Opera. Never in a million years would I have imagined myself even thinking about attending such a musical event. The mere thought of fat, Viking ladies wailing at the top of their lungs was enough to make me cringe. But as with many things in life, opera is an acquired taste. I must say that I never would have expected to be traversing this Lithuanian land across the pond from my frozen Minnesotan homeland, least of all that I would experience my first ever opera in such a place. But as Bilbo Baggins once said to Frodo, it truly is a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
For me, the first nudge out of the proverbial door was courtesy of my older brother. He once had a Greatest Hit Trumpet Edition album that our family would occasionally listen to. There were several famous trumpet pieces that ranged from Arban’s Variations on the Carnival of Venice to Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets. What caught my ear, however, was a short little song by Tchaikovsky. Though not necessarily anything special, the trumpet-led dance seemed to put me into a trance every time I listened to it. And so, quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with all things Tchaikovsky.
What began with a compilation trumpet album soon grew exponentially to include such great works as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 4, and the world famous 1812 Overture. As time went on, I couldn’t get enough of this purely orchestral music. I gradually began to develop my collection of Tchaikovsky’s collected works to include all of his ballets among other things, and then something that I would never have expected: his most famous opera, Eugene Onegin. The stereotypical operatic voice had begun to grow on me through other classical composers I had heard, yet I still failed to summon the courage to delve into an entire opera. And clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, one can see how I was a bit leery of jumping right in. Of course, I would never have listened to it if I didn’t muster up the gumption to do just that: jump in.
One fall, I decided that it was high time I listened to Onegin, and so I did. I was astounded. Not only did I no longer mind the soaring vibrato that once made my ears bleed, but I was so taken with the expertly crafted melodies Mr. Tchaikovsky composed that I fell in love with the piece. I didn’t care what it would take or how it would happen; I needed to see this wondrous piece performed.
Though it wasn’t the reason I decided to come to Eastern Europe, the common love for Tchaikovsky’s music in this realm of the world certainly made my decision to come that much easier. When one of my new found friends mentioned that she and another would be traveling across the country to see a performance of the wonderful opera that I had come to love, I couldn’t say no. In fact, I almost saw it as my duty to go. A pilgrimage in the name of the great Russian composer. And so, in no time at all, I found myself once again swept off on a new sonic adventure.
We left at dawn, which provided a stupendous opportunity to view the glorious sunrise, and were soon on our way to Vilnius. Upon arrival, we wandered around the old city for a bit, grabbed some pizza, and were nearly late to the show. But when we finally did arrive and sat down in the balcony, the scene in front of me was not what I had expected. The stage looked like the side of an old building, and when the musicians filed out, they were wearing clothes right out of the 1960s. Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback and skeptical. All my concerns were laid to rest as soon as the orchestra began to play. With an eerie beginning that soon crescendoed into an all-encompassing chorus of singing and symphonic splendor, I was transfixed. Tchaikovsky had me, and he wouldn’t let go until the final heart-wrenching aria at the close.
What a ride. Though the piece was written—and sung—completely in Russian (the Lithuanian subtitles at the top of the stage did little to help my feeling of being lost in translation), the depth of emotion ushered forth from both the soloists and the orchestra drew me in like nothing else. What beautifully crafted melodies! That such outstanding creativity could come from the mind of one man, and remain relevant to the point of inspiring a Minnesota Boy 132 years after it was first performed is simply incredible. I could feel with the characters more than if they had just stated their troubles outright. Hearing it live with the orchestra and singers right there in front of me, I was completely engulfed by the music. With Eugene’s final cathartic cry, my hair that had been standing on end could finally take a rest. The crowd erupted. I could hardly contain my joyous praise.
As the road goes on, I doubt that the memory of experiencing Eugene Onegin will ever fade from my mind. I guess opera isn’t that bad after all.