OPERA - Other Composers - Orango
ORANGO – MURDOCH
In 2004, a substantial cache of Shostakovich autographs, sketches, and rejected drafts was discovered in a Moscow archive by the scholar Olga Digonskaya. While much of the new material helps to illuminate the compositional process behind well-known works, undoubtedly the most sensational find was music intended for an operatic satire dating from the early 1930s, titled Orango, that never saw the light of day.
The opera was commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater in 1932 for the purpose of commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Revolution. Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov signed on as librettists to compose an opera with Shostakovich on the broad theme "human growth during revolution and socialist construction." Ultimately, the collaborators conceived their opera as "a political lampoon against the bourgeois press," adapting the plot from one of Starchakov's stories concerning a human-ape hybrid conceived in a medical experiment.
Brief summary of the Tolstoy-Starchakov proposal for Orango
Act I — In a scientific experiment, a French biologist
impregnates a female ape with human sperm. A journalist finds out and publishes
an exposé that ignites a political and religious uproar. The biologist
continues his research in secret and when the ape conceives, he ships her to a
colleague in South America. In due course, he learns that the ape has given
birth to a male hybrid which differs little from a baby born to a woman. Correspondence
between the two scientists continues until the summer of 1914, when war breaks
out in Europe.
The subject of animal-human hybrids had both literary and real-life precedents. H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog (1925) number among the former. Among the latter was one drawn from the pages of the contemporary press, about research in crossbreeding by the Russian scientist Ilya Ivanov, who was sent by the Soviet government and Academy of Sciences to Africa in 1926 to carry out experiments involving the artificial insemination of female chimpanzees with human sperm. Upon his return to the Soviet Union in 1927, Ivanov continued this controversial research at a primate station in Sukhumi; while travelling in the South in 1929, Shostakovich visited the "ape farm" and recommended it as a sight worth seeing.
See also CURRENT POLITICS