Written by: Ben Hogwood
Mikhail Bulgakov may have written his satirical novella Heart of a Dog in 1925, but the story has perhaps more relevance today than ever. The book was banned for many decades in Russia. Alexander Raskatov (born in 1953) has now interpreted Bulgakov’s writing in operatic form, A Dog’s Heart receiving its UK premiere at English National Opera this November. As well as Raskatov’s debut, it marks the first production of Simon McBurney for ENO, the opera having had its premiere in Amsterdam this June.
When we meet, Raskatov speaks in deliberate but fluent English about the first rehearsal. “We have just started, so I hope it’s going in the right direction.” Are the singers enjoying it? “It’s better to ask them I think!” He smiles. “I can only tell about my experiences in Amsterdam, where everybody, practically all the orchestra and all the singers, came to me many times and told me how happy they were to work on this music. Everybody enjoyed it, and even thought it was too short!”
The attention turns to his working relationship with McBurney. “We have had a very interesting time together. Now we have probably done most of our work, which took place during his workshops in Amsterdam, but I think we are very near to each other in the sense of understanding certain scenes, especially those of Russian culture in the 1920s and 1930s.”
He elaborates. “There was this explosion of culture in a lot of genres, in the same cities and the same countries. The life of most of them was shortened by Stalin and his regime, but this explosion of the 1920s was so powerful that I cannot compare this with anything else. It was like a bomb in culture. I think it happened because it was a kind of compensation for the absence of normal conditions of everyday life. Most of these people were without any idea of materialism in the sense of money or things; they didn’t care about that. That’s why this art was so great.”
We move on to discuss the challenge of taking-on a story made notorious and subsequently famous in Russia. It was banned until 1987. “I don’t know if it is famous here in the West. In our country everybody knows this story, and I myself read it just through copies on the tape machine. Even for reading them that way one could be punished, but everybody did that nevertheless. When I got the commission from Amsterdam I had carte blanche, so I could choose for myself what I could write. I didn’t hesitate, for this novel was very important for modern society, not only for Russian politics of the 1920s, but it is much more than a local story.”
He talks of the implicit lessons within the story concerning genetic engineering. “This is very important. The book has many different levels of understanding, and everybody can understand what they want and feel. This book is not just about a funny story, although it is funny, and is written extremely brilliantly.”
Raskatov’s response is in the form of some extremely colourful music. “I cannot judge myself, but I have heard certain opinions about the colours of the orchestra. It is very difficult for the composer, or at least for me, to tell certain things. The audience and the musicians have to feel these in the place of the composer I think. What I can say is that the process of writing this music was extremely intensive. I remember each day I would come to my table and strangely I wrote this opera almost directly, without any rough copies. I don’t know how this was possible, but I had a feeling that somebody helped me! My wife was the first and only listener of this opera, when it was in the process of creation, because I think at the time I was very touched and totally lived with the opera. I really wanted to find, or to re-find, this crazy energy that existed in this period when the book was written. Can you imagine a composer on an island like Robinson Crusoe? I think he needs certain ground for his feelings, and so I wanted for myself to find this energy and put myself in the former times of my country. I am very fond of things that happened in this period, in music, painting and literature, for there was a sense of something really great.” He is sceptical as to whether the cultural phenomena of the 1920s will be repeated. “I don’t know when we will have the same historical situation; probably it will never come again. There was this extraordinary energy in people born before the Revolution, but then from the events of 1917 some of them really accepted this idea of the changing of the world, so it gave this kind of intellectual ‘cartel’.”
He freely admits it was not always easy working with Simon McBurney, the director and Raskatov making cuts and changing the order of the music in which Raskatov had written it. “When I met Simon I had already written the music but there were some moments that were not easy when we looked at it. I think we worked in the same direction, but still there are some cuts. In the future I would like to open these out, because I think there is very important musical information in there. At the moment it exists but in Amsterdam we spoke together and we made some cuts that I understood, because these days an opera which lasts two hours is already too much. Normally the theatres are afraid of something that is too long, and as it was just a process of creation we came to the conclusion that we had to do that. The original version was two hours and 15 minutes, so quite long. From my Amsterdam experience, some people came two, three times to see the opera, so now I am assured.”
Next year A Dog’s Heart will be staged at the Mariinsky Theatre, conducted by Valery Gergiev. “He has already played some of my music. In 2002 he gave me a commission to write a viola concerto for Yuri Bashmet, which was premiered in Paris and then also played in the Concertgebouw. Dutch Television made a two-hour film about the piece, and about Gergiev, me and Bashmet.”
He returns to talk about A Dog’s Heart, considering the impact it might have on a new audience. “For an audience who goes to listen, the story itself, and its black humour, the music will be very near and clear, so I won’t need to explain certain things. I think there is a clear glass between me, my muse and my audience. In Amsterdam I thought it was brilliant, the contact between the stage and the audience, and as many as three-hundred people were not able to buy a ticket. The English have their own sense of humour, and are famous for that, so I think it important to work in the same direction with a kind of ‘total opera’, with the music and the stage glued to each other.”
As a postscript, Raskatov talks of how Shostakovich’s widow, Irina, came to Amsterdam. “The next day she gave me a pillow with a dog on it! It was a very beautiful and extremely humorous present from her. We spent half-a-day together the day after, with her and Shostakovich’s lawyer, and I know how she appreciated the evening. I do feel a thread that runs from his generation to nowadays, and the presence of such a lady, and so many names that came for my own purpose, meant a lot.”
- A Dog’s Heart opens on Saturday 20 November at 7.30 p.m.
- ENO A Dog’s Heart