With the approach of the 2020-2021 opera season, we commemorate the centenary of the Chicago Opera Association[i]’s world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev[ii]’s For the Love of Three Oranges, December 30, 1921.
The opera, ahead of its time, to say the least, had a rocky road to its opening.
PROKOFIEV ARRIVES AND COMPOSES
Harold McCormick (1872-1941), the chief patron of the Chicago Opera Association, was extremely interested in Russian music, and had provided Prokofiev with a visa to come to America with his new opera, The Gambler, and some concertos. Prokofiev’s Chicago performances would be arranged by Harold’s father, Cyrus McCormick (1809 -1884), who planned to keep the promise he made to Prokofiev in Petrograd in the summer of 1917. McCormick would also introduce Prokofiev to important Chicago cultural and musical figures, like Frederick August Stock (1872-1942), the conductor of the Chicago Symphony since 1905. Stock would premiere Prokofiev’s Concerto # 3 while the composer was in Chicago. The orchestra also performed “The Scythian Suite,” which one Chicago newspaper called “Bolshevik music,” obviously unaware that it was originally written for Sergei Diaghilev, hardly an enthusiastic supporter of Bolshevik ideals or methods.
Among those whom Prokofiev met was Cleofonte Campanini (1860-1919), the conductor of the Chicago Opera Association, who, like everyone else, was intrigued by this brash young Russian and his music.
Campanini asked Prokofiev if he had written any operas. No sooner had Prokofiev provided a description of The Gambler than Campanini wanted to stage it. But the score was back in Russia, in the Mariinsky Theater library. Obtaining it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. So they discussed the possibility of a new commission.
Prokofiev remembered the strange little divertissement called For the Love for Three Oranges, that he and his friend Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) had been considering as a promising libretto source. Meyerhold had given him a gift of his new adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s (1720-1806) 1791 commedia del arte For the Love of Three Oranges. The Russian adaptation of Gozzi’s Italian tale had appeared in Meyerhold’s new Petrograd literary-theatrical journal The new version of For the Love for Three Oranges was to inaugurate Meyerhold’s avant-garde journal. Meyerhold would champion the old commedia as an alternative style of theater to the oppressive Soviet Realism then taking over Russia.
Prokofiev had written the opera while in New York City after arriving from Moscow via San Francisco in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
When Campanini discovered that For the Love for Three Oranges was a Russian adaptation of an eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte fairy tale by a fellow Italian, he was delighted: “‘ Gozzi! Our lovely Gozzi! But that’s wonderful!’” A contract was signed by January of 1919 for an autumn production.
COSTUMES AND SCENERY
The scenery and costumes were commissioned immediately at Campanini’s orders to the Russian-American painter and theater designer Boris Izrailevich Anisfeld (1878–1973). The prospect of new and original scenery and costumes was one reason why the opera was scheduled.
Since the Renaissance, most scenery came from a theater’s existing stock of scenic drops and wings. Architect Dankmar Adler had provided the new Auditorium Theater, on the corner of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and Congress Street, with 150 such drops made in Vienna, enough scenery for thirty of the most popular operas of the day. The selections were based on the inventory of the Paris Opera House. Drops and wings required no special storage space and made for the quickest of scene changes. The theatre’s 95-foot-high fly loft housed the numerous portable drops and wings. Each two-dimensional drop and wing was painted to create the illusion of an actual three-dimensional location. The stock settings were “universal” – Ball Room, Throne Room, Fancy Interior, Forest, Dungeon, Seashore – so as to be useful to wide variety of operas. Three-dimensional scenery would eventually arrive and cause many opera companies to look for new homes capable of accommodating the storage of the new style scenery.
Born in Russia, Boris Anisfeld was a sculptor, lithographer, painter, illustrator, set designer and future long-time teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1901 to 1909, he had studied at the Odessa School of Art in the Ukraine and at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Petrograd. In 1911, Sergei Diaghilev, Director of the Ballet Russe, chose Anisfeld to design the production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko because of Anisfeld’s interest in fantasy. This commission began Anisfeld’s career with that company until the outbreak of World War I.
