September 2012

Daughter of the Red Tzar — World Premiere Opera Hits the Hill

Greg Roensch

Moscow, 1942. As war rages in Europe, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin meet in the dead of night to cut a deal that will have long-lasting and far-reaching ramifications. This fateful encounter provides the backdrop for a new contemporary opera written by Potrero Hill resident Lisa Scola Prosek. Daughter of the Red Tzar, which tells the story of this late-night rendezvous through the eyes of Stalin’s 17-year-old daughter, Svetlana, has its world premiere at the Thick House from August 24 to September 2. The View caught up with Scola Prosek to ask her a few questions about Daughter of the Red Tzar

View: What inspired you to create this opera? 

LSP: I was reading Churchill’s The Second World War, and the scene in Moscow where he meets Stalin and his daughter in their Kremlin apartment seemed ripe for opera. When I learned later that Svetlana had emigrated to the United States — she died last November — and had written a book about her life in Russia, I then had so much rich dramatic material that the opera simply wrote itself. 

View: What’s your process for writing an opera? 

LSP: This opera took me more than a year. As I composed the music — I write one or two arias or sonatas a week — I’d have monthly meetings with the director, Melissa Weaver. She would edit the libretto, and then I would play and sing my progress sketches for John Duykers, who stars as Winston Churchill, and he would offer musical suggestions. 

View: You characterize Daughter of the Red Tzar as “a surreal, dark comedy.” Please explain. 

LSP: The subject is a tragedy, but my experience in Commedia Dell’Arte theater has taught me to present the most painful aspects of human nature with a light touch. There is plenty of humor in Churchill’s witty narrative. And the secretive, spy-ridden household of the Stalins is so bleak, it must be rendered with humor. 

View: This isn’t just a political tale. It’s also a love story, right? 

LSP: Yes, when Svetlana falls in love with Alexei Kapler, a Jewish writer and intellectual, her father has him arrested and sent to the Gulag. Alexei is a great inspiration for Svetlana. He’s an older, married man who opens her eyes to the world of poetry and art.

View: Did anything surprise you while researching this material?
LSP: I was amazed to discover that Stalin’s wife, Nadya, had committed suicide and Stalin kept it a secret from Svetlana. Churchill knew about the suicide since it had been reported in Life magazine and was common knowledge in the West. But Svetlana was kept in the dark about her mother’s death until shortly before Churchill’s visit. 

View: After its run at Thick House, what’s next for Daughter of the Red Tzar? 

LSP: John Duykers and Melissa Weaver are in discussions about performing it with Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. That would be great, but I’m ready to start working on my next piece and would also like to write some piano sonatas. 

View: Are you working on other projects you can talk about? 

LSP: I’ve started a new opera, a Mediterranean comedy set on a boat, like in the Italian movie L’Avventura. It’s scheduled to premiere with the San Francisco International Arts Festival next year to coincide with the Americas Cup Races. I’m not sure yet what I’ll be writing beyond that. I’d like to take more time off, like Verdi, who took five years between operas. 

View: What’s it mean to you to have your world premiere at the Thick House?

LSP: Some of my colleagues ask me “don’t you want to premiere in New York or Europe?” I have lived all over the world, and I can honestly say that I want to premiere at Thick House. I can walk to this gem of a theater. I can easily go to my local yoga studio after rehearsal. And I can have lunch at my favorite restaurants on the Hill. If my work is great — which this opera is — then the world will come to us. 

For more about Lisa Scola Prosek’s work, Greg Roensch is a freelance writer and Potrero Hill resident.

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