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Sharing the joys of opera

Eugene Onegin: From Novel in Verse to Opera” – a special event hosted by the Slavic department and the Canadian Opera Company

Audience members watch a presentation during the recent symposium discussing Eugene Onegin.

A recent symposium presented by the Slavic department and the Canadian Opera Company gathered faculty, students, and opera enthusiasts for an in-depth discussion of Eugene Onegin, a famous Russian novel in verse, and its opera adaption. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

A recent symposium presented by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Canadian Opera Company (CoC) brought together students, faculty, and opera enthusiasts for an in-depth discussion of two of the most important cultural works from 19th-century Russia.

Co-sponsored by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, and the Centre for Comparative Literature, the event explored Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by Russia’s national poet Alexander Pushkin, and the opera adaptation of the novel by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of Russia’s most famous composers.

The symposium featured presentations on aspects of the novel in verse and opera from members of the University of Toronto’s Slavic department and Faculty of Music, as well as speakers from the Canadian Opera Company. Boris Gasparov, Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Columbia University and a leading authority on Russian literature and opera, gave a keynote lecture.

Organization of the event – which was open to anyone interested in opera and Russian culture – was led by Associate Professor of Russian Literature Kate Holland and Professor of Slavic Linguistics Christina E. Kramer. Catherine Willshire from the CoC’s Education and Outreach department helped with speakers from CoC for the opera outreach and provided organizational support.

The symposium was especially valuable to students in the Slavic department, many of whom examine the well-known novel in their studies.

Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana and Gordon Bintner (centre) as Eugene Onegin in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Eugene Onegin, 2018. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Eugene Onegin is considered a masterpiece of Russian literature and studied in several courses offered by the Slavic department.

When faculty members of the department learned that the CoC was staging a production of Tchaikovsky’s adaptation this fall for the first time in 10 years, they seized the opportunity to organize the symposium and incorporate the opera into their teaching of the novel.

“The novel is the key work of Russian Romanticism, but the opera belongs to a later era and was written at the height of Russian Realism, at the same time as the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” said Holland. “So with the novel and the opera, students get to experience two of the most important works of Russian culture, their resonances and their contradictions.”

In addition to encouraging students in the Slavic department to attend the symposium, Holland and Kramer arranged for 120 students to attend a dress rehearsal performance of Eugene Onegin at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto so they could experience the opera firsthand. They have taken students to the opera for decades, and, for this opera, the opera company provided additional seats and Willshire arranged for Holland and Kramer to give a mini-orientation to students prior to the performance.

For many students, it was their first time at the opera.

Rebekah Robinson, a second-year New College student majoring in History and Russian Language and Literature, read an English translation of Eugene Onegin this semester for Holland’s course on the Golden Age of Russian literature. She attended the performance to complete a paper that compares and contrasts the novel and its opera adaptation.

Robinson said that seeing the opera – which is sung in Russian and retains much of the poetry from passages of the novel – helped her view the novel from a new perspective.

“A highlight for me as a student studying Russian was to find segments of the opera where I could understand the sung Russian words without the surtitles and was able to gather additional meaning about the relationships between the characters in a way that isn’t necessarily conveyed in English,” she said.

“Even though it was my first time attending the opera I feel as if I would attend another one because the music, dramatization, and use of colours were really beautiful.”

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Eugene Onegin, which has earned rave reviews from critics, runs until Nov. 3.