Last August opera director Kevin Newbury flew from his home in New York to meet with the Portland Opera creative team to brainstorm for Eugene Onegin, the Tchaikovsky dramatic opera that will open Friday in the Newmark Theatre. As part of the life of a contemporary opera director, Newbury has spent his career jetting around the country working with houses in St. Louis, the famed Santa Fe Opera, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Boston, to name just a few, including Portland Opera for its well-received West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei in 2012. Newbury is well-composed, youthful, tack-sharp, passionate about his work. He speaks in a gentle voice with a well-thought-out command of opera, his place in it, and where he’d like to see the oft-embattled art form go.
In 2010 he staged a traditional production of Onegin in St. Louis, delicately counterbalancing its romantic pastoralism and the slightly intimidating cosmopolitan worlds that the two main characters, Tatiana and Eugene, navigate. Critics and audiences raved about it, calling it a well-directed traditional performance that celebrated the soprano and musical drama of Tchaikovsky.
This time around, he’s looking at a different sort of Eugene Onegin. Like many Gen Xers, Newbury grew up under the cultural weight of the Cold War and its theatric end, symbolized by mass crowds of East and West Berliners destroying the graffiti-covered wall that divided their city and country and, psychologically, the world. Propaganda from the United States and the Soviet Union was direct and effective, a pinnacle of advertising. When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began his failed glasnost campaign, American ice cream purveyors Baskin-Robbins jumped on the bandwagon with a chocolate flavor in his honor. The political and nuclear-threatening war of grudges had reached peak saturation on both sides. Many artists around the same age as Newbury, who is 38, have used their work as a tool to unpack the meanings and individual lives impacted by this new kind of war, which was as visually stunning as it was oppressive and terrorizing. He’s directed productions of The Manchurian Candidate and his baby, the just-opened world premiere of Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers at Cincinnati Opera, both of which look at individuals in a paranoid society and how they will negotiate their identities in a cultural landscape where status quo is de rigueur whether you’re red or red, white and blue.
Newbury has the sort of confidence that comes from loving, and doing well in, his field. It also brings to him an intellectual humility and ability to approach his work playfully. Parallels run back and forth among Eugene Onegin, Portland Opera, and Newbury’s own life. Like Onegin, Newbury is a cosmopolitan. In other, faster-paced cities, creative teams have less time to sit one-on-one and bounce off and refine ideas with one another. His work with Portland Opera gives him the rare chance to spend time on a team, rehearse on the actual stage, and evolve props with the acting. Small teams of artisans in Portland also help make the difference for productions, giving a little more room to customize sets and make intimate ideas come to life.
When it was suggested to Tchaikovsky that he adapt Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, he brushed the idea off because he didn’t appreciate the book. Over the evening he had a restless sleep and fell in love with the character Tatiana. Tatiana, the young woman on the verge who is sequestered emotionally and socially by her familial duty in the Russian countryside, became for Tchaikovsky a symbol of his own interior life: alone, unable to be authentic in the world, passionate, and independent. Tatiana’s meteoric fall into love lands onto the deaf ears of the city-smart and good-looking dandy Eugene Onegin. The musical motif Tchaikovsky wrote for Tatiana would be quoted in many of his works after, as if to say he still carried a torch for the perfect literary image of his own life. Rumors have long claimed that Tchaikovsky may have poisoned himself to avoid the threat of being outed as gay. In late 19th century Russia that would have led to the same or worse conclusion as his contemporary Oscar Wilde faced in England. Newbury is comfortable in sharing the queer history of opera and literature, which in recent decades is becoming documented and brought to light. While queer artists have informed the genres since the beginning of art, only recent studies have unearthed this important puzzle piece that was long ignored, denied, or suppressed. Where Tchaikovsky found an imaginary musing of himself in Tatiana, in his last violin concerto you can hear, feel, sense that he composed the piece as a way beneath the sheets to publicly make love, at least metaphorically, to the original soloist. It is fevered, complex, dynamic, and emotionally skilled. Tatiana and Onegin’s star-crossed unrequited love runs a timeless story similar to the oppression of the love that dare not speak its name. Newbury notes that for young people coming in touch with themselves and their sexuality, the figure of a handsome, cultured Onegin out of reach is a common human experience of first loves.
Portland Opera and Newbury have worked closely to bring an Onegin to the stage that is in reach of a younger contemporary audience. In place of an Onegin that plays off the theme of city mouse and country mouse, they decided to concentrate on the real heart of the matter: impossible love. Newbury calls it putting Tchaikovsky on pop-culture steroids. Tatiana and Onegin find themselves in communist Russia during the 1980s and 90s, instead of the original setting in late 19th century Russia. Set designer Daniel Meeker, who also recently designed a magical and inventive Peter and the Starcatcher for Portland Playhouse, looked to Soviet propaganda and mined it for ideas. Hammer-and-sickle red pair up with army green, illustrated by Slavic Saul Basses who drenched Leningrad in a rhetorical design that could barely cover up the ration lines among the U.S.S.R.’s crumbling brutalist industrial conditions. Tatiana and Onegin’s attraction is sparked by contraband: youth culture in the form of Western pop music posters and the ’80s version of a love letter: the mix tape.
While Gen Xers are figuring out that the strange world we lived in as kids was given no direct cause, we made it out alive and kicking by diving deep into commercial culture and history that became an open market for all. The added element of the audience knowing what Tatiana and Onegin don’t – that the bigger horizon of their lives is on the cusp of dramatic change – promises to give this Onegin a fresh and tantalizing element.
Portland Opera’s Eugene Onegin opens Friday, July 8, in the Newmark Theatre and continues through July 26. Ticket, schedule, and production information here.