Yeltsin in Texas!: Opera Buffa in Real Life at Opera in the Heights

When truth was definitely stranger than fiction.
When truth was definitely stranger than fiction. Photo by Pin Lim
Sometimes, you just can't make up what happens in real life. And sometimes that real life story is just too good and larger than life to pass up.

Composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua  McGuire, who've worked in tandem on a lot of new productions, knew they had opera gold when Mack happened to read a story in the Houston Chronicle about the time Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Texas and was impressed by nothing so much as his trip to the grocery store.

Now, Mack and McGuire are about to premiere Yeltsin in Texas!, at Opera in the Heights, their latest work co-commissioned with the Texas Christian University Opera Studio. The one-act result promises to be 65 minutes of fast-paced comedy — not unlike the rapid-fire visit Yeltsin paid to our state in 1989. .

"I wanted it to be actually funny, not just opera funny," says McGuire, a music professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "There’s a lot of opera humor that you have to be in the club and everybody laughs to show that they got the joke and it's just tee-hee funny. My standard for myself is South Park and Family Guy. You'll see a lot of jump cuts in libretto form where it's just pop pop pop, really fast. We didn’t ever want to let the audience settle.  There’s a lot of Broadway musical in this show. The pacing is less opera and more musical."

Mack, who is a teaching professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, explains the idea  got started after he saw a remember-when item in the Houston Chronicle. "It was this absurd story of Boris Yeltsin renouncing communism after visiting a grocery store. So Josh and I started diving in and doing research and came up with this opera."

"In our research we found a book by Yeltsin's secretary that's only in Cyrillic and so I ordered it and had Google translate the chapters in which he talked about this grocery store visit. It was his first tour in the West. He saw the UN, the  Statue of Liberty and Trump Tower— all of which he was unimpressed by. Then he flew to the Space Center and  no big deal; they have cosmonauts and Soyuz," Mack says.

"So there was this unscheduled stop at a grocery store, but what they talked about was that he was essentially Dorothy in Oz with seeing this grocery store. It's sort of like he lives in a black and white world and thie grocery store was Technicolor.  In that trip in the West. it was common knowledge that he was drunk a little. And so we thought how much fun it would be to have a drunken Dorothy in Oz."

"We thought how much fun it would be to have a drunken Dorothy in Oz."

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Or as McGuire explains:  "Just imagine taking this really operatic character, Boris Yeltsin. We remember being on the nightly news as kids. He was really straight up opera buffa, just a comic character. He was always drunk and stumbling around but likable. This guy would be a bass baritone for sure. And then we just constructed these fictional characters around him. It's kind of like a fantasy documentary. There's a lot in the opera that really did happen, but it's just imagined through this sort of zany, Hunter S. Thompson lens."

McGuire says opera has "always been a really powerful art form for me. The only art form where you can have a character saying something and you can know the intent behind it for sure. You can see inside the person’s psyche because they can be saying one thing and the music will be saying something different. Only opera has that discrepancy in it. It's so precise that way. "

As for Mack, he says he was drawn to opera because of the  I always say that if you love professional sports you should love opera. Because the athleticism is the equivalent to the NFL for an opera singer. I love that athletic singing, the sheer power that only an un-miked singer can sing. You can’t do it anywhere else."

He and Mack roomed together in grad school at the Cincinnati College - Conservancy of Music but never thought of writing anything together till a decade later. They did stay in touch however and one day Mack contacted McGuire with a request.

"Evan wrote the libretto to his first opera himself and then he jokingly called me up and he said 'I've used every word I know except the f-word and I'm tired and I want you to do my second opera.' So I said sure and I had no idea what I was doing. So we just started doing them and we found we had a knack for doing them quickly.That allowed us to produce basically an opera a year from 2014 to 2018. Yeltsin is our fifth project together.

McGuire says they tend to write the words to the music in tandem so one never gets very far ahead of the other. "A lot of people finish the libretto first, but that never worked for us," McGuire says. Since the home base for each of them is far apart, "A ton of our work is done over Skype and a ton of our work is done very quickly in hotel rooms in third party cities," McGuire says.

As it turns out, Yeltsin is their first comedy together, something each of them say they wouldn't have been able to do if they hadn't developed their dramatic writing chops first.  "Part of what we’re missing in this era is that 1980s sense of optimism and lightness and hilarity. We wanted to go back and capture that. We just wanted to take a big 1980s flamethrower to our current sense of fear and whining," McGuire says.

In real life, Yeltsin worked through an interpreter when he was in Texas. That wouldn't work for opera, so McGuire set about making a broken English language for the character. "My main influence I will freely admit was Borat."

As for the music, anyone who was a fan of '80s music — Bon Jovi, Journey, Flash Dance — will probably be humming right along, Mack says. "I think there's people, young adults will love it because of the '80s references and those who like opera but want to experience something new. The DNA of the piece is all opera. It just happens to have a veneer of 1980s radio.

"I would like to issue a challenge to the citizens of Houston," McGuire says. "If you think you don't like opera, come see this one."

Performances are scheduled for February 22 and 28 at 7:30 p.m. and March 1 at 2 p.m. at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Sung in English (complete with Texas accents for some of the characters) with surtitles. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $39-$89.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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