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What you need to know about

The Nose

Eline Hadermann & Reinder Pols
Reading time
5 min.

OK, so you know that The Nose is the absurd story of a nose that begins to lead a life of its own. But did you know that Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera features more percussion than woodwinds and brass combined? That it was created in an artistic spring between Lenin’s death and Stalin’s reign of terror that was as short as it was dazzling? Or that this production by La Monnaie will premiere a fragment recently discovered in the archives?

1. The story

‘For a nose to disappear is unlikely, more than unlikely. It must be a dream or just my imagination’, Kovalyov exclaims when he notices that his nose has disappeared. A nose disappears, briefly goes through life as a human being, is caught by the police and finally regains its natural place: that, in short, is the content of the short story The Nose (1836), one of Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburg tales, which Dmitri Shostakovich took as the subject of his first opera. In this short story, Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), the tsar of Russian comedy, so to speak, and undoubtedly one of the greatest authors of the golden age of Russian literature (1830–50), pokes fun in an inimitable way at humankind’s quirks and foibles. Reality gives way to the absurd, but the story remains populated with flesh-and-blood people: corrupt authority figures, colourful folk types, self-centred bourgeois men and marriageable daughters, painted true to life with a hearty dose of irony. This mad imaginary world provided Dmitri Shostakovich with everything he wanted for his first opera.

Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol

2. The Nose (1927–28): a minor miracle of history

Not only did Shostakovich choose a sharp satire on Russian bureaucracy as the starting point for this debut, he composed it moreover in avant-garde style. That this was at all possible is a minor miracle of history: after all, at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin had set out clear party guidelines for the organization of the new Soviet Union and thus also for the art it was to produce. He was firmly opposed to modernist tendencies: above all, art had to be close to the people. But as the Russian Civil War between the Red Army and the White Army gradually drew to a close after the revolution, the country had fallen into such a dire economic situation that Lenin was compelled to temporarily suspend the strict policies of war communism and introduce a New Economic Policy (NEP) in order to survive. During this period of economic liberalization, the Party also temporarily relaxed its control over artistic life. This relative openness continued until 1930, after which party positions quietly became stricter again and Stalin tightened his iron grip on the Soviet Union. Shostakovich took advantage of this brief window of opportunity to compose and create his first opera.

3. Shostakovich’s exuberant music

Dmitri Shostakovich was barely 21 when he worked on the composition. Whereas during his studies at the conservatoire he was mainly influenced by the music of the five great nationalist Russian composers, during the NEP period he came into contact with new trends. For instance, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck made an overwhelming impression on him, as did the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith and especially Igor Stravinsky. The synthesis the young Shostakovich made from these works shows the unbridled imagination of youth. Not only does he connect a multitude of Western styles, he also combines tonal passages with atonality, folk music with church music, opera singing with shouting, speaking, yawning, snoring … In three short acts, Shostakovich thus gives us a compelling and touchingly ironic portrait of humankind’s quirks and foibles, which he delivers to his audience with immense vitality, like a musical whirlwind. And wait, another scoop: for the first time in a stage production, La Monnaie will also perform a recently discovered excerpt from this work!

4. Some rare guests in the orchestra

The vivacity of Shostakovich’s composition is highlighted by the unusual, original orchestral line-up of his score. For instance, the percussion section has more players than brass and woodwind combined! The percussionists are right in the spotlight and Shostakovich even gives them a full intermezzo. Their arsenal is also impressive: apart from the usual instruments such as a triangle and cymbals, there are also various drums, castanets, a tambourine, a glockenspiel, tubular bells, a xylophone and even a flexatone. Even among the stringed instruments, Shostakovich opts for some rather rare guests: the domra and the balalaika, two Russian plucked string instruments, with which Shostakovich gives his composition a shot of Slavic and folk local colour.

5. One opera, eighty characters

A newspaper staffer. A mother. A father. Their children. An old countess. A doctor. Two dandies. A coachman. A footman. These are just some of the great many characters in Shostakovich’s opera, which calls for a chorus and some eighty spoken, sung or silent roles. Fortunately, the composer himself indicated that many double roles are possible. Since the premiere in 1928, therefore, some fourteen soloists have usually been sufficient to embody the main characters. We are relying on the expertise of our chorus members for the minor roles. Both with this mass of different characters and with the theatrical procedure of dual roles, Shostakovich pays tribute to the Russian theatre innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold, with who he worked a lot in his early years. For Meyerhold, audiences needed to be constantly aware that what they were seeing on stage could not be real – something Shostakovich clearly took into account in his work on The Nose.

The young Shostakovich with Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky during a work session on The Bedbug (1929)
The young Shostakovich with Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky during a work session on The Bedbug (1929)
6. La Fura dels Baus and the precariousness of power symbols

Together with his collective La Fura dels Baus, director Alex Ollé may have taken the opposite stance. Indeed, in the scenography of this La Monnaie production, the audience is most likely to recognize its own world and everything that symbolizes power in it: skyscrapers, grey bank buildings, men in suits. At the same time, Ollé questions those same symbols of power – and those who use them. Kovalyov’s nightmare is that of a ruler who is suddenly stripped of precisely that which gives him his power and status. When at the end of the opera the Petersburg fog lifts – here, an impressive iron construction inspired by Antoni Tàpies’s sculpture Núvol i cadira (Cloud and Chair)– Kovalyov’s nose does indeed return to its place, but in one last plot twist, it becomes clear that power often lasts only until someone punctures its thin layer of symbolism. Or until someone takes you by the nose …

© Bernd Uhlig