“What do we do with the artworks of monstrous regimes?” Two essays and a playlist for San Francisco Opera’s staging of Eugene Onegin

Some recent short pieces, and below, a little background on how they came to be:

  1. “…my burning heart aches from yearning…”: A Ukrainian Perspective on Eugene Onegin (program essay)
  2. Questions for Richard Taruskin, After His Passing (a remembrance and response to Taruskin’s Onegin program notes from 1997)
  3. Indomitable Ukraine: Music of Resilience, with Liuba Morozova. An annotated playlist featuring mostly classical music (and some popular music) featuring Ukrainian music going back centuries up to the present day.

Some background: The San Francisco Opera is celebrating their centennial season. They seemed unprepared for the backlash that followed the announcement that Eugene Onegin–an opera by Tchaikovsky based on a work by Pushkin, created in 19th c. Imperial Russia–would be staged this fall. The decision to present this opera was made years ago, before the Russian aggression towards Ukraine had reached its current terrible pitch (but while the war in the east was already underway). So why were they forging ahead with this opera, plans unchanged, at this moment of Russian imperialist revanchism? I believe this is a valid question. And so, when I was invited to contribute to their Onegin programming, I considered the proposal from a few different angles, asking myself the following questions:

  1. Am I the right person for this job? I am Ukrainian-American, raised in the diaspora and not in Ukraine. (This is an evergreen question.) Also, while I am a scholar of Ukrainian music, my scholarship has been oriented towards non-classical genres. (Stay in your lane, Sonevytsky.) And while I was once a devoted classical musician, and took many courses on the history of classical music and Russian and Soviet history, it’s been a while since I was immersed in the scholarship on opera, 19th c. Russian imperialism and the structure of serfdom, and 19th c. literary traditions of Pushkin and Shevchenko. I decided it might be a productive stretch to reacquaint myself with these subjects.
  2. Are they asking me to just make it seem ok, to make their problem go away? It’s not the first time in recent months that I’ve been invited in because I can offer a Ukrainian perspective (however partial). This poses a challenge in terms of what the historian Olesya Khromeychuk has recently diagnosed as the shift from “epistemic distrust” to “epistemic exploitation”: where the perspectives of Ukrainians on Ukrainian matters had been earlier framed as untrustworthy, they are now, in wartime, highly coveted–both for the emotional performance expected and to fill the gap in knowledge of a historically marginalized group. I had frank conversations about this with the staff at SF Opera while I was deciding whether to agree to the tasks proposed, as I made it plainly clear that the only contributions I could make would be critical. They agreed to include my critical contributions, to their credit.
  3. And perhaps the biggest one: What *should* we do with the artworks of monstrous regimes, especially when they hit upon current-day events like the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine? This is a huge question with ramifications for most artworks, and all regimes. I join a long tradition of people grappling with it. I don’t have an easy answer. But I know this: I am persuaded by arguments that a politics of purity is a likely dead end; we’d eventually be left with no artworks that could clear so high an ethical bar. But I am interested in thinking through a politics of forbearance. Especially a politics of forbearance that privileges the experience of populations historically oppressed, in every global context. And I’ve always been attracted to deconstructing the myths of exceptionalism that motivate so many of our beliefs not only about empires, but also about opera, and canons, and the seductive classical music ideologies of masculine genius, the masterpiece, the transcendent, and so on. Not all of that made it into the short pieces I wrote, but it was all in the background.

I kicked it around, and then I agreed to write two essays: one for the program, one a remembrance of Richard Taruskin and response to his own Onegin program notes from the mid-1990s. I also accepted the commission to create a playlist of Ukrainian music, for which I was able to engage my Ukrainian colleague Liuba Morozova, whose knowledge of Ukrainian classical music is *far* more extensive than my own.

It’s been good to see responses, even some negative ones, to writing produced on a much shorter timeline than what I’ve grown accustomed to in my scholarly life. I hope these pieces finds readers and listeners and spark curiosity about how the techniques of empire extend into the present. I hope whatever audience this finds keep you thinking about Ukraine, supporting their existential fight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s