What has Bunnies been up to during the first week of school you ask? Besides starting a new language, a thesis meltdown, and registering for the first time at Amherst for a class pass/fail so as to repair the thesis damage, Bunnies has been busy once again in the realm of performing arts.
In a post last summer I wrote about how my journey studying and performing oboe had come to an end rather anticlimactically. I played for almost 10 years, became pretty good in the process, and almost decided to go to the University of Colorado to major in music and snowboarding. But, sadly, I came here: I didn’t have time to practice, my oboe broke, I couldn’t stand the pressure of being the soloist in orchestra because my oboe was broken and I hadn’t practiced, and soon my darling Yamaha was sitting in the corner in her maroon-colored velvet case under a stack of unread anthropology tomes collecting dust. I had always been advised to keep my oboe in case I ever wanted to play again, but instruments are meant to be played and enjoyed (and I needed 2 grand), so I sold it to a lovely high school girl in Florida.
Thus, for the past two years I have been living a rather music-less existence. Until about two weeks ago, when my dear friend and fellow Russophile Dasha asked me to help with her thesis performance, a short opera drawing inspiration from Gogol’s story Diary of a Madman. I was to do the supertitles (like subtitles, but at the top). As a thesis student, a (former) musician, and a student of Russian literature, I have several ruminations on this production and my experience working with the cast and crew.
1. On opera: My first opera was Eugene Onegin, performed in Russian at the Metropolitan opera in New York City. I was terribly bored, I didn’t understand Russian, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t watch a play or a musical instead. Operas are incredibly difficult to follow and even to appreciate, unless you have taken the time to educate yourself on the composer, musicians, writers, directors, and story ahead of time. Operas are also incredibly beautiful, but like a Dostoevsky novel, they can’t be watched passively. There are moments in Dasha’s opera that shatter my heart, because the music, the words, and the visual impressions are so very true to the story that they reach a level undecipherable in Gogol’s story alone. Opera offers an opportunity for masters in other mediums to expand all of the viewer’s senses on literary or historical themes, and in this they are unmatched.
2. On Diary of a Madman: As the first story that I read in the original Russian, Diary of a Madman (or записки сумасшедшего) is nestled in a special place in my soul. For the most part the torment, anguish, and insanity prevalent in Russian literature comes through in the English––for example, no one reading Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg” in English can deny that it’s confusing. But as much as a don’t want to be a snob and as much as I don’t want to rewrite whole sections of my thesis for neglecting this crucial truth, there is nothing like the original Russian––especially if you’re reading about crazy people, and especially if you’re reading Gogol. It is a story that describes in 20 pages the dangers and torment that a rigid bureaucratic system can inflict on the “little guy.”
3. As a thesis: With the difficulty of performing, organizing, and writing operas in mind, let us remember that a 21-year old girl just wrote one. Most theses, I am willing to postulate, fall far short of the writers’ original expectations. Until a week ago I thought that I was going to unearth great truths about Joseph Brodsky. I believed that I was going to introduce unparalleled research into the field of study. Now all I have is an unusable chapter, a page minimum, and a deadline. Dasha has not only completed her thesis in only one semester, she has written an opera (5 vocal parts, two piano parts), recruited crew to work the lights, to direct, to conduct. She has thrown her casting net far and has suffered many setbacks. Important elements have had to be changed, sleep has been lost, tears have probably been shed, but in the end she said she was going to write an opera and she sure did. THAT is a senior thesis.
4. On the music department: The first class I tried to take at Amherst was Music 12. I was still thinking of majoring in music at Amherst, and I thought that it would be a comfortable and familiar but challenging course for me to take. But then the professor made me sight sing an etude in some sort of horrible minor key. She told me I was horrible and was surprised that I could play an instrument, I cried for two days, and then I vowed never to take an Amherst music class ever again. So in actuality I know nothing about the music department except that one of the professors is mean and the woman who works in the office is REALLY mean. But watching Dasha’s thesis in action in seems as if she has the full, engaged support of the music department. The man with the keys is always there to open Buckley Hall for her, to find projector parts and turn things on and off in the proper way. I don’t know what her experience with her advisor is, but he came and stayed at all of the rehearsals that I attended, and brought his wife and daughter to watch the dress rehearsal last night. He is proud of her, as is the director, the conductor, the singers and actors. Of course I have not seen the entire process, but is seems that she has been given then help, the encouragement, and the skills that she needed to complete this project.
5. On performing arts: And finally, I will leave my own opinion on what participating in the performing arts can do for one’s soul at Amherst, or in any place that isn’t quite home. I hated to be the center of attention when I was in orchestra, but I loved the idea of orchestra––the community, the support, the act of working together for a common love of music. It was only after the experience of working on Diary of a Madman that I realized how many other opportunities there are for creative people to be creative behind the scenes––to be a crucial part of something important without having anyone else really know. No, clicking a button to change the supertitles isn’t very hard, but without them no one in the audience would know what was going on. Maybe the lighting seems unimportant to viewers because they they it for granted, but anyone who has sat through a rehearsal knows how different lighting schemes can transform a stage into a dreamworld or an insane asylum––lighting is an art as much as music. Maybe the audience neither knows nor cares about the ushers, who prevent disturbances, or the conductor, who’s stand-light is shining in your eyes if you are sitting in seat 2k, but all of these people are crucial to making the performance what it is meant to be, and all are respected by each other.
Dasha’s thesis has been a wonderful production to be involved in, and I urge all readers to come to the performance tonight to experience the спектакл. 8pm, Buckley Recital Hall. The opera lasts about 45 minutes, and there will be a reception following.