A Soviet Opera in America
Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is associated with perhaps the most famous negative concert review of all time, one whose title is sometimes translated ‘A Muddle Instead of Music’. The ‘Muddle’ article accused Shostakovich of being formalist and bourgeois in his musical style, and resulted in a devastating blow to his career. The opera’s Soviet reception, at least in the narrow sense of the ‘Muddle’ article, has been much discussed. Less is known, however, about the opera’s American reception. Lady Macbeth came to America almost exactly one year before the ‘Muddle’ article appeared, and it provoked much discussion in the American press, over both the opera’s morally perplexing plot and its apparently un-operatic music. This critical response sheds light not only on American opinions of the Soviet Union at a time when many American intellectuals were toying with the idea of socialism, but also on the strange role that art – in this case, music – can play when political debate becomes heated. At the time of the Cleveland performance of Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich was a rising Soviet figurehead, and a symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the Soviet government and Soviet creative artists. The opera thus drew the curiosity of interested Americans, and later, the ‘Muddle’ affair puzzled many who had received the opera as Soviet propaganda. The affair also made many Americans re-evaluate their opinion of Shostakovich, and their understanding of the nature of his position as a Soviet artist. He became a chastised cultural representative of a Communist nation and an example of an artist who must submit his own personal style to outside dictates, in this case, government policy. As the affair progressed, some Americans recognized that the very nature of the creative process was being redefined by the Communist desire for centralized control. By considering the American reception of Lady Macbeth in its historical context of changing American opinions of the Soviet Union, modern listeners can begin better to understand their own reactions, both to the opera and to the public image of Shostakovich himself.