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8 July 2014

Insight: Mayakovsky

Michael Smetanin Image: Michael Smetanin  
© Maria Smetanin

Michael Smetanin writes about his and Alison Croggon's opera Mayakovsky, to be premiered by the Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks, Sydney, on 28 July - further performances on 30 July and 1-2 August.
> More 'Insight' articles by the AMC's represented artists.

Why Mayakovsky? Or worse still: Who is Mayakovsky? These are the questions that have been most frequently asked of me during the five years of work on my opera Mayakovsky. The answer is not so simple.

Only a very few notable individuals, including Richard Gill, who originally commissioned the opera, haven't asked me this. And it is mystifying to me that these FAQs have arisen in Australia. Why have so few people heard of this major artist? Nobody asked these questions in Holland where the initial discussions about this opera began. The European reaction was much more along the lines of 'great idea', and 'wonderful character'. More significantly, in terms of 'why Vladimir Mayakovsky' (1893-1930), it is because he was and is famous. He is profoundly intriguing and amazing. He is connected to most of the exciting and equally appalling aspects of post-revolutionary Russian culture, and Mayakovsky's short life serves explicitly as a metaphor for any number of other social and cultural crises anywhere, especially now, in a new age of revolution and counter revolution.

Rodchenko's photo portrait of Mayakovsky in 1924
Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1924,
photographed by fellow artist
Alexander Rodchenko.

Mayakovsky was one of the most significant figures in the Russian Soviet artistic life of the 1910-20s - artistic life arguably richer than that of any other place at that time. As an individual, Mayakovsky was a huge bundle of emotional contradictions. His love life and lifestyle were famously chaotic and were suppressed by Soviet authorities as being unworthy of the new Soviet man. Stalin eventually referred to Mayakovsky as 'the poet of the revolution' even though Mayakovsky was never a member of the party and abhorred mindless apparatchiks who carried out the stupidities of bureaucracy.

More personally, my own connection with Mayakovsky through my Russian heritage was the catalyst for my initial interest in him and for my great admiration for his work. I found my first books of his poetry and collections of telegrams in the Soviet Bookshop in Sydney in the summer of 1985-86. Some of the photographs of him with short cropped hair made him look to me like a 1920s punk! He was a towering, handsome man with a big bass voice, his persona imposing in life and on film.

The opera Mayakovsky is created from a labyrinth of connections with the man and his art, his culture, environment, his fellow artistic contemporaries, and Futurism both as it occurred in Russia and elsewhere. The libretto, written by Australian poet and writer Alison Croggon, is heavily imbued with Mayakovsky's writings. There are excerpts woven into the text from poems such as 'Clouds in Trousers', 'The Backbone Flute', and the play The Bathhouse. The recitations of the excerpts from the poems that appear as part of the electronic fixed-media parts of the opera's score, have been read by actor Alexei Menglet. Menglet has a connection to Mayakovsky through his own grandfather who worked with Meyerhold, the first director of Mayakovsky's plays in Moscow. The recitations from the play by the Phosphorescent Woman have been read by actress Natalia Novikova.

Alison Croggon describes her approach to the composition of the libretto and the opera:

...it's easier to say what it isn't. It's not a biography, or a straight-forward narrative, or a historical story. It's a play within a play, taking the cue from Mayakovsky's first play called 'The tragedy of Vladimir Mayakovsky'.

Like the libretto, the music is also heavily imbued with Mayakovsky's persona via the recording he made in 1914 of his famous poem 'Listen' (Posluschayti).


if stars are lit
it means - there is someone who needs it.
It means - someone wants them to be,
that someone deems those specks of spit
And overwrought,
in the swirls of afternoon dust,
he bursts in on God,
afraid he might be already late.
In tears,
he kisses God's sinewy hand
and begs him to guarantee
that there will definitely be a star.
He swears
he won't be able to stand that starless ordeal.
He wanders around, worried,
but outwardly calm.
And to everyone else, he says:
it's all right.
You are no longer afraid,
are you?'
if stars are lit,
it means - there is someone who needs it.
It means it is essential
that every evening
at least one star should ascend
over the crest of the building.


Ведь, если звезды зажигают -
значит - это кому-нибудь нужно?
Значит - кто-то хочет, чтобы они были?
Значит - кто-то называет эти плевочки
И, надрываясь
в метелях полуденной пыли,
врывается к богу,
боится, что опоздал,
целует ему жилистую руку,
просит -
чтоб обязательно была звезда! -
клянется -
не перенесет эту беззвездную муку!
А после
ходит тревожный,
но спокойный наружно.
Говорит кому-то:
"Ведь теперь тебе ничего?
Не страшно?
Ведь, если звезды
зажигают -
значит - это кому-нибудь нужно?
Значит - это необходимо,
чтобы каждый вечер
над крышами
загоралась хоть одна звезда?!

