Thursday, December 26, 2019

Rejection Letter

“I have not yet said a tenth part of what I want to say,” Tchaikovsky once wrote his patron. “My heart is full. It thirsts to pour itself out in music.” Music was one way he expressed himself; he also wrote countless letters, and there’s even a wax cylinder recording of Tchaikovsky speaking. It’s fun, if pointless, to speculate about what communication channels Tchaikovsky would favor were he living among us now. Would he keep a blog? Would he tweet? Would he keep in touch with his brothers by video call, or would he text them incessantly? Perhaps he would still write letters.

Tatyana writes a long, passionate love letter in the privacy of her room. Photo: Eugene Onegin, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, 2017 © Cory Weaver.

Anybody remember letters? You youngsters who grew up in an all-digital world may not be as familiar with the emotional dynamics of letter writing as those of us who remember those bygone days (I’m Gen X). Letters are curiously both intimate and distant: intimate because it’s actually a thing, an old-fashioned, analog piece of reality, a sheet of paper your correspondent physically touched, maybe wept over or kissed—and distant because the person is absent. No matter how fraught, how intense the message, nobody is breathing down your neck expecting a response right then and there. You’ve got a little space. Even if you’re reading a declaration of love, or a coming-out letter, or a marriage proposal, or great news (“Mom and baby are both healthy!”), or terrible (“Your loved one is missing, presumed dead”), the very mechanism of the letter offers its recipient a little privacy. You respond within days, not minutes.

Tchaikovsky needed letters the way he needed air and water. When he began work on Eugene Onegin, he started with the scene in which Tatyana writes her letter. One of the most intense declarations of love in all opera, its music burned its way through Tchaikovsky’s soul just as it does that of his heroine. Our title character then breaks Tatyana’s heart, rejecting her in person with his “Let’s just be friends” aria—and no matter how beautifully the baritone sings, winning the audience’s sympathy here is a tall order. How can he be so cold? So chill? In fact, it requires considerable delicacy and tact to do what Onegin does. An in-person response is appropriate; if he responded with another letter, it might fall into the wrong hands and Tatyana would be further humiliated. Moreover, in his aria, he goes out of his way to say, “It isn’t you, it’s me.” Tatyana could have had it much worse. He could have taken advantage of her without requiting her passion.

Seattle Opera’s 2002 production of Eugene Onegin featured Nuccia Focile as Tatyana and Peter Edelmann as Eugene Onegin. Photo © Chris Bennion.
Unfortunately, that’s what Tchaikovsky himself did in the same situation. The 37-year-old bachelor had decided he needed to get married. In those days, people weren’t gay, activities were. He may have thought a wife and kids would help him avoid “bad habits.” (Scholars continue to debate the extent of Tchaikovsky’s internalized homophobia.) When a former student he barely knew wrote him a passionate love letter, instead of telling her, as Onegin does Tatyana, “I’m not the marrying kind,” Tchaikovsky married her almost sight unseen.

It was the biggest mistake of Tchaikovsky’s life. He had grossly underestimated how incompatible they were. It wasn’t just a question of his not being interested in women—this particular woman repelled him more and more by the hour. He quickly started coming up with excuses to avoid her, and after a few months (and something resembling a nervous breakdown), they separated. This “marriage” caused intense personal misery, public humiliation, and wasted energy and investment on both sides. Onegin, in comparison, was a gentleman.

At least, he was in Act One. In Act Two, Onegin’s petty spitefulness, stubborn pride, and ennui get the better of him, leading to Lensky’s death and Onegin’s own exile. He returns from abroad in Act Three a changed man, finally able to recognize Tatyana’s beauty and return her love. And so they reverse roles: this time he writes the passionate, pleading love letters, and she rejects him. If Onegin learned his lesson, it was too late.

Nadezhda von Meck was Tchaikovsky’s patron.
For more than a decade, they exchanged more than 1,200 letters.

Tchaikovsky learned, the hard way, that an intimate relationship with a woman was not for him. But a relationship at a distance, the separation mitigated by letters? Much more successful.

The same year as his disastrous marriage, Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, wrote him the first of more than 1,200 letters that passed between them over the next dozen years. Early on they agreed never to meet; this love affair was entirely platonic, their relationship fundamentally a financial one. Tchaikovsky understood her reasons for never interacting with him in person: “You fear that you will not find in me those qualities with which your imagination, inclined to idealization, has invested me. And you are quite right.” Harsh reality would never be allowed to correct the fanciful images they loved of each other. Perhaps it involved an element of delusion; but this relationship worked. Von Meck’s patronage enabled Tchaikovsky to give the world such masterpieces as his Fifth Symphony, Sleeping Beauty, and The Queen of Spades.

If you’ve ever heard Tchaikovsky’s music, you’ve met the man. He’s one of the most popular composers who ever lived, not because he wrote great tunes, not because of how he used harmony or orchestral color or musical form, but because he speaks to us as an individual in everything he wrote—eloquent, passionate, and recognizably idiosyncratic. His music speaks to us as intimately as a letter.

Jonathan Dean, Seattle Opera’s Dramaturg, is a multilingual opera fanatic who wears many hats. In addition to creating the English supertitles that accompany most productions, he provides Seattle Opera artists, audiences, and staff with information and research about the music, historical and present-day context, and interpretation of each production.

Seattle Opera’s Eugene Onegin plays January 11–25 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: