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Bewitching Russian Opera

Musicologist challenges traditional views of Russian music, opera, culture

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May 31, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In an acclaimed book that has been called a “welcome intervention” in gender studies and music, a Northwestern University musicologist explores how Catherine the Great and three other female monarchs who ruled Russia for most of the 18th century used opera to champion their political power.

Written by Bienen School of Music Associate Professor Inna Naroditskaya, “Bewitching Russian Opera: The Tsarina from State to Stage” (Oxford University Press, 2012) traces the deep interest of Catherine the Great and the three other tsarinas in musical drama. It also describes how the rulers built theaters, established theatrical schools, commissioned operas and ballets and even themselves wrote and produced musical spectacles.

“’Betwitching Russian Opera’ chronicles the female monarchs’ support of the arts, the evolution of their own work and their efforts to solidify opera as a form not just of entertainment but as a kind of ‘political mirror’ reinforcing and magnifying their rule,” says Naroditskaya.

According to Naroditskaya, these powerful women rulers used opera to effect political change and further their own political agendas. Catherine’s opera Oleg,” for example, legitimized her claims to Ottoman lands.

“My book creates a dialogue between ‘her’ story -- the imperial ‘operatic’ culture of this 18th-century ‘women’s kingdom’ -- and ‘his’ story -- the restoration of patriarchy in 19th-century narratives,” says Northwestern’s Naroditskaya.

In her research, the Bienen School professor discovers “a typical story” of powerful women whose legacies are denied once they themselves are no longer in power. By interrogating both the dismissal of 18th-century operas and the featuring of national heroes who consistently defeat magical tsarinas in 19th-century opera, she presents a new reading of Russian cultural history and nationalism.

Through extensive research on the creative output of the female rulers and the worlds in which they ruled and lived, Naroditskaya unearths connections between the female rulers’ personal creative aspirations, musical-theatrical practices and political agendas that included war, the legal system and Russia’s social structure.

Naroditskaya, who grew up in Azerbaijan and studied piano performance and musicology in the former Soviet Union, completed her doctorate in ethno/musicology at the University of Michigan. And it was as an American professor of music that -- to her great surprise -- she first discovered the operas of Catherine the Great.

Returning to Russia to present a paper at a conference at the Moscow Conservatory in 2001, she “quite by accident” came across published opera libretti and scores by Catherine the Great. “It was a shock to discover these operas, unknown to a majority of scholars,” she says.

“The lack of attention to half a dozen of Russia’s earliest operas to me was both puzzling and revealing, and led me to apply interpretive lenses and ethnographic inquiry to the widely held, highly politicized perception of Russian history,” Naroditskaya adds.

Like her first book on Azerbaijani music in the political context of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet era, “Bewitching” combines inter-textual analysis with an interdisciplinary approach.

Gender theory informs the author’s perception of Catherine the Great, the longest-reigning Russian tsarina (1762-96) who only recently -- and parenthetically -- has been recognized 200 years after her death as a pioneer of Russian fairytale opera.

For students of Russian music, history and women’s studies, “Bewitching Russian Opera” helps fill a void by challenging the widely held notion that Russian opera started in the 19th century. “Some of our most established views can be puzzling,” says Naroditskaya. “I wrote my book questioning how we perceive Russian musical culture today.”

Naroditskaya came to the United State in 1990. Growing up on and loving 19th-century Russian operas, in writing “Bewitching” she found a new way of exploring and appreciating the social complexities of operas by Mikhail Glinka, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Peter Tchaikovsky.

“It is not my intent to revise the past,” she says. “I’m just trying to understand how the female patronage of 18th-century Russian opera and the male endeavor in 19th-century Russian opera compete with and complete each other.”

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