IOLANTA: Sublime or Subliminal? Queering Tchaikovsky

If Sigmund Freud were to write an opera, Iolanta would be it. Ready, set, sublimate!

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A scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta performed by New Opera NYC at the Cowell Theater of Fort Mason Center this April.

Homosexuality has been a taboo throughout most of Western history. Many significant composers are known or rumored to have been gay, often in the closet: Camille Saint-Saens, Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti, Benjamin Britten. Going back in time, it’s an even bigger question: Chopin, Handel, Schubert? In Freud’s psychoanalysis, erotic energy is allowed limited expression “thanks” to prevailing morality. Constraints cause sublimation, a defense mechanism that transforms socially unacceptable impulses into socially acceptable actions. Creative work becomes an outlet for the artist libido to avoid the “bad” sexual urges. To some mimicking straight patterns of life was bearable. They got married or even had kids, leaving same-sex affairs in the dark. To most their struggle with desire caused constant agony. Among the unfortunate majority was the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

PYOTR, THE MAN

Discussion of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality has been the most extensive of any 19th century composer and certainly any Russian artist of that era. His brother Modest (!) preserved a large portion of Tchaikovsky’s six hundred letters to family and friends that shed light onto his affections, afflictions and lovers. The composer’s failed engagement to a soprano Désirée Artôt and the disastrous marriage to Antonina Miliukova left him utterly devastated. All his life he felt oppressed, tainted, crushed. His official cause of death was cholera. Most of his friends conferred later that it was suicide, drinking tap water on purpose during the outbreak of the disease in St. Petersburg. These “details” barely escaped Soviet efforts to expunge queer references and uphold Tchaikovsky’s image as that of a straight up genius. Today most Russians still have no doubt in his heterosexuality.

Photography by Damian Siqueiros
‘Imagining PIOTR TCHAIKOVSKY AND AKEKSEY SOFRONOV’ Photography by Damian Siqueiros

Tchaikovsky is without a doubt one of the most important composers of all times. His music, including the scores for The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, is embedded in our minds and our culture. The composer was from the beginning a cornerstone of the projects, since even after more than a century of his death his sexuality is controversial. Even by his own account it is clear he was gay, it is well documented in his letter to his brother Modest, who was also gay.

Russian society during Tchaikovsky’s life was not as lenient as its counterparts in the rest of Europe. Homosexuality was a sin and crime punishable by exile and banning from the Czarist court, which in the case of the composer meant the end of his career.

Tchaikovsky’s attempts to lead a “morally sound” life made his homosexuality even more evident. He had many male lovers, and his botched marriage lasted no more than a few months. At the end, he seemed to have made peace with his sexuality. His servant, lover, and longtime companion Akeksey Sofronov stayed with him until his death. Even though he died of cholera, it has been suspected that he was bullied into committing suicide by drinking contaminated water. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral; he was both a loved genius and a pariah.

IOLANTA, THE WOMAN

It is remarkable that during presumably the darkest hours of his private life he created arguably the most hopeful opera in the repertoire. Iolanta, the protagonist, is burdened with blindness. She falls in love and regains the gift of sight. A transcendent damsel in distress saved by a warrior. Love as salvation. Cue the unicorns… With its happy ending, Iolanta is by far the most un-operatic opera and a delightful one at that. However, when examined closer, one could see parallels between Tchaikovsky’s “affliction” and Iolanta’s blindness. His own search for resolution to flawed human condition is that true fairy tale of a crying heart.

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A scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta performed by New Opera NYC at the Cowell Theater of Fort Mason Center this April.

New Opera NYC will present operas Iolanta and Boris Godunov in a double-bill at the Cowell Theater of Fort Mason Center on April 15&16 at 7:30 PM.

For tickets go to www.nonyc.org

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Text: Nadia Artman, Alexey Bolukhov, Stephan Rabimov

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