusing their own past to the creative space they have found in their new land.
Was the content of the opera actually derived from these immigrant artists’ dreams about the Russian Revolution, whose imagery pervaded Soviet iconography for almost three-quarters of a century, and about the American Revolution they presumably studied to become American citizens? Did the sublime illogic of their dreams conjure conversations between George Washington and Vladimir Lenin? Did these immigrants confound their Czars with King George III?
These characters all wind up in this opera, along with Molly Pitcher, the Russian folk soothsayer Baba Yaga, Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov and his girlfriend Vera Pavlovna, the dancer Isadora Duncan, and the men and women of the chorus. Actually there are three Georges: George I is the civilian George Washington, George II is the General George Washington, and George III is, well, George III.
Such a mash-up of characters is not typical of authentic Socialist Realist works of art in any variety of media—ballet, theatre, opera, film, literature, visual art, sculpture, architecture, etc. It frankly comes across more as an arch, historically conscious work of surrealism, though not especially “socialist” in my view, and not naked either. The closest comparison I could make would be the recorded histories of the United States by the musical comedian Stan Freberg or Virgil Thomson’s iconoclastic operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (about Susan B. Anthony), both set to libretti by the modernist writer Gertrude Stein.
If anything, the opera reflects an esthetic that predates Socialist Realism, namely the Dadaism that emerged as an absurdist protest in the post-World War I period and strongly influenced the first generation of Soviet artists. In the west among its leading proponents was Marcel Duchamp.
The direct citation of snippets of text from the Declaration of Independence and the sarcastic use of sloganizing socialist language recall the “documentary” oratorios of such American composers as Earl Robinson and Randall Thompson, and the Soviet-era composers who were commissioned to write cantatas glorifying the achievements of the state.
Actually, I should qualify the bit about naked, because Komar & Melamid contributed three paintings in mock Socialist Realist style to the CD, and one is a neo-classical portrait of George Washington dressed in a blue and gold hat and jacket with a bright red cape, standing in front of a globe, with decorative red curtains hanging above him. In his hands he is holding an infant with his little putto tushie facing us, and out of the baby’s shoulders grows the feathered neck and head of an eagle in profile. The caption reads: “His wings will grow.”
Though only 56 minutes long, Naked Revolution is divided into three acts. Summarizing the action would be futile. Here is the printed synopsis:
“Act I: Bowling Green in New York City, July 9, 1776. A gilded equestrian statue of George III dominates the scene. Encouraged by Molly Pitcher, three Sons of Liberty start dismantling the hated symbol of tyranny. Enter General Washington, who discovers that the statue is made of lead. The statue is melted, yielding ten ounces of gold and 42,088 bullets for the revolutionaries’ cause. As three slaves sing, Washington reflects upon how far fate has brought him, while the disembodied head of the King George statue rises like the moon in the heavens to mourn the loss of his colonies.
“Act II: Moscow, 1887-1917. Three provincial maidens reflect upon their unhappy lives. The soothsayer, Baba Yaga, addresses a crowd of peasants. Alexander Ulyanov (1866-1887) and his muse, Vera Pavlovna, proclaim their revolutionary fervor. Alexander, a chemistry student, is hanged. His younger brother Vladimir, known as Lenin, is about to seize power, and sings at first with his deceased brother. But people cheer him on.
“Act III: Washington Square in New York City, 1917-1989. The two statues of Washington that decorate the square’s commemorative arch come to life to reminisce about the winter of 1753. Lenin enters followed by a sailor playing an accordion who performs an interlude with a Gypsy street musician. Lenin retreats to memories of his pre-revolutionary childhood, but cannot resist proclaiming his superiority: the Washingtons are amused by his pretensions. Isadora Duncan, who has been seeking Lenin’s support for a ballet school in Moscow, performs an aria from Fibonacci’s numerical sequences. Lenin rejects her and is in turn rejected by the Washingtons who multiply until they dominate the square. Lenin hails a taxi.”
(Lenin’s taxi-hailing gesture in the Komar & Melamid painting recapitulates the iconic image of Lenin facing toward his outstretched right hand as if offering his rapt listeners a vision of the new socialist society awaiting the dawn just over the red horizon. Also in this image are a yellow New York City taxicab, bright city lights illuminating a McDonald’s arch, and the Chrysler Building topped by a glowing red star.)
The CD contains 16 tracks, each one a “number” in the opera. Act I opens with Molly Pitcher (Elena Mindlina) rhapsodizing about Truth Truth, Truth (the former Soviets in the production surely remembered their newspaper Pravda, which means “truth”). “On this glorious day / All true sons of freedom now rally to say” and the Chorus enters singing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, / That all men are created equal / That they are endowed by their creator / With certain unalienable rights.” From the beginning we hear these texts pronounced with a clearly identifiable Russian accent, which will remain a constant throughout the opera.
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Track 4, “Bullets,” celebrates the forty thousand bullets from the melted-down statue of George III that will make “forty thousand enemy dead.” It sounds like a madrigal in multiple parts.