The noisy 52-second recording was put through a spectral analysis which produced a progression of harmonic and corresponding rhythmic information. Subsequently a short piano score was made from this material. The material of the piano score was then stretched out to 90 minutes, providing the entire harmonic and durational pathway of the opera, thus the structure is imbued with the sound of Mayakovsky's own voice.

The recording of 'Listen' is also used more specifically in the creation of rhythm in some of the electronic music, particularly that of Scene 17, Mayakovsky's last solo appearance in the opera. The rhythmic impulses/patterns of Mayakovsky's reading are used to trigger corresponding excitations in sounds in various parts. The parts driven by the rhythm of Mayakovsky's voice create another (virtually organic) link between the man from before and the score of his future.

In the opera the Phosphorescent Woman announces that Mayakovsky's voice is creating the music of the future. This is anecdotally connected with another interesting musical event which involved Mayakovsky 13 years after his death in 1930. It concerns the Russian avante-garde composer, Arseny Avraamov, who developed theories for microtonal composition around 1914-16 and later for spectral analysis, and had proposed to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissioner of Education shortly after the revolution, that pianos be burned because they were symbolic of traditional tempered music. Avraamov argued that the Soviet anthem that replaced the Internationale in 1944 be replaced by an anthem not adhering to traditional harmonic approaches, thus being more appropriate an anthem to a revolutionary state. Avraamov's plea also suggested that the anthem could be sung by Mayakovsky, whose voice would be synthesised in his music laboratory.

This seems a bold promise: but it is important to remember the musico-technical advances made by Avraamov and his student Boris Yankovsky in spectral analysis and voice synthesis, and of course other experimenters such as Lev Theremin. Each of these three fell foul of the Stalinist purges and were not able to complete their research. Theremin actually spent a year in Siberia before being allowed to serve the rest of his 8-year sentence in a controlled research job at the Moscow Conservatorium, to also be later removed to end his life working as a laboratory technician. These are reminders of the treatment Mayakovsky might have endured had he lived beyond his suicide. The suicide is also a contentious issue, with many believing Mayakovsky may have been dealt with by the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) instead of having killed himself, even though Mayakovsky had a history of talking about taking his own life and attempted suicide as early as his mid-teens.

In Mayakovsky the opera, there is of course the 'love-interest', but not a typical one. Mayakovsky lived for some time in a ménage-a-trois with Lilya and Osip Brik, and his affair with Lilya was full of turmoil. Lilya (Lili) writes in her autobiographical note How Things Were, that 'Volodya [diminutive of Vladimir] didn't simply fall in love with me. He attacked me, I was under attack. For two and a half years I didn't have a single minute's peace - quite literally.'

It is possible that Lili Brik did not quite share the same level of 'a big love' that Mayakovsky had and it seems to many that she may have been drawn to him partly for social advantage through her connection with him. Mayakovsky, on the other hand, clearly depended on Lili emotionally and derived an important amount of support from her. Mayakovsky had many affairs before, during and after his relationship with Lili Brik, and is even thought to have fathered a child during his trip to Mexico and the United States. He loved women but his tough exterior was often crushed by his Russian melancholia and all of his affairs eventually failed. He would have been an extremely difficult lover who was a film maker as well as a poet, playwright and poster artist and from time to time wished to be a normal, modern Soviet citizen.

Mayakovsky and the Russian Futurists had great self belief, even arrogance, in the days prior to the revolution and into the early days of Lenin's time. Mayakovsky's first involvement with Futurism was his membership of the group Gileya (headed by David Burlyuk) who issued a manifesto called A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. Here in the future, sadly, big opera companies seem to scatter like startled rodents in the light of such forward-looking doctrine.


The opera Mayakovsky for the Sydney Chamber Opera production at the Carriageworks theatre complex is scored for: 2 saxophones, French horn, trumpet in C, trombone, percussionist, amplified grand piano, one guitarist doubling electric guitar and bass guitar, and electronic music cues on fixed media.

The personae is as follows: Mayakovsky (baritone), Lilya (soprano 1), the Author (tenor), Stalin/Lenin/chorus (high baritone), Elsa/chorus (mezzo-soprano), Zvyeryeva (Soviet bureaucrat)/chorus (soprano 2), Chorus of bureaucrats (singers as indicated).

AMC resources

Michael Smetanin - AMC profile
Performances of Mayakovsky by the Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks: 28 July, 30 July, 1-2 August (AMC Calendar)

Further links

Alison Croggon - homepage
- Sydney Chamber Opera
Mayakovsky - Carriageworks

Subjects discussed by this article:


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