Dallas — When asked, most performing arts aficionados in the Metroplex will tell you that there are two world class symphony orchestras in the area: one in Dallas and another in Fort Worth. But that would not be completely true. There is another one: the orchestra of the Dallas Opera. Joined by the men of TDO's equally fine opera chorus, the Dallas Opera Orchestra takes the stage for a solo turn at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, in ATTPAC's Classical Criterion series. Emmanuel Villaume, TDO’s dynamic Music Director, will conduct.
But don’t expect the usual run through of an overture, concerto and symphony. No, the Dallas Opera will mount a rare performance of one of the 20th century’s great masterpieces: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar.” This is a five-movement work based on texts by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko concerning the 1941 Nazi massacre of 33,771 Soviet Jews in Kiev. It is scored for large orchestra, men’s chorus, and bass soloist, which will be sung by Mikhail Kazakov, who excelled in the title role of TDO’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 2011.
This performance has great significance well beyond giving us the opportunity to hear the opera orchestra on its own. It will mark the 75th anniversary of the horrific event itself and Yevtushenko will actually be in attendance.
As is customary with the Dallas Opera, the performance will be proceeded by one of the Joy and Ronald Mankoff Pre-Opera Talks at 12:30 p.m. in the Winspear’s Margaret McDermott Performance Hall. Dallas Opera’s CEO Keith Cerny will hold a discussion with Yevtushenko and Villaume, as well as the President and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum Mary Pat Higgins, and TDO’s Ukrainian-born Chorus Master, Alexander Rom.
The poems Shostakovich selected for this symphony tell the story of Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital city where the Nazi forces callously murdered 33,371 Soviet Jews. There were still a few larger mass slaughters yet to come at the hands of the Hitler’s forces, such as the 1943 Aktion Erntefest (Harvest Festival) liquidation of 43,000 Jews in Lubin, Poland. But that didn’t quite beat Hitler’s existing record. That was held by the Romanian’s mowing down more than 50,000 Jews in 1941 in October.
“We wanted to do something that is not provided elsewhere,” Villaume says. “I also think that it is especially relevant opposite our concurrent production of [Kern and Hammerstein’s] Show Boat, which is dealing with much the same social and political issues. Show Boat treats them in a lighter, but no less poignant, manner while ‘Babi Yar’ explores the extremes of darkness.”
Babi Yar is Russia’s scar to bear and Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry resonated with Shostakovich. The parallels with 1960 Soviet life were indirect, but obvious to everyone, including the grim-faced authorities. But the human spirit is hard to tamp down and the Moscow premiere in 1962 took place despite of the full might of Khrushchev’s iron fist trying to stop it.
The controversy over Shostakovich’s symphony was caused by something unmentioned, but more recent than Babi Yar; the vivid memory of a Stalin mass murder in the Ukraine that greatly outscored Hitler. The Ukrainians even have a word for it, Holodomor, meaning extermination by hunger.
While there were other mitigating factors, and there are (of course) two camps of deniers—one saying that it never happened and the other saying that it was from natural causes—it is well-documented that Stalin created a famine in 1932-’33 designed to stop a growing Ukrainian independence movement. Estimates on the dead range from a shocking 2.5 to a jaw-dropping 7.5 million, depending on a number of factors such as where to draw borders and whether to count birth losses.
Alexander Rom, a Ukrainian native himself, remembers the premiere quite clearly.
“It was a scandal at the time,” he says. “I was about 9 years old and my mother saw notices about it and she explained ‘Papa, take a look at this.’ It landed like someone dropped a bomb.”
Rom says his family followed all of the misadventures that occurred trying to stop the performance.
“Yevgeny Mravinsky [conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra] refused to conduct it. He was a member of the party and his appearance would have created havoc,” Rom says. “Kirill Kondrashin [conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic orchestra] eventually took over, at great risk.”
Before that premiere performance in 1961, Kondrashin was involved in the dropping of another bomb. He conducted Van Cliburn’s 1958 performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto that won him the first International Tchaikovsky Competition.
This work defies classification but is variously called a choral symphony, like Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Eight or Mendelssohn’s Second, or a symphonic song cycle such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. But, because of the poem’s subject matter and its tangentially devastating indictment of Soviet Russia, there is little argument about its classification as a major work of social protest that will continue to resonant while anti-Semitism, genocide and repressive regimes still exist. And the struggle between an independent Ukraine and a voracious Russia is still in the headlines.
“This piece speaks on a universal level,” Rom says. “There are people suffering everywhere but our spirit survives. There are some members of the chorus that work long hours at multiple jobs but still manage to find the time to sing with us. I tell them we can all identify with [‘Babi Yar’]. The play may be different, but the story is the same.”
» Read Keith Cerny's Off the Cuff column about Babi Yar