Track 5, “I Was Not My Father’s Eldest Son,” is a concerted number between Washington (Timur Bekbosunov), King George III’s head (Jimmy Justice), and three of Washington’s slaves providing a keening harmony. The text, recalling the slaveholder’s earliest days setting up his Mount Vernon home, is written in a peculiar language that sounds like “translationese,” awkward expressions likely written by someone whose native tongue was not English. “Foreclosing the improvident / I have made twelve thousand seven / hundred thirty eight acres of old / Dominion my own. / I have done well. I shall do better. / I shall not reply to my female parent’s begging letters.”
Act II begins with a “Russian Maiden’s Trio.” Irina, Masha and Sasha (unidentified members of the chorus, no doubt) clearly mine the melancholic veins of Russian musical romances and Chekhov’s sardonic comedies. Their waltz in close harmony asks, “Why do the dark woods weigh on my soul? / Boredom / Sadness / Why is mere living beyond my control? / Hopeless / Despair / If I were able just once to reach my goal… / We shall sit in our parlors / Sit and despair / Playing Chopin / Pressing flowers / Weaving ribbons in our hair. / Why do the dark woods weigh on my soul?” The “immigrant dreamers” certainly know their Russian culture and put it to ironic use.
The next number, Track 7, “When the Devil Comes to Moscow,” is a choral number by Russian peasants carrying a statue of the Czar, led by the soothsayer Baba Yaga (again Elena Mindlina). This ensemble recalls the important role of the chorus (“the people”) in Russian opera. Its prominent use of bells in the orchestra echoes the Great Gate of Kiev scene in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which every Russian recognizes as the quintessence of Slavic sound. Lenin begins to appear on rear stage.
“And When You See a Fire” is a conversation between Vera Pavlovna (surprise, Elena Mindlina) and Alexander Ulyanov (Timur Bekbosunov) about their revolutionary aspirations. Says Alexander in his wooden sloganese, “Among the Russian people at any given time / Some men, perhaps a dozen, / Will answer for the nation / Will answer with their lives. / No power on earth can terrify us / No raging fire can prevail / Against the coming dawn of freedom. / The people’s will shall be unveiled.”
Next, in Track 9, we meet Lenin seated in the pose of his portrait in the Smolny Institute, October 27, 1917. He eulogizes his martyred brother Alexander. A choir members speaks to him: “Batushka, we are your children / Tell us what to do.” And Lenin (countertenor Oleg Ryabets) answers: “Shoot the traitors. / Shoot them all. / Scatter them like the dust they are. / Let the garbage heap of history / Turn the corpses of our enemies / To compost to enrich our Revolution’s crops.” In the midst of this aria a historical recording of Lenin’s own voice is interpolated.
Lenin always appears with his favorite Gypsy accordionist, who plays Romanian-style music. “I Still Remember,” Track 12, has Lenin rhapsodizing about his comfortable childhood: “I still remember / On grassy afternoons / I have lain on hay I never raked / Eaten bread I never baked / And dreamed in honeyed sunlight.” Later the people pick up these verses, but now render them in big, glorious Red Army Chorus style—more remembered immigrant dreams.
This number leads Lenin into a fugal trio with George I and II (Vladimir Avetsian)—the two “fathers” of their country—about leadership and the obligations of being “the incarnation of the people’s will.”
Isadora Duncan (guess who? yup, Ms. Mindlina) entertains fantasies of creating a new revolutionary school in Russia, and here a real spark of true Socialist Realism is heard: “On Sparrow Hill in Moscow / Five hundred little girls / Greet the nation’s newfound way / Wave red scarves in the sunlight / Raise their garlands in unison / To bless the coming day.” (“She’s crazy,” Lenin mutters, although Duncan’s vision of future mass art is exactly what the Soviets would adopt.) “And anybody’s child / Shall know the glory that is born / Shall know the story of this dawn / Of art and truth and beauty / Shall know the grandeur of the hope / That makes man free.”
Here we find the Soviet dreamers at their most complete level of consonance with the reality that became the Soviet Union, which preserved and expanded the tradition of classical ballet as its still enduring gift to the world—although not, as Ms. Duncan imagined, the unfettered freeform dance she espoused. The émigrés might be cynical and snarky, but they know where and how they acquired their taste for culture, from the excellent Soviet education they received.
In the end the Georges multiply and become more frenetic—symbolizing the possibilities of culture under capitalism (the Georges wear masks from the face on the dollar bill) that in the end the rigid, sclerotic Soviet socialism was not able to offer. Nor, I would observe, is culture free of censorship and criminalization in another Vladimir’s modern-day Russia either.
Lenin hails a taxi—but to where?
Naked Revolution is designed as an avant garde satirical work. The CD is the record of a significant milepost in the creation of a new hybrid art in America by former Soviet immigrants who are enriching our culture fusing their own past to the creative space they have found in their new land.
In its audio-only version it sounds disjointed and quirky, with many bright and pointed musical moments. It feels as though it was made somewhat “on the cheap,” for example by having one female singer with an easily identifiable voice (and accent) play all the female roles. I have no idea if any future stagings are planned, but I think it would be a more satisfying experience, as with any opera, seen as well as heard.
Politically, I imagine there is on the artists’ part some lingering fondness for the ideals of Soviet culture they grew up with, if not always for the practice they experienced daily in the early years of their lives. And there is admiration for the American Revolution, too, in the new place they call home. The acknowledgement of slavery in the foundation of the country confirms that they know the U.S. is also far from a perfect set-up. Needless to say, this is not your standard-issue opera.
Eric A. Gordon