Anisfeld immigrated to the United States in 1917, and, living in New York City, designed stage settings for the Metropolitan Opera including The Snow Maiden and Boris Godunov. During this period, The Brooklyn Museum had a traveling exhibition of his work to 20 American cities.
After For the Love of Three Oranges, Anisfeld lived in Chicago from 1928 to 1968, where he headed the School of Advanced Painting at the Art Institute. During the summers he ran the Anisfeld Summer School in Central City, Colorado.
Anisfeld’s sets and costumes were an important reason why Prokofiev’s opera was to be given. It was to be brilliant both as spectacle and as music. Modernism was coming to America via Chicago.
Meanwhile, Love for Three Oranges ran into problems.
THE DEATH OF CAMPANINNI
Suddenly, the opera’s most enthusiastic supporter died. Campanini had arrived in Chicago that fall with a cold. He had let others do most of the conducting. One night he was taken from his suite at the Congress Hotel to St. Luke’s Hospital. His cold had turned to pneumonia, He died early in the morning of Friday, December 19. Campanini’s death threw the company and its season into confusion.
His assistant, Gino Marinuzzi (1882-1945) was quickly named director. He found that the company was afraid to proceed with Prokofiev’s work without Campanini.
When Marinuzzi learned that Prokofiev was still prepared to stage Oranges, but in the next season, he refused to compensate Prokofiev for the year’s postponement, ignoring the composer’s claim that his schedule had been disrupted. When the manager threatened to stage the opera without his permission, Prokofiev threatened legal action, “you ruined a whole season for me,.”[iii]
Harold McCormick acted quickly. On January 11, 1921, he shocked the world by selecting the Internationally famous soprano Mary Garden(1874-1967) to be the General Director of his Chicago Opera Association for at least the 1921-22 season.
Garden thus became the first woman to ever head an opera company.
MARY GARDEN IN CHARGE
Garden held the fate of Prokofiev’s opera in her hands. According to tenor Jose Mojica, Garden
“brought it to Chicago because she believed in the composer and was prepared to risk large sums of money in the hope that the public would concur with her judgement.”[iv]
Immediately, the business manager, Herbert M. Johnson, resigned before he could begin to work with the ambitious Ms. Garden. Garden named George M Spangler as the Business Manager
Prokofiev had hoped his friend, the Russian choreographer Adolf Bohm (1884-1951) would be asked to stage the opera. He was then living in Chicago, teaching among others, a young ballerina named Ruth Page.
But upon taking over the directorship, Garden hired her old friend from Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company, Jacques Coini, as company stage director. Coini (1869-1936) had been brought from Europe to stage Oscar Hammerstein’s operas in New York, after escaping charges of espionage. Hans, the Flute Player, gained Mr. Coini immediate fame with his casting call for 300 cats, “with or without stage experience.” Coini’s bright idea turned into a nightmare as the society for the cruelty for animals descended on Hammerstein’s theater, impounded the one cat being used for rehearsals, told Coini that he was allowed to use only “stuffed felines.”
Nevertheless, the irrepressible Coini declared himself, to the Philadelphia Inquirer, to be “the foremost operatic stage director in the world.” A man of about five feet in height, Coini sported a short goatee and mustache. Though he claimed to speak five languages, most of his communications were limited to short English “ejaculations” and frantic hand gestures. Most importantly, Garden credited his work in 1908 staging Hammerstein’s Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisandre and in 1910 her version of Strauss’ Salome, each of which made her an international sensation.
Garden thought Coini a trusted and talented artist, someone she must have for her company. But Coini did not think For the Love of Three Oranges a smart pick for the new opera “directra,” as she began to call herself. At the same time, Prokofiev found Coini to be
“a colorless personality, he was one of those professionals who know a hundred operas by heart but have nothing new of their own to offer.”[v]
Nevertheless, on October 31 Coini and Prokofiev began to plan the opera’s stage movement and business. Prokofiev thought all Coini did was “undertake to carry out my proposals.” However, Prokofiev, on November 1, noted in his diary that Coini “actually thought of something all by himself”[vi]
The Russian opera, The Love for Three Oranges was to be presented in French. Being Russian, he wrote it in Russian, but Mary Garden (1874-1967), the American most devoted to French opera, had it translated into French.
“Mary Garden turned out to be a director who liked to make generous gestures, but who was chiefly concerned with her own roles and was never available when wanted.”[vii]
Oranges would be presented in the fall of 1919. By March, citrus growers in Florida and California were competing vigorously for the Chicago promotional rights of the opera.
Prokofiev wrote Oranges quickly. He had announced that it would be a satire in a reasonably savage manner, but it turned out to be fantastic burlesque. At any rate, it would leave many Chicagoans dazed and wondering. By June, the music was all composed. He spent the summer with orchestration. The score was finished in nine months, by and was ready for rehearsal by October 1, as the contract stipulated — even though in April, in the midst of composing it, Prokofiev was hospitalized with scarlet fever and diphtheria and a throat infection. He was confined to bed at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, where for a few weeks he was in fairly serious condition. He recovered and spent the summer orchestrating Oranges for its scheduled fall Chicago staging.
Prokofiev began to practice conducting his score in the Auditorium’s on-site hotel. The full orchestral score was completed on time by early October, right on time.
But both libretto and music for Prokofiev’s opera would belong to Prokofiev. Prokofiev had delivered his finished score to Campanini. The opera displayed the composer’s work on “three planes in which the action developed – 1) the fairy tale characters, The Prince, Truffaldino, etc., 2) the forces of the nether world (Celius, the sorcerer, Fata Morgana), and 3) the comic characters, like the representatives of the management who comment on everything that takes place.”[viii]
Prokofiev met Alexander Smallens (1899-1972) a Russian emigrant, auxiliary conductor of the Chicago Opera Association, under primary conductor Giorgio Polacco (1875-1960). Smallens was under the impression that he would be conducting Prokofiev’s opera. Prokofiev explained that he intended to conduct the rehearsal and at least the first performance. Polacco suggested to Prokofiev that orchestra rehearsal begin a week before the singers started working with the orchestra.
When Prokofiev heard his music for the first time he was quite pleased and considered the Chicago opera orchestra first class. He found the Auditorium’s acoustics wonderful. On November 4 he wrote “I am as happy as I can be.” The orchestra must have agreed since they gave him a standing ovation at the end of the November 7 rehearsal.
Smallens was not pleased, however. He sat in on all of Prokofiev’s rehearsals, and irritated the composer by giving him notes at the end of each session. Prokofiev had more success working with the chorus director in dividing the singers into groups which would appear on the stage. The chorus would occupy the corners of the stage, grouped as tragedians, comedians, lyricists, empty heads, and absurdities, all of whom would make running comments on the action.
Smallens complained of the opera’s “absurdities”. Prokofiev called him ‘the Idiot” from then on.
The principal singing actors were some of the best in America. With the looks and sex appeal of Rudolph Valentino, Jose Mojica (1896-1974) played the prince who could not laugh. The Mexican tenor, born in poverty, had joined Chicago Opera Company in 1919 through Enrico Caruso’s recommendation. Mojica had debuted in 1919 as Bucklaw in Lucia Di Lammermoor. Campanini immediately signed him to a five-year contract. Mary Garden was so impressed when he sang a small role in L’amor dei Tre Re, that she announced during rehearsals that Mojica would sing Pelleas to her Melisandre in two years. He remained with the company until 1930. When his mother died Mojica would give up opera to become a Franciscan priest, working as missionary in Peru. He later became deaf.
Prokofiev considered the production’s Leandre to be the weakest link. William Beck (1875-1925), the Hungarian baritone sang with the Chicago company from 1911-1925, gaining most notoriety not from any performance, but from dying offstage, possibly from drinking poisoned wine. Prokofiev did not mind the mediocre singing of Octave Dua (1882-1952) as Truffaldino because the role called for a talented comedian more than a virtuoso singer. And that label fit Octave Duo. The Belgian tenor sang with the Chicago opera company from 1915-1922.
The cast included Prokofiev’s dear friend Nina Koshetz (1894-1965). The Ukrainian soprano played cards with him and generally occupied much of the composer’s social time outside of the rehearsal hall. She had left Russia in 1920 to join the Chicago opera company. Both she and Prokofiev shared a close relationship with the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Edouard Cotreuil (1874 – ? ), the French bass who split his time between London’s Covent Garden and the Chicago opera, played Celio, the King of Clubs. The Canadian mezzo-soprano Irene Pavloska (1889-1962) sang Princess Clarice. Famous for singing Musetta to Nellie Melba’s Mimi, Pavlovska had debuted in Chicago in 1914 and would retire in 1934. Baritone Desire Defrere (1888- 1964) sang the king’s advisor, Pantalone. The Belgian bass-baritone Hector Dufranne (1871-1951) offered the magician, Tchelio. However, best of all, Prokofiev found the voice of Jeanne Dusseau (1893- ?), the Scottish contralto playing Ninette, the Third Orange, “gloriously pure.”
But Prokofiev heard rumors that the premiere date would be moved again. When he finally got to speak with Mary Garden (she deliberately had neither secretary nor office hours), she confirmed that the new date for the premiere would be December 23. Garden assured him that it “was the most important event of the season. All Chicago would be there.” The prospect of filling all 4257 seats in the Auditorium assuaged the composer.
But not long after the meeting with Garden the opening date was moved yet again, this time to December 30. The day Prokofiev heard of the change; he took out his frustrations in a scuffle with Coini about a piece of stage business. Prokofiev’s libretto calls for the Prince to spit. Coini wanted to change that to sneezing because he believed spitting on stage to be a banned activity. Prokofiev insisted on the spit, but eventually yielded to the insistent Coini. Nevertheless Coini had lost his voice and had to finish the rehearsals speaking through a megaphone.
TECH AND DRESS REHEARSALS
Technical rehearsal found that the 30 men and 15 women in the chorus had been issued 15 male costumes and 30 female costumes! As the exhausted Coini and the anxious Prokofiev toiled on with gritted teeth, they discovered that their day, begun at 4:30 didn’t end until 11:30 PM.
Prokofiev started the Prologue four times before he was satisfied with the chorus. In attendance at the dress rehearsal was the American newspaper reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and a future celebrated playwright named Ben Hecht (1894 – 1964). Hecht’s follow-up column about what he saw at the rehearsal became an instant classic of American humor.[ix]
On the afternoon of the opening day, both Prokofiev and Anisfeld went to a barbershop to relax. They arrived at the theater at 7:20 p.m., both in white tie and tails. Anisfeld fussed over the costumes while Prokofiev made some last minutes changes to the “March”. At curtain time they noticed that the Auditorium was not full to capacity, as promised. The many changes of date had resulted in no newspaper publicity about the opera! Nevertheless, word of mouth and the public lectures given by Prokofiev drew enough people to fill the theatre except for a couple of boxes and 100 seats in the stalls.
Applause greeted the end of Act I. When the principals entered to bow, Anisfeld refused to invite Coini to join them before the curtain. Prokofiev thought Act II ended with “a tremendous glow of success”. This time Prokofiev took Coini with him to acknowledge the audience’s applause, but Anisfeld refused to associate himself with Coini, moving away from him during the bows. This threw Coini into a fit of temper. Act II was the least well received, but when Prokofiev appeared at the end of the opera he received a substantial ovation.
