Of all the forms of music and entertainment that once held modern, revolutionary ideas but was then stripped of them following the Great Retreat, I will admit, the opera was not one that first came to mind. The opera itself, has always held itself as being a champion for classical music and production, to showcase epics, tragedies, and comedies in a very…well traditional manner. However, during the 1930’s, as the Great Retreat swept across the Soviet Union, striking down that which were once revered as being fundamental for the betterment of the revolution and socialism but were now criticized and vilified for going against the neo-traditionalist views of Stalinism, one of the very few areas of entertainment that dared challenge such changes was opera. And one of the most notable people involved was composer Dmitrii Shostakovich, a man who would create an opera that would cause such a scandal that it would dominate the world of opera for the entirety of the 1930’s.
Now, Dmitrii Shostakovich was by no means set out to actively defy Stalinism, only to explore what kinds of operas that he wanted to create for modern Soviet audiences to enjoy that would explore social ideas or phenomena or other such things that he thought should be talked to about. It should also be mentioned that he had started his operatic career as a composer in the 1920s, back when it was okay to experiment with such things. The play in question that would soon cause a scandal was known as Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District, which was based on author Nikolai Leskov’s story of the same name. The opera follows the main character, Katerina Ismailova, as she attempts to navigate her loveless life with her husband and her newfound love affair with her house clerk named Sergei. And, unsurprisingly, it was a hit. On the opening night of Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District he received rave reviews from the audience, including ones that said:
“Shostakovich has torn the masks off and exposed the false and lying methods of composers of bourgeois society…Shostakovich brings off with success a new genre of tragic satire. His opera is a great victory and is the expression of the great creative upsurge that characterizes our musical front.”
His opera had even, by 1936, been performed 83 times in Leningrad and 97 times in Moscow. But, it was when Joseph Stalin and other high ranking members of his cabinet attended a showing of Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District on January 21st, 1936, where it was said that he walked out mid-performance, that would signal a change in how the opera, and in association their composers, would be conducted. Two days after Stalin’s attendance at the opera, the Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party, wrote a scathing review of Shostakovich’s opera in which they state that it was more “chaos instead of music” and incredibly “coarse, primitive and vulgar”. They also referred to the opera as to being riddled with bourgeois creations, such as jazz, and dangerous as it strayed from real art and opera and what the Soviet people truly want. On February 10, 13, 15, the Moscow Composers’ Union, at the request of Stalin, held numerous sessions to denounce Shostakovich and his work, before coming to the conclusion that he himself was not at fault but the direction in which he was going was. The union then defined that correct direction to go in as being “formalistic”, which meant:
“Every composition should be considered “formalistic” in which the composer fundamentally does not have as his aim the presenting of new social meanings, but focuses his interest only on inventing new combinations of sounds that have never been done before”
Even after being found not at fault, Shostakovich was still treated and seen as having betrayed Soviet opera and society. His works were banned from production and all operas from then on had to meet the strict guidelines set before them. The revolutionary exploration of social change and thought from the 1920’s was officially dead on the opera stage, and the traditional, “formalistic” views of the Great Retreat had taken the spotlight.