4. At Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio .
As with everything Konstantin Stanislavsky did, his operatic experiment had a great influence on Russian theater. It was an attempt to revise operatic traditions, although this attempt was not the first. Already by the beginning of the 20th century a rift had begun to develop between the old operatic clichés still espoused by the Imperial Theatres and the Italian Companies, and the determined efforts of some artists to merge opera and dramatic theater in their performances. The most remarkable of these artists was Fyodor Chaliapin, who amazed audiences with the most convincing performances, make-up and the most authentic costumes, all worthy of the greatest dramatic actors.
Ivan Yershov created his own school of acting and was called the “Chaliapin of tenors."
Ivan Yershov as Grishka ("The Tale of Invisible City of Kitezh") and in Wagnerian roles. Painting by A. Golovin.
Leonid Sobinov changed the perception of the tenor roles in Eugene Onegin, La Traviata, Lohengrin, and Werther. His inspired and well thought out onstage behavior, along with his charm and striking handsomeness, had a huge emotional effect on the audience.
It would not be historically accurate to say that there were no good directors or opera productions before Stanislavsky. Also, there were other singers who could act very well, but it was mainly Chaliapin, Yershov and Sobinov who had a systematic approach to their roles. They spent a lot of time in libraries, worked with costume designers and dreamed about creating an “ideal production,” every detail of which would have been on the same high level. Both Sobinov and Chaliapin discussed operatic problems with Stanislavsky. It is said that the idea of founding the Studio was born after a conversation with Sobinov.
Leonid Sobinov as Levko ("May Night"), Lensky and Lohengrin.
Stanislavsky himself was inspired very much by opera, particularly with Chaliapin’s talent. “The opera singer has to contend not with one, but with three arts at once," wrote Stanislavsky, "vocal, musical and theatrical. In this reside both the difficulty and the advantage of his creative work. The problem lies in a varied process of mastering these three arts; although when this is done, the singer has a greater and more refined ability to effect the audience than we dramatic actors do. The singer must fuse these three arts into one, and direct them to a common purpose. To me, Chaliapin is an outstanding example of how these three forms of art can be fused. Synthesis has rarely been achieved by anyone in the art, particularly in the theater. Chaliapin is the only example I can think of. My system is taken straight from Chaliapin.”
Feodor Chaliapin as Salieri, Boris Godunov and Don Basilio.
In 1918 Stanislavsky organized the Studio in the Bolshoi at the request of the theater’s Chief Manager Ye. K. Malinovskaya. His aim was to teach leading singers his system and to fight against operatic clichés . Among his students were such stars as Yelena Katulskaya, Sergei Migai, Valeria Barsova, and Yelena Stepanova. The Studio did not last long, however, because Stanislavsky’s methods were in contradiction with the Bolshoi’s style and schedule. He realized the necessity of founding his own company of young singers, conductors and assistant directors, who would adopt his system. So, the real birth of the Studio took place in 1922. Its first productions were Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, La Bohème and The Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov. Spared from clichés, they were fresh, wholesome and tremendously successful. Eugene Onegin received rave reviews from Chaliapin and Rachmaninov. All the productions were acclaimed as the beginning of the new era in operatic theater.
The Studio’s stage was small. Actors were close to the audience, and this helped to create an atmosphere of intimacy and truthfulness which excluded broad acting. As most of Stanislavsky’s productions cannot be revived without him, one has to rely on the opinions of his contemporaries. Interesting evidence comes from three people: the ballet historian D. I. Leshkov, who saw Onegin and Tsar’s Bride in the 1920’s; Anatoly Orfenov – a prominent Soviet tenor; a star of the Bolshoi, who worked in the Studio for 10 years, and Boris Khaikin – an outstanding conductor who also worked in the Studio from 1928 to 1934.
Leshkov: “The only rest for the soul was Stanislavsky’s opera… I was astounded by the level of perspective painting: on the tiny stage of 45 square meters there was painted an entire Kremlin wall, with the Spasskaya tower, Bomely’s house and maid-servants’ house with a garden. Perhaps Stanislavsky could choose one young artist out of a thousand, because I had never seen such a cast in all my life. All the female singers were real beauties with wonderful, fresh and lush voices, while male singers all were future Chaliapins and Sobinovs… Also magnificent was the staging of Onegin. Both Larin’s ball and the ball in St. Petersburg went beautifully on that small stage. Performances were precise and fine, both musically and vocally, and they would probably have delighted Tchaikovsky himself…”
The production of "Eugene Onegin", the photo taken in 1926.
Orfenov: “In Boris Godunov, the introduction, the coronation, and the scene in Pimen’s cell went without dropping the curtain – a mere turn of a rotating stage instantly transported the audience from one place to another. As for the coronation scene, the set-designer S. I. Ivanov painted the interior of the Moscow Assumption Cathedral, where all the Russian Tsars had been enthroned . People sang the Tsar's praises behind the scenes, and the crowd could be seen only through the cathedral doors…The director gave all his attention not to the decorative luxuriousness of the Tsar’s court, but to the inner psychological state of the characters, to mimics and to declamation of the text. The scene near the Intercession Cathedral didn’t end with the Simpleton’s crying. When the Simpleton accused Boris of murdering little Tsarevich Dimitry and sang, “I cannot pray for Tsar Herod – the Holy Virgin doesn’t permit” the lights slowly went down, on the fading note of a French horn. The production was a tremendous success.”
Boris Khaikin recalled the production of La Bohème: “An atmosphere of youthfulness reigned upon the stage… Very different, brightly portrayed characters, each in their own manner— Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta, Schaunard, Colline, Benoît. How meticulously, how lovingly did Stanislavsky work on each of these characters! He strove to see that no word or sound was pronounced which was not in character, or which did not derive from the character's inner sense of self... Finally, Stanislavsky achieved striking contrasts between wild merriment—without which young people cannot live, despite all their hardships—and suddenly appearing tragic circumstances… Stanislavsky directed comical scenes to the limit. Real, sincere joy existed not only on the stage, but spread to the audience as well. When, after Musetta comes in, exclaiming fearfully, “Here’s Mimi, here's Mimi!” – and Mimi appears, short of breath and dying (Rodolfo carried her into the room), there is a contrast, an instantly frozen joy...an anxiety on everyone's face...a chill of death entering their little garret—all this made a stunning impression."
In 1924, when Lemeshev was hired, the Studio had already achieved classic status, and the high level of its productions was not the only reason for it. Despite the Civil War, the number of companies and theatrical styles increased. It was a period of flowering of Russian theater. Some famous directors, especially Vsevolod Meyerhold, had gone so far with their experiments that Stanislavsky’s companies, which had been considered ‘experimental” several years prior, became nearly “conservative.” The studio’s methods of creating productions, however, were considered original and innovative.
First of all, the Studio's artists were Stanislavsky’s pupils, who had to learn his “system” and carry out his directives. The Studio had neither chorus nor dancers. Every singer could perform a leading part one day, and sing in the chorus another. “Such a system was slightly imperfect, to judge from the quality of the sound. On the other hand, this method eliminated any disconnection from the show.” (B. Khaikin).
Singers studied choreography, rhythmic, declamation, and sketch-acting three hours a day before rehearsals. With this training, they could perform any part and could also dance, when it was necessary. Stanislavsky demanded “natural movements,” dancing “like ordinary people do,” and he was satisfied with the level of their professionalism.
He demanded from every singer that he or she learn every part in the opera, with the aim of making artists understand the meaning of their role in the context of the whole production. This requirement could not be ignored because the Studio never had a prompter. Also, in order to create a natural appearance on stage, anything that might ruin the scenic impression was forbidden—such things as looking at the conductor or singing to the audience, not to mention encores.
After each performance, Stanislavsky appointed a rehearsal to refresh actors’ feelings.
The main specific of the Studio was Stanislavsky’s approach to music and directing. A great lover of Italian bel canto repertoire, he had had a good singing voice (baritone) and even wanted to launch a career as a professional singer before. His musical memory was excellent and served him very well in his 60’s. But his qualities and beliefs as a director made him prefer those composers who could create the most convincing characters and situations – Mussorgsky, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, or Rimsky-Korsakov. The most interesting comments on Stanislavsky’s approach to music were provided by Boris Khaikin:
Stanislavsky always tried to find out what the music meant. And sometimes it was very difficult to answer this seemingly simple question. In addition to the usual difficulty of precise definition of the musical idea,… not every objectively correct answer could satisfy Stanislavsky. It was necessary to guess the direction in which his imagination started working… Worst of all, he reacted to the answers like this: “the musical idea expresses grief, sadness, joy, tragedy.” He would say, “What? Sadness, tragedy? No, that’s not for us, we can’t play that.” Which means that an artist shouldn’t play an emotional state— one of the main principles of his system. Stanislavsky often found such musical images as best gave the possibility for action. For example, it is impossible to forget the first measures of “The Golden Cockerel” (after the introduction), when Tsar Dodon's motif appears in C Major. And Stanislavsky would say, “Look how pompous he is! He just blew out his cheeks from pompousness!” Saying this, he sang the theme and gave it an intonation of absolute smugness. He repeated to the artist, who sang Tsar Dodon, “You’re not pompous enough! Follow the music!” –and it turned out wonderfully. How Stanislavsky was fascinated by the thunderstorms from Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Rigoletto! He would sing both scenes by heart and imagine the scenic realization of each musical line… He said that although a naturally occurring thunderstorm seems always the same, and works simply as a background for the action in both operas, the colors used by the composers are very different. The thunderstorm in Il Barbiere occurs before the happy ending, while in Rigoletto it happens before the tragic ending. A real operatic composer must be a bit of a director. Stanislavsky considered Puccini the best “director” among composers, and forgave him a lot for that. Remembering the production of La Bohéme makes it clear what type of “direction’ in Puccini’s music Stanislavsky valued the most."
Stanislavsky, Zinaida Sokolova and Vladimir Alekseyev.
As Anatoly Orfenov wrote, not without humor, “Zinaida Sergeyevna Sokolova earnestly, conscientiously and , I would say, reverently took all her brother’s instructions – up to asking us in “Onegin” to point exactly with the right index finger during the line, “You’re a treacherous seducer!”
A former actress, Sokolova lectured on the “system” and analyzed librettos with the students. In her notebook on the students’ attendance, she wrote a short remark on Sergei: “Lemeshev often skips lessons; he listens very attentively, but never asks about anything and doesn’t answer questions.” To judge from his book and other people’s remembrances, when asked a serious question or when he was nervous, Lemeshev always tried to find the best possible answer, and the person who had asked him sometimes got tired of waiting. His biographers explained the skipped lessons by pointing out the fact that he was still a Red Army soldier during the time when his Studio lessons began to require more and more of him.
Upon returning from the USA, Stanislavsky wanted to hear the new singers, and Lemeshev recalled that auditioning was almost as unnerving as examinations in the Conservatory. He sang Werther’s romance. Sokolova and Alexeyev told Stanislavsky of their concerns about Sergei’s height (172cm), but Stanislavsky pointed out Lemeshev’s proportional build. The problem of height never came up again. Stanislavsky wrote down in his notebook, “Lemeshev – a Conservatory student, lean, pale and hungry.”
Sergei’s account of the first meeting with Stanislavsky reflected the atmosphere of the Studio and the emotional effect of Stanislavsky’s personality: “The first conversation with the beginners took place; all the studio was present. Stanislavsky talked a lot about scenic art, including opera. He suggested to us that the actor’s task is a hard one, and requires total devotion to the profession; that an actor never gets tired and must always be collected and ready to work:
The rehearsal room in Stanislavsky's mansion, called "Onegin hall".
Several months later it became clear that serving in the army impeded Sergei’s work in the Studio. Stanislavsky wrote a letter to Lemeshev’s commanders:
Lemeshev sings Tchaikovsky's romance "Upon the yellow fields..." 1937.
Our teacher was especially critical of tenors, stating that no matter which roles a tenor sings, they all seem like the same one. Because of that, he demanded the greatest possible diversity of intonations and ability to transmit the slightest nuances of the mood. Soon I started to work on Lensky. “Eugene Onegin” had already been performed with the piano… After Pechkovsky’s departure Sergei Smirnov sang Lensky; there wasn’t another performer for the part, so I was charged to work on it. I started reading Pushkin’s novel with Zinaida Sergeyevna Sokolova, though I had long ago learned by heart everything connected with Lensky. We worked without haste, supposing that I would be able to sing it on the stage no earlier than the following year. However, because of Smirnov’s illness, I had to take part in stage rehearsals after 5 or 6 lessons with the teacher.”
It must be said that the Studio was famous for holding the longest rehearsals. A young singer had to spend a year or two preparing the role accordingly to the “system.” The dramatic tenor Pechkovsky wrote in his memoirs that he had rehearsed “Werther” for two years. Every single scene or even a movement required hours or days of work. Finally, he began to wonder about the need to work for years on each part, and approached Stanislavsky with his doubts. He was told that the longest rehearsal period is necessary only for the first time, with an aim toward learning the “system." The next part would be much easier and quicker to prepare. “And so it was,” wrote Pechkovsky. Lemeshev’s work with Z. Sokolova was a part of the huge process of everyday preparation for stage rehearsals.
Lemeshev: “Stanislavsky became very inspired during rehearsals, when he tried to achieve definite action in every scene. He would insist and yell, but meeting us the next day, he sometimes said: "Everything is wrong, the scene won’t work like that, let’s do it in a different way." He was never afraid to reject his own requirements, nor was he afraid to jeopardize his authority, unlike some other directors. The main thing for him always was authenticity of performer’s feelings. He always searched for the stage presentation which would be the most suitable for a certain artist, for their temperament and appearance.
The tenor Anatoly Orfenov, who came to the studio three years later, in 1928, and worked there until 1938, called those years the happiest period of his life. Besides, he happened upon a lucky year, when an idol of his—Leonid Sobinov— worked in the Studio as a consultant. In general, Orfenov disagreed with the opinion that the Studio had not permitted singers to develop their voices. Nevertheless, his personal experience sounds very much like Lemeshev’s:
Sergei Migai as Boyar Gryaznoy and as Robert from Tchaikovsky's "Iolantha", recorded in the 1930's
In Onegin’s line,”Ah, schast’ye bylo tak vozmozhno, tak blizko ("Ah, happiness was so possible, so close,”) where it is logical to emphasize the word “tak” ("so”) Migai often emphasized “schast’ye ( happiness”) and we were delighted by its beauty and at the same time imagined how great that happiness might have been!
Stanislavsky as Satin. The 1910's.
Guiding me to Stanislavsky’s dressing room, his secretary started to tiptoe, as did I, and tiptoeing, we sneaked along the corridor. If I were not terrified, I would have laughed out loud. Imagining now what we must have looked like, I can say for sure that it reminded me very much of the “leopard crawl” on the drill field of Cavalry school. The atmosphere overwhelmed me completely. The secretary knocked at the door; I heard Stanislavsky’s voice, “Come in,” and felt my feet almost give way under me. But I gathered up all my courage and walked in…Stanislavsky, who didn’t take part in the act that was on, wore Satin’s costume: a vest, a grey shirt, narrow, shabby trousers and a bow-tie. He was resting on the couch. Lying down, Stanislavski seemed to me even taller than he was . He pointed at the chair, but I didn’t sit down. Knowing the irreconcilable nature of Konstantin Sergeyevich in everything concerning art, I was prepared to listen to the most biting reproach. However, that didn’t happen.
