L.A. Philharmonic lands premiere of a long-lost Shostakovich opera

The surviving prologue of an unfinished, long-lost opera by Dmitri Shostakovich will have its world premiere in December 2011 in a semi-staged production at Walt Disney Concert Hall, capping a multi-year process of musical sleuthing and improbable discoveries that’s nearly as eye-opening as the work’s bizarre subject matter.

Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in three performances of the reconstructed prologue to the opera, “Orango,” a blisteringly satirical 1932 work about the wayward doings of a grotesque half-man, half-ape creature that the Russian composer wrote in collaboration with librettists Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov.

Peter Sellars will direct the Phil’s production of the 40-minute work, which has been orchestrated from the surviving piano sketches by British composer Gerard McBurney, artistic programming advisor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at the request of Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, the composer’s third wife and widow.

“It’s an amazing story. And to me, it’s a minor miracle that we’re going to be able to do this,” said Deborah Borda, the Phil’s president.


The libretto and music for the prologue apparently are all that remain of the planned four-act opera, which was commissioned by Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. Scholars believe that the “Orango” project was abandoned before completion largely because Shostakovich and his colleagues were unable to meet their deadline. But Soviet officials’ concerns about the planned work’s outlandish story line — and uncertainty over whether the young Soviet state was among its intended comic targets — also may have led to its being scrapped.

“He probably would’ve been sent to a gulag if he’d ever completed it,” Borda said of the composer, who died in 1975.

The prologue arrived in the hands of the Phil through a circuitous route that began with the dogged detective work of a Russian musicologist, Olga Digonskaya, who was working for Irina Shostakovich in 2004 when she unearthed the manuscript for “Orango” from the composer’s archives at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow.

Before Digonskaya’s discovery, scholars had assumed that no “Orango” manuscript existed.

“All this stuff was sort of lying there because nobody had the time or the energy or the money to do anything about it,” McBurney said. “It took her [Digonskaya] a long while to work out what the hell it was.”

An outline of the complete work, part of the Glinka trove, reveals its authors’ full intentions. The baritone protagonist, Orango, a.k.a. “Jean Or,” is the hybrid offspring of a female ape impregnated with human sperm by a French scientist. Resurfacing as an adult after World War I, he becomes a successful and increasingly sleazy journalist, power broker and virulent anti-communist — the epitome of a corrupt bourgeois.

As he degenerates, morally and otherwise, Orango reverts to his crude simian nature. Eventually he is sold to the circus and displayed in a cage. That’s where he first appears, in the prologue, which sets up the rest of the opera to unfold as his tragicomic life story. The prologue takes place at the Palace of the Soviets, a grandiose structure capped with a huge statue of Lenin that was planned but never built.

The prologue, consisting of 11 numbers, calls for 11 solo voice parts and a chorus. None of the singing roles for the Phil’s performances has been cast yet.


McBurney, a Russian music specialist who has arranged other Shostakovich scores including the 1931 vaudeville revue “Declared Dead,” a.k.a. “Hypothetically Murdered,” said he received a phone call from Irina Shostakovich asking him to do the “Orango” orchestration in late 2007 or early 2008. He agreed, and completed his work in 2009.

By that time, word of the discovery had surfaced in news reports. Salonen, an admirer and frequent conductor of Shostakovich, mentioned to Borda his interest in conducting the piece. They agreed to try to acquire the rights for the Phil. Salonen is a friend of McBurney and his younger brother, the actor-writer Simon McBurney, and once had met Irina Shostakovich (who could not be reached for comment).

McBurney helped put the Phil in touch with Digonskaya and Irina Shostakovich. “I did say to Madame Shostakovich I thought this was a very good opportunity, with the Phil and that wonderful hall and an electrifying conductor,” McBurney said, adding that several other opera and theater companies had been interested in acquiring the rights to “Orango.”

David Fanning, a musicologist and professor at the University of Manchester, England, said that “Orango” is one of many scores that Shostakovich composed “around this time” that “are fascinating and sound like him” but were composed in haste.


“Frankly, it’s not A-1, top-drawer” material, Fanning said of “Orango.” However, he added, if McBurney can make top-drawer Shostakovich out of it, “then my hat’s off to him.”

“Orango” dates from a dynamic period in Russian culture. In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, prior to theStalinist crackdown and the enshrinement of Socialist Realism as the regime’s official aesthetic, the new Soviet state witnessed an explosion of avant-garde theater, dance, filmmaking, painting, graphic design and music.

Like many youthful contemporaries, Shostakovich reveled in the era’s aggressively irreverent spirit, lampooning not only the perceived failings of the capitalist West but also the stumbles and absurdities of fledgling Soviet-style socialism. “At that point in his life he seemed to be really interested in the bizarre,” Salonen said. “He was really fascinated by subjects that deal with taboos.”

When he received the “Orango” commission, Shostakovich already was engaged with another radically daring opera, “Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District,” which he temporarily set aside to work on “Orango.”


“Although the story is sillier, it’s a product of the same imagination,” McBurney said of “Orango.” It “has a kind of heightened, manic, silent-movie quality, which to me is right at the heart of what the music of this period was about.” Shostakovich interpolated some music in “Orango” from his unsuccessful ballet “The Bolt” and from “Declared Dead.”

The topic of inter-species cross-breeding, and its potentially monstrous (if scientifically ludicrous) effects, was familiar to the opera’s creators. Starchakov had written a science fiction tale inspired by the idea, which also had been popularized by H.G. Wells’ 1896 gothic sci-fi novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” about a crazed scientist who uses vivisection to create human-animal hybrids.

“Orango” also may owe a debt to Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 satiric novel “Heart of a Dog,” in which a stray canine mutates into a human who personifies the New Soviet Man. The novel has been widely interpreted as an allegory of the Bolshevik revolution’s botched attempt to forge a utopian society.

The most direct source of the opera’s inspiration probably were the failed experiments of Ilya Ivanov, a Russian scientist who attempted to cross-breed humans with chimpanzees in Africa. Eventually Ivanov returned to the Soviet Union with his chimps and founded a cross-breeding institute on the Black Sea, which Shostakovich visited.


The rebellious creativity that spurred “Orango” soon would be quashed. Ivanov was convicted of counter-revolutionary activity and exiled. Starchakov later was arrested and shot.

“Lady MacBeth” was panned in a Pravda article that some believe was written by Stalin himself. Setting aside “Orango,” Shostakovich for the rest of his life would be alternately hounded and lionized by the Soviet ruling powers, permanently enshrouding his legacy in questions of whether he was a loyal communist or a secret subversive.

“I cannot even imagine why exactly he stopped and what happened,” Salonen said of the composer and his unfinished opera. “But most likely he got advice from somebody saying that, ‘If you want to stay alive, just do something else instead.’”