A crush of well-wishers awaited the company in the green room. Mary Garden was, according to Prokofiev, “ in a state bordering on ecstasy.” In later years Garden would continue her estimation of For the Love of Three Oranges:
“It was beautiful. Everybody said it was just like going as a child to see a lovely fairy tale.”[x]
REVIEWS AND REACTIONS
Prokofiev summarized the reaction as follows:
“Chicagoans were both proud and embarrassed at presenting a ‘modernist premiere’ which, according to the newspapers, had already cost some 250,000 dollars.”[xi]
Smallens conducted the second performance on January 5 and Prokofiev thought the opera was “greeted less warmly than for the premiere.”
In the next day’s Chicago Tribune, reviewer Edward Moore singled out Anisfeld’s scenery and costumes for top honors:
“Never was paint applied to scene cloth more lavishly or gorgeously.”
As for the music, Moore was less enthralled:
“It might be a good idea to start the children, the coming generation on this work. At any rate they would love the story. The music, I fear, is too much for this generation. After intensive study and close observation at rehearsal and performance, I detected the beginnings of two tunes. One is s very good march played by the orchestra. The other is a wee bit of a male chorus sung just before the final scene. For the rest of it Mr. Prokofiev might well have loaded up a shogun with several thousand notes of varying lengths and discharged them against the side of a blank wall.”
The cast escaped:
“Each individual is entitled to a special mark of credit, not only for learning the music but for being so good at the end.”[xii]
The Kansas City Times savaged the opera:
“The weirdest shrieks that ever jarred ears. The audience thought the band was still tuning up…Huge oranges began to walk around; violent hued shapes began to jiggle. Somebody started to sing and quit. Somebody else started and the band drowned him out. It continued for four acts and the audience staggered out dizzily”[xiii]
“Quell desastre!” as sung by Defrere at the end of one of the most amusing scenes of the opera, was the unspoken consensus.
ON TO NEW YORK
Despite its reputation as the most sophisticated American city, New York proved over the years to be less receptive to new works of art. Especially those not originating in New York.
The company of For the Love of Three Oranges left for New York on January 11 and performed the opera only once, on January 14.
William B Murray of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted the importance of Prokofiev’s opera:
“It is “something to be reheard and studied, for in its total unlikeness to anything else, the opera represented a break from tradition and a possible signpost whereby the future of the lyric stage may be directed.”[xiv]
As the details of the production spread, comics had a field day:
“I see it in the paper where the Chicago Opera Company put on a new opera by the name of Love of Three Oranges, and while they only gave a couple of performances of it, it cost them $100,000 for this here Love for Three Oranges, or $33,333.33 per orange.”[xv]
At a time when annual incomes averaged just over $2,000.00, rent listed as $15.00 per month, postage stamps cost $.02, and gasoline ran at $.15 cents a gallon, the “$33.333.33 an Orange” line swept the country and became the sum total of what Americans knew of Prokofiev’s opera.
On February 15,1922, Richard Aldrich of The New York Times offered a review typical of the evaluations the opera would receive in America:
What, in fine, is the purpose of this work? Is it satire? Is it burlesque? Serge Prokofieff’s opera The Love for Three· Oranges, which the Chicago Opera Company announced for performance at the Manhattan Opera House last week, was postponed on account of illness in the company. But the respite was not for long. Health having been restored; the opera was given for the first time in New York Iast evening.
The audience was large and after the first shock of surprise evinced considerable amusement in the proceedings on the stage. How far the interest extended to the proceedings in the orchestra and the vocalization that was heard from the participants in the action it would be difficult to say. There was applause after the closing of the curtain on each act. Besides the principal singers, Mr. Prokofiev, the composer, Mr. Anisfeld, who painted the scenery and designed the costumes, and Mr. Coini the stage manager, were called out several times.