Criticizing mischievous students, he usually accused them of lack of professionalism, “admiring themselves” or even “betraying the art,” which was unbearable for people to hear who were “brought up" under Stanislavsky’s ideology. Besides, being an outstanding actor himself, he used his skills to mesmerize “rebels.” Anatoly Orfenov was one of the most devoted workers , and Stanislavsky praised him, yet even he faced the master’s rage in 1938. It was shortly before Stanislavsky’s death; the Studio’s future seemed vague.
Orfenov received an invitation from the Kirov theater in Leningrad, which promised him a bigger salary, and being a family man, he decided to go there to audition. He was accepted by the Kirov theater, but the things that happened next ruined his plans and showed perfectly the hypnotic influence of Stanislavsky.
In Orfenov's words,“As soon as they learned about that in Stanislavsky’s theater, the director Arthur Grigor’yevich Orlov hastily got me into his car and drove to the sanatorium, where Konstantin Sergeyevich took medical treatment and rested. And there I was , sitting before Stanislavsky, not knowing what to say, like a rabbit before a snake. Konstantin Sergeyevich was severe. He said, “Do you want to perish? To become an ordinary operatic singer? To perish, like Pechkovsky and Jadan, who left my theater, did. ?” I was so afraid I didn't know what to do. What was the Kirov, after all? Fear of Stanislavsky, trepidation during rehearsals – all that had such a depressing effect on us, that it seemed impossible to disobey or not to fulfill his wishes. I was sitting in the “prisoner's dock”, neither dead nor alive, and babbled something about a mistake of mine; that I hadn't even thought about leaving, that I only wanted to try myself, to audition for some other theater, and so on. Of course, I didn't leave, and perhaps it was for the best.”
After Orfenov’s words, it is especially interesting that the “quiet and bashful” Sergei managed to confront Stanislavsky twice. Another incident had taken place before the mentioned conflict, and ended up peacefully. Actress Olga Sobolevskaya related, in March 1925, how Lemeshev had come to Stanislavsky’s rehearsal one and a half hours late. During that hour and a half the director and the group of students sat and waited for him. Someone tried to suggest to Stanislavsky that he begin the rehearsal without Sergei, but he was adamant. The situation was all the more strange because Lemeshev never came late to rehearsals and he knew very well about the director’s irreconcilable attitude toward undisciplined students. It turned out that Lemeshev was caught in a heavy rain on his way to the Studio and had to choose whether to stay at some shop until the rain stopped, or to run to the Studio. He chose the former. Stanislavsky, still angry, asked him, why he didn’t take a cab. Lemeshev replied, that he had no money for such luxury; his shoes were almost falling apart, and he didn’t want to catch a cold. Stanislavsky willingly forgave him and the rehearsal went well.
The photo signed, "S. Ya. Lemeshev, the artist of Stanislavsky's State Studio "
Orfenov’s story also reveals one of the main problems of the Studio: other theaters often lured Stanislavsky’s pupils. It was not a very difficult thing to do, because salaries in the Studio were smaller than in provincial theaters. As a true perfectionist, Stanislavsky hired the best conductors and most famous singers to tutor his pupils; every artist was paid during months and years of rehearsals, but in such a situation salaries couldn’t be high. Some singers also got tired of endless rehearsals and were very eager to work on stage. As for Lemeshev, he made his debut in “Eugene Onegin” two weeks after he had been taken back. In January of 1926 a courier brought him a note – Sergei had been asked to replace Sergei Smirnov, who was ill.
Meanwhile, the Studio’s life went its own way. A rehearsal was scheduled before each performance . We started to prepare “Tsar’s Bride.” Konstantin Sergeyevich directed, Vyacheslav Ivanovich Sook conducted… [Note - An outstanding conductor and a friend of Stanislavsky’s, Sook, (1861—1933) was born in Kladno, now the Czech republic; he worked in Russia beginning in 1880; from 1906 on he was a principle conductor of the Bolshoi theater. ]
Where was the truth? I can honestly say that we didn’t know at that time! And with the same frankness I confess that I could only formulate these thoughts much later, as a result of personal experience, observations and reflections.”
