July 25, 2014


By Matthew Westwood

Vladimir Mayakovsky was the proletarians’ poet, the bard of the Bolsheviks. With his 1915 poem A Cloud in Trousers he became the celebrated voice of Russian futurism. Another of his famous poems, Conversation With a Tax Collector About Poetry, reads in part like a communist manifesto in verse: “The working class / speaks / through my mouth, / and we, / proletarians, / are drivers of the pen.” When Lenin died in 1924 Mayakovsky eulogised him in a 3000-line poem.

He was a hugely energetic ­artist, a one-man Soviet cultural industry: poet, playwright, actor, graphic designer, propagandist, even a writer of jingles.

A well-known image of him, a photomontage by Alexander Rod­chenko, has Mayakovsky’s domed cranium overlaid with a globe, orbited by planes like ­electrons or sputniks.

Sydney composer Michael Smetanin discovered Mayakovsky in the mid-1980s, some time after his return from studies with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam, and before a symphonic standoff over his orchestral work Black Snow. Smetanin, born in Australia to Russian parents, had come across the poet at the former ­Soviet bookstore in Sydney.

“I liked the really interesting bag of contradictions,” Smetanin says. “He’s an artist, he has the Russian melancholia, he has the futurist ideas, but on the other hand he adheres to traditional ­values … He wrote propaganda for the Soviet bureaucracy, but he was never a member of the party. He despised apparatchiks and the ­idiocy of the bureaucracy.”

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Smetanin wrote an opera about the poet. After a couple of false starts, his opera Mayakovsky, with a libretto by Alison Croggon, will be given its first performances next week by Sydney Chamber Opera.

Mayakovsky follows two previous biographical operas by Smetanin and Croggon: The Burrow, a “psychological profile” of Franz Kafka, and Gaugin: A Synthetic Life, about the painter. Baritone Lyndon Terracini, now head of Opera Australia, had the idea for both operas and sang the ­central roles.

The opera is a portrait of Mayakovsky in 18 scenes. Croggon’s lib­retto is a theatricalisation of some episodes from Mayakovsky’s life, including his affair with Lilya Brik, and his suicide at 36. It imagines the figures of Lenin, who was indifferent to Mayakovsky’s poetry, and Stalin, who wasn’t. Croggon has created the figure of the “Author” as a kind of shadow to Mayakovsky, who condemns the poet with the bureaucratic charge of formalism: art that is “unable to free itself from thoroughly bourgeois forms alien to Soviet art”.

Mayakovsky died — one ­theory claims he was assassinated — before the worst persecution of Soviet artists. Stalin would praise him as the greatest Soviet poet, a recognition that Boris Pasternak regarded as a “second death”.

“In a way, Mayakovsky is a ­vehicle to get to the issues that touched him, which are issues that touch all of us,” Smetanin says.

“The way that bureaucracy and government influences us and controls us and can to some extent ruin our lives … Those kinds of simple frustrations of life are the problems that Mayakovsky had in his.”

Croggon has included quotations from Mayakovsky’s poetry and drama in her libretto, with the Russian works read in recordings by actors Alex Menglet and Natalia Novikova. “Because he was so famous, there have been all sorts of things said about him, and all sorts of claims made about him,” Croggon says.

“I felt it was important to have a sense of his own voice, of his poems read in ­Russian.”

Mayakovsky is also embodied in the musical texture of the opera. Smetanin has used a 1914 recording of Mayakovsky reading his poem Listen. The audio clip, less than a minute long, was put through a spectral analysis and stretched to the 90-minute duration of the opera. It provides the “harmonic pathway” for the music. “The musical material is imbued with Mayakovsky’s own voice,” Smetanin says.

Just as Mayakovsky can be heard, through the hiss of a century’s noise, reading Listen in his declamatory baritone, Smetanin has cast his operatic protagonist as a baritone. To be sung by Simon Lobelson, the character’s vocal part is set in a “fairly heroic area” of the voice.

“I tried to make much of his material quite strident and forceful, the way I imagine him to be,” the composer says. “He was a funny guy, a bull in a china shop most of the time. In many ways he was socially clumsy, but he was also very charming and alluring. He was big in stature, women found him attractive. He was a kind of a movie star, really.”

Smetanin, senior lecturer of composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, has written chamber and orchestral music, including an award-winning piano concerto for Lisa Moore called Mysterium Cosmographicum. His 1987 orchestral work Black Snow caused a ruckus when it was subjected to a vote by musicians in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, some of whom deemed it too loud. Amid front-page headlines, the performance of the 15-minute piece went ahead. “It was overwhelmingly supported, in fact,” Smetanin says. “The sad thing was that the hands that shot up, to have it deleted from the program, were (those of) the youngest members of the orchestra. That was quite disappointing.”

He previously used texts by Mayakovsky in his 1992 song-cycle Skinless Kiss of Angels, which included settings of poems by Croggon, Daniel Keene and Jacinta le Plastrier.

By 2005, Smetanin was thinking seriously about an opera on Mayakovsky. At first, it was to be a project with Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera, then it was commissioned by Victorian Opera’s founding artistic director, Richard Gill. When Richard Mills succeeded Gill at VO last year, he cancelled the commission.

Smetanin says Mills “canned the thing because it didn’t suit them”; Mills says the opera was not ready in time, adding the decision to cancel was “no reflection on the quality of the work”. Smetanin’s commission fee was paid in full, and VO has no claim on the work. (Croggon has another project with VO, an adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Riders, with music by Iain Grandage, which opens at Melbourne’s Malthouse in ­September.)

Mayakovsky was picked up by Sydney Chamber Opera, the outfit started by Louis Garrick and Jack Symonds in 2010. The opera for six singers has a small, stringless, amplified ensemble of nine, including electric guitar, saxophone, brass and electronics. (When conductor Symonds asked Smetanin about dynamic markings, the composer said “loud”.) The production is directed by Kat Henry with set and costumes by Hanna Sandgren.

“It’s a bit different from what SCO has done before,” Garrick says. “We have done that ultra-refined British thing” — recent productions have included operas by George Benjamin, Peter Maxwell Davies and Benjamin Britten — “but this is very in-your-face, which is appropriate for ­Mayakovsky.”

Mayakovsky is presented by Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks, Sydney, July 28 to August 2.

Image: Michael Smetanin, front centre, composer of an opera based on the life of Vladimir Mayakovsky, surrounded by his cast. Picture: John Feder Source: News Corp Australia

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