The opera, if it Is so to be called, is a strange production: Mr. Prokofiev has been his. own librettist: his text was given In a French translation from the Russian original. The libretto is based on one of the fairy tales of the eighteenth century Italian writer Carlo Gozzi. Gozzi was a contemporary of Goldoni, and one of his satirical opponents. His ” fable,” or dramatic fairy pieces, had a great vogue in their day. On one of them, “Turandot,” Schiller based a German play, for which Weber wrote an overture; from it Wagner derived the material for his youthful opera of ” Die Feen.” There are not a few other traces of Gozzi’s imagination in the literature and drama and opera of the nineteenth century.
The outline of the opera which Mr. Prokofiev has derived from Gozzi’s The Love of Three Oranges has already been printed in these columns. The three oranges are the device of an indignant sorceress who, as one of many trying to make the melancholy Prince laugh and thereby cure him of his desperate illness, turns an involuntary somersault. She succeeds so far as to make him and all the Court burst into loud laughter: but this kind of success Is not to her liking, and in revenge she condemns the Prince to love insatiably three oranges.
He starts out on an expedition to find them, meeting with fantastic experiences He finally finds them in a desert. Two of them are opened while he sleeps by his attendant to assuage his thirst. and a beautiful Princess steps out of each. But they forthwith die of thirst. The third is saved by a bucket of water mysteriously brought in. She Is magically changed into a rat and a slave is substituted for her; but the King, who turns up at this moment, insists that the Prince shall marry the substitute. In the palace the rat is turned back again into the Princess, and the Prince and his love are together at last.
This delectable concoction has less than the cogency and consistency of a Christmas pantomime. As it is presented on the stage, it is capable of making “Alice in Wonderland” seem like a treatise on inductive logic. Probably Mr. Prokofiev has allowed Gozzi’s narrative but, in becoming a dramatic spectacle with an enormous elaboration of detail, with scenic surroundings and picturing of Mr. Anisfeld’s most exaggerated imaginings, it has turned into a wild phantasmagoria of sight and sound and sense.
The principal characters are fantastic enough in conception and in their dramatic embodiment on the stage; but their doings are accompanied by the antics of as strange a crew of creatures as often emerge into public view. There are “Ridicules”, “Comiques”, Lyriques”,”Tragiques”, and “Empty Heads”, devils, devilkins, doctors, “Absurdities”, courtiers, comedians. They come and go and are sometimes swept out by attendants with huge shovels.
It may be said that these are really derived from the grotesques that figure in the Italian plays of Gozzi’s period.
On each side of the stage is a tall kiosk, from the windows of which lean strange figures, who observe the action uninterruptedly and sometimes comment on it.
The piece is presented in ten tableaux, which are frequently shown by the parting of a smaller curtain on the stage. These are of Mr. Anisfeld’s most fantastic imaging in form and color, and the scenery is one of the most potent factors in the grotesque effectiveness of the opera. The costumes are elaborate and some of them strikingly handsome.
But, after all, this is an opera, and its actions and motives are developed by music. Mr. Prokofiev’s music is more grotesque, more fantastic, more impossible than anything else connected with the work. The other things can beguile the eye and amuse if they cannot stimulate the imagination. What can Mr. Prokofiev’s music do for the ear? Probably, for most of the listeners, it could do little but belabor it till insensibility set in, if it did set in, and further suffering was spared. There are a few, but only very a few passages that bear recognizable kinship with what has hitherto been recognized as music. No doubt there are what pass for themes, and there is ingenuity of some kind in manipulating them; but it seldom produces any effect but that of disagreeable noise. Mr. Prokofiev’s ide of orchestration is to intensify this effect. The orchestra is a noble instrument, but it has seldom been put to such ignoble uses as it in The Love for Three Oranges.
What does it satirize; what does it burlesque? Whose withers are wrung? If it is a joke, it may be a good one, but it is a long and painful one; and, on information and belief, if may be said, more painful to the Chicago Opera Company than even to the listeners.”
Prokofiev summarized his reaction to the printed reviews: Not one of them had anything serious to say.”
After the New York performance, Miss Garden ordered the scenery destroyed, believing no one would ever want to see the opera again.
[For a complete scholarly consideration, see the forthcoming Three Loves for Three Oranges: Gozzi, Meyerhold, Prokofiev , (Indiana University Press), by Dassia Posner, a professor of Theatre and Slavic Languages and Literature, at Northwestern University and a former student.]
[i] Edward C. Moore. Forty Years of Opera in Chicago. New York: Horace Liveright, 1930
[ii] Harlow Robinson. Sergei Prokofiev. A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 2018
[iii] S. Prokofiev, Autobiography,Articles, Reminiscences. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959, pp. 53-56.
[iv] Jose Mojica, I, a Sinner. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1963, p. 254.
[v] S. Prokofiev, Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959, pp. 53-56.
[vi] Sergei Prokofiev, Diaries 1915-1923 Behind the Mask London: Faber and Faber, 2002, p. 619.
[vii] S. Prokofiev, Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959, p 59.
[viii] S. Prokofiev, Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959, pp. 53-54.
[ix] Ben Hecht. A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) p.66
They will never start. No, they will never start. In another two minutes Mr. Prokofieff
will go mad. They should have started at eleven. It is now ten minutes after eleven. And they have not yet started. Ah, Mr. Prokofieff has gone mad.
But Mr. Prokofieff is a modernist; so nobody pays much attention. Musicians are all mad. And a modernist musician, du lieber Gott! A Russian modernist musician!
The medieval face of Mr. Boris Anisfeld pops over the rows of empty seats. It is very likely that Mr. Anisfeld will also go mad. For Mr. Anisfeld is, in a way, a collaborator of Mr. Prokofieff. It is the full-dress rehearsal of “The Love for Three Oranges.” Mr. Prokofieff wrote the words and music. Mr. Anisfeld painted the scenery.
“Mees Garden weel be hear in a meenute,” the medieval face of Boris whispers into the Muscovite ears of Serge.
Eleven-fifteen, and Miss Garden has arrived. She is armed, having brought along her heaviest shillalah. Mr. Prokofieff is on his feet. He takes off his coat. The medieval face of Mr. Anisfeld vanishes. Tap, tap, on the conductor’s stand. Lights out. A fanfare from the orchestra’s right.
Last rehearsal for the world premier of a modernist opera! One winter morning years ago the music critics of Paris sat and laughed themselves green in the face over the incomprehensible banalities of an impossible modernist opera called “Tannhäuser.” And who will say that critics have lost their sense of humor. There will unquestionably be laughter before this morning is over.
Music like this has never come from the orchestra pit of the Auditorium. Strange combinations of sounds that seem to come from street pianos, New Year’s eve horns, harmonicas and old-fashioned musical beer steins that play when you lift them up. Mr. Prokofieff waves his shirt-sleeved arms and the sounds increase.
There is nothing difficult about this music–that is, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a music critic. But to the untutored ear there is a charming capriciousness about the sounds from the orchestra. Cadenzas pirouette in the treble. Largos toboggan in the bass. It sounds like the picture of a crazy Christmas tree drawn by a happy child. Which is a most peculiar way for music to sound.
But, attention! The curtain is up. Bottle greens and fantastic reds. Here is a scene as if the music Mr. Prokofieff were waving out of the orchestra had come to life. Lines that look like the music sounds. Colors that embrace one another in tender dissonances. Yes, like that.
And here, galubcheck (I think it’s galubcheck), are the actors. What is it all about? Ah, Mr. Prokofieff knows and Boris knows and maybe the actors know. But all it is necessary for us to know is that music and color and a quaint, almost gargoylian, caprice are tumbling around in front of our eyes and ears.
And there is M. Jacques Coini. He will not participate in the world premier. Except in spirit. Now M. Coini is present in the flesh. He wears a business suit, spats of tan and a gray fedora. M. Coini is the stage director. He instructs the actors how to act. He tells the choruses where to chorus and what to do with their hands, masks, feet, voices, eyes and noses.
The hobgoblin extravaganza