During rehearsals Stanislavsky directed all his energy against meaningless vocalization and clichés, and thought perhaps that singers would cope with their vocal problems on their own, or with the help of their vocal coach. The words "to sing the line” meant to sing for the beauty of the sound itself – the thing against which Stanislavsky fought. His pupils sang, of course, and many of them had very good voices and were outstanding artists; audiences admitted that the musical level of the productions was high. However, this was achieved in spite of the methods that were used during rehearsals. In general, many people, including Anatoly Orfenov, admitted that vocally the Studio couldn’t compete with the Bolshoi, which is where the best singers in the country, some of whom were good actors, were working. The more interesting thing is that Stanislavsky admitted the Bolshoi’s musical superiority too, and wrote in his notebook, “The greatest musical culture is there, in the Bolshoi.”
In “Biographical Notes, Sergei described the moment when he decided to leave the Studio:
But to return to the Bolshoi’s performance: Nikolai Semyonovich Golovanov, a magnificent master—deservedly considered the best interpreter of Russian classical music—conducted the wonderful overture. The curtain rose, and I saw the Boyar Gryaznoy – it was Leonid Filippovich Savransky. He sat exactly like they did in our production, gazing on one spot; his look and his figure expressed grief and a great inner strength. And when he sang the first line, “S uma ney’dyot krasavitsa, I rad by zabyt eye’yo – zabyt-to sily net” ("I cannot get her beauty out of my mind! I would be glad to forget about her, but have no strength to do it!”) I thought, astounded, “How could he sing it so thrillingly, powerfully and convincingly, when he didn’t study in our Studio? And the sound of his singing! We didn’t even dream about something like this!"
Nadezhda Obukhova as Polina in "The Queen of Spades", the 1930's
.Antonina Vasil’yevna Nezhdanova sang Marfa. Nezhdanova possessed a voice of stunning beauty; she had perfect technique and an extraordinarily cordial and warm sound… and I realized that in opera one must sing first of all.”
Antonina Nezhdanova sings Elsa's Song to the Breezes (Lohengrin), 1910.
One of the main reasons for his leaving was in fact Stanislavsky’s overwhelming personality. Many years later, retelling the story of his début in “Eugen Onegin” to the director G. Ansimov, Lemeshev admitted that he had felt “small and pathetic" during that hour and a half he would spend with Stanlslavsky, even though the master was kind to him. However, Lemeshev soon disobeyed Stanislavsky’s order to stay away from the Studio. Three years later, during the short break between engagements, Sergei came to hear “ Tsar’s Bride,” and described it as “one of the best operatic performances staged by Stanislavsky." Rehearsals for the production of the “Tsar’s Bride” in which he had taken part before his leave were, as he recalled, “of great interest”. Then he commented, "Here I may be accused of contradicting myself. But what can I do , when the contradiction is rooted in life. And it was only natural that Stanislavsky, rightfully fighting against clichés, wanted to focus on the central theme and upon psychology, all implemented through the precision and logic of stage actions and images. I think, however, that his reform was not suited to beginners, who didn’t control their apparatus, but rather to real masters of vocal production. Returning to the past, it’s hard for me to imagine how my artistic destiny would have turned out if I had not meet Stanislavsky. In the Studio I learned what stage culture was, and what comprised an actor's professionalism. I learned to recognize the difference between stage routine and clichés, on one hand, and truly creative work on the other; I developed a taste for words and proper declamation. Many things that I had felt and sometimes comprehended intuitively—almost unconsciously—were revealed to me as laws of the realistic nature of the performer’s art…”
In the 1930’s, now a star of the Bolshoi, Lemeshev frequently attended Stanislavsky’s theater, and, as Anatoly Orfenov recalled, “…we were always nervous knowing that Lemeshev was in the audience.” Years later, in the 1960’s, Sergei even had to defend Stanislavsky’s system, which in his opinion had been corrupted by modern directors.