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Stalin v. Katerina

Lady Macbeth Mtsensk.jpg

Scene of The Lady of Mtsensk at the Met in 2014

In 1936, Stalin went to the opera to see Dmitri Shostakovich’s adaption of The Lady of Mtsensk. Supposedly, Stalin “stalked out ill-pleased” after seeing the opera, and later declared a large crackdown on all artistic expression. Although there was widespread enjoyment of the opera, the vulgarity and chaotic music caused American performances of the opera to be cancelled. Following Stalin’s order, Shostakovich stopped producing the opera (and all other works) until after Stalin’s death.

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Risque look by Eva-Maria Westbroek while playing Katerina

However, Katerina’s spirit continued on despite Stalin’s dictatorship. Her sense of freedom and rebellion endured through Stalin’s reign, and her life still brings in audiences today. The realness of Katerina’s struggle is portrayed as she battles with boredom as the merchant’s wife and attempts to find excitement with the farm boy. You become enraptured by their love story, but then you despise her when she kills innocent people for her own selfish reasons. Just when you think you’ve put Katerina in a box, she endears herself to you again because of how annoying Sergei (the farmer boy) is on the train to prison. His cheating makes you feel empathy for Katerina, who only wanted to be with her love.

These raw, emotional internal conflicts captures the audience and you need to know what happens next to Katerina. Stalin was afraid of Katerina’s power because he wanted to use this power for himself. Katerina encompasses all the best and very worst bits of ourselves and proudly displays them on stage. Stalin couldn’t compete with that… A middle-aged, boring guy versus a lively, (borderline) insane woman – whose story would you wanna follow? And who would you want to listen to?

Stalin was nervous of anyone, even fictional characters, retaining too much control over the Soviet Union because he was so power hungry. So, he decided to shut down the whole production. However, Stalin couldn’t stop Katerina’s life and vitality from continuing on after he died (she is a fictional character, so she can’t really die). The Lady of Mtsensk still brings in audiences worldwide, while Stalin is pretty much globally known as one of the worst humans, like, ever.


P.S. Check out this 2017 trailer for a modern adaption of Lady M!


5 thoughts on “Stalin v. Katerina

  1. Great post! Ever since we read it, this story has been really intriguing to me and it’s interesting how it was received as an opera. You made a lot of interesting points as to why it was so popular, despite its vulgarity and the actions of Katerina. Also, the trailer for the modern adaptation was really cool!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What Caroline said! Agree that Katerina shows humanity at its best and worst — definitely a bit unhinged, but somewhat sympathetic….wait…really tough to sympathize with a triple murderer, especially when one of them is a child.
    Those images from the Met production are wonderful! That was the production I hoped the VT library might have, but it isn’t part of our “Met on Demand” subscription. Anyway, the set and costumes seem to me like a cross between Mad Men and Street Care Named Desire…
    I guess it goes without saying that Lady M. doesn’t pass the Socialist Realism sniff test!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome thoughts on Katerina’s place in Stalin’s world. This piece from Shostakovich really challenged the artistic norms of the Soviets, and Katerina’s characteristics do not mesh well with either traditional or Soviet social standards. I wonder if Stalin felt more uncomfortable with the characters individualism, or simply felt repulsed by the subject matter of the opera.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post was really interesting to read! I hadn’t thought that Stalin was afraid of Katerina’s power and I really liked that you phrased it that way. It is really interesting that he feared for his own power from a fictional character and even though her methods are questionable, she shows autonomy and I think that is what Stalin was most afraid of.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think its really interesting how people today, I guess specifically Americans (especially the modern American college student), has been desensitized to things that would have seemed alarming back then!

    Liked by 1 person

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