Idiots at the Opera — Notes on The Nose

I’d never read Gogol’s short story The Nose, but watching the William Kentridge production of Shostakovich’s operatic version, it felt somehow both fresh and familiar.

Fresh because it’s easy to imagine how young Shostakovich was when he wrote the music, how new the century was, and how daring and exciting it must have been to create a new kind of opera – modern, antic, and absurd.

Familiar because of the source story’s influence both direct and indirect. A bureaucrat wakes up one morning to find his nose is gone. Then he discovers his nose is human-sized and living a life of its own. The story was written in the 1830’s, about eighty-five years before Gregor Samsa awoke to his own changed state, about ninety years before before surrealism, expressionism, and dada, somewhere close to a hundred before the birth Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks.

The story´s  influence on Roth and Allen is unambiguous. Look at the giant breast run amok in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (1972), and then there’s the even more obvious reference in 1973’s Sleeper in which the future society’s dictator is reduced after an assassination attempt to just a nose – on life support. In Roth’s novel, The Breast, a man who teaches Gogol’s short story, is transformed into a giant mammary gland. While I can’t come up with this explicit a corollary in Mel Brooks’ work, I’m sure more than one exists. Brooks love of classic Russian literature is known, and certainly taking down self-important bureaucrats among his motifs. Brook’s first film The Twelve Chairs, was based on a Russian story by Ilf and Petrov who in their turn were of course influenced by Gogol. For that matter, there’s a pretty straight line from the absurdities of The Nose and The Inspector General to the works of the brothers Marx.

How odd is it that the work of a nineteenth century Ukrainian/Cossack short story writer would have such an impact on twentieth century American Jewish humor?

Maybe not so odd, or as the better-half pointed out, “They didn’t call it the borsht belt for nothing.”

It’s easy to imagine an early adolescent Philip Roth or Woody Allen, smart boys from non-bookish homes, discovering Gogol’s story in a library, and feeling at once a connection and an awakening.

It’s a whacky relationship between 1st and 2nd generation American Jews and the motherland. “Where were your grandparents born?” was not an uncommon question for kids to ask each other in the multi-ethnic neighborhood in Queens where I grew up. Explaining to the non-Jewish ones that while my grandparents might have been born within the boundaries of what was then the Soviet Union (or close to it) we were not Russian or Ukrainian or Polish. While I got it, getting my goyishe American friends to comprehend that no matter how many hundreds of years my forebears might have spent in those regions, they were just passing through – a despised minority, permanent foreigners. You could become an American the second you got off the boat, but even after the revolution, in Russia your nationality card would say Jew.

And yet, The Nose reminds us how much the Jewish sojourn in Eastern Europe influenced what we think of as Jewish, or maybe just American, humor. While people have written tomes on Monty Python’s influence on American comedy, just as the Beatles and the Stones owe a debt to American blues, the Python’s and their immediate predecessors  (Spike Milligan, Beyond the Fringe, etc) were surely influenced by the absurdist humor of the Marx brothers (and yes I could add citations to “prove” it). In a sense, we are all Gogol’s children.

So back to the Met and the opera —

First, a brief history, via the wikipedia — The Nose opened in Moscow in 1930. It ran eighteen critically panned performances, and was not seen there again until 1974. It didn’t premiere in the United States until 2004. The current production was first seen in 2010. While The Nose might be considered “satiric” in a general sense, it sends up an easy target — pompous bureaucrats. It’s not biting or bitter, or even political. The opera was initially set at the time the story was written — the 1830’s, though this production references Stalin through its clever use of graphics, but it’s doubtful Shostakovich meant to make a statement, and if he did, we miss it.

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining — it is and very cleverly done.

Tenor Alexander Lewis, in the title role handled the little singing he had to do quite ably, and the physical comedy even better. Paulo Szot in the lead role as the bureaucrat Kovalyov was also adept musically and dramatically. In fact, the entire cast was great at both singing and being funny and often singing funny.

The use of graphics projected onto the stage owes a clear debt to Terry Gilliam, and completely works here. While the graphics reference Uncle Joe, the costumes and settings look pre-revolutionary. The settings and graphics owe much to German-Expressionism which had no problem with anachronisms. The casual mixture works much better than forcing a more modern setting.

The production is certainly different than the usual Met fare. In addition to all the physical comedy, and fourth wall breakthrough, there’s a fair amount of spoken dialogue. It sometimes felt more like watching a classic silent film with a really amazing musical score than an opera.

Would this, then,  be the opera for non-opera lovers? Maybe. It’s a nice blending of music and theater, and it doesn’t take itself seriously, but if you don’t have a sense of humor, a love of the absurd, or a desire to see words and images projected onto the stage during a live performance,  maybe not. (If I were going to introduce someone to opera, I’d go for Carmen. Not as funny, but you already know the songs, and people think they can sing them.)

There’s only one performance left – Saturday, October 26th.. You’ve already missed the weekend rush lottery. Standing room is available, but I wouldn’t recommend it as there’s a lot going on vertically, and that view gets cut off from the back of the orchestra section. As of this writing, the cheapest good seats available would be $80 in the balcony. The last row of family circle is open at $25, but the stage view would be so tiny, you’d miss a lot of the physical stuff even with opera glasses. The good news is Saturday’s performance is also the Live in HD, so if you can’t get to the Met, or don’t want to shell out for decent seats, that might be your best bet. Ticket information including HD, here.

Here’s an enticing trailer from 2010:

(Marion writes about all the operas she sees. Nobody asks her to, but she can’t help herself. She also writes fiction, which you could take a look at.)

One thought on “Idiots at the Opera — Notes on The Nose

  1. This is actually pretty insightful. As an Ashkenazi Jew myself, I’ve also wondered how much ‘Jewish’ culture – as in shtetl culture is stuff borrowed from the ruling culture – Eastern Europe.

    But we Jews turned it into our own – sort of like those Inca Indians that took the bowler hats the rulers used to wear and made it their own.

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