Spotlight on: EUGENE ONEGIN

Eugene Onegin

At Seattle Opera January 2020

Music by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky
Libretto by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky & Konstantin S. Shilovsky
Based on Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin

The Story

Long Story Short

World-weary cad kills his best friend and wastes his one chance at true love.

Who’s Who?

Eugene Onegin is young, intelligent, handsome, wealthy, well-educated, and thoroughly bored by his meaningless life.

Tatyana is a naïve girl, bookish, and romantic, who becomes a refined lady of exquisite grace and sadness.

Lensky, Onegin’s friend, is a young hothead and would-be Romantic poet.

Olga, Tatyana’s sister and Lensky’s betrothed, is a featherbrained flirt.

Prince Gremin is a retired old army general who weds Tatyana.

Eugene Onegin 101 Podcast

Where’d They Get This Story?

From the famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, one of Russia’s greatest writers. Pushkin’s long narrative poem, also called Eugene Onegin, is still frequently assigned in Russians schools. It’s one of those great masterpieces that now belongs to the entire world: both tightly constructed and diffuse, both emotionally wrenching and outrageously clever. In Tchaikovsky’s day, opera-going Russians not only knew the story, they could quote favorite lines from the poem (the way many of us might recognize favorite lines from Shakespeare). So the opera doesn’t waste a huge amount of time on exposition: it assumes you’re already familiar with the characters, and skips right ahead to those scenes where they are so overcome by emotion it makes sense for them to express themselves in music.

Where, When, & Why Was this Opera Written?

Tchaikovsky had already composed a handful of operas when he attended the world premiere of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle in Germany in 1876. He thought it was monstrously overblown and found it difficult to relate to the lofty mythic characters. He returned to Russia wanting to write an opera which would be intimate and realistic, written on a human scale. Someone suggested Pushkin’s poem, a story which touched a deep chord in the composer. Tchaikovsky, who was gay (and closeted, thanks to the homophobic culture in which he lived), identified both with Tatyana’s wildly passionate, impossible love, and also with Onegin’s coldness to her and his miserable fate.

Pushkin & Opera

Eugene Onegin is only one of the many operas inspired by poems, plays, and prose. Tchaikovsky’s other world-famous opera, The Queen of Spades, comes from another Pushkin story, as do other great Russian operas, including Boris Godunov (by Mussorgsky) and The Golden Cockerel (by Rimsky-Korsakov). Pushkin invented the plot of Bizet’s Carmen, and was the first to suggest that Mozart was killed by Antonio Salieri.

Listen to the Music

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