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Class Year

2011

Abstract

It is opera, and opera alone that brings you close to the people, that endears your music to the real public and makes your names popular not only with individual small circles but, under favourable conditions, with the whole people. – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, premier composer of symphonies, ballets, and operas in Imperial Russia in the mid- to late 1800s.

Tchaikovsky made this remark while living under a tsarist regime, but the pervasive, democratic, and uniting qualities of opera that he so vividly described appealed to an entirely different party: the Bolsheviks. Rather than discard the “bourgeois” remains of the Russian empire, the newly-anointed Soviet Union and its first leader, Vladimir Lenin, kept in place many artistic institutions such as opera theaters. However, it was not until Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union from about 1925 to 1953, seized the reins of power that any attempt was made to control the artistic content of opera. Realizing, as Tchaikovsky had many years earlier, that the populist nature of opera could more effectively spread cultural and political propaganda to the masses, Stalin embarked on a massive Soviet opera experiment that would last from 1936 until his death. In this experiment, Stalin used opera to both further enhance his growing cult of personality and to attempt to throw off remaining Western influences on Soviet musical development. Despite his best efforts, the brutality and repression of Stalin‘s reign had the effect of crushing promising new composers while propping up banal and obedient musicians whose operas have long since been forgotten. Instead of the massive cultural movement he desired, Stalin‘s operatic experiment failed to deliver even on its most basic promise: the birth of Soviet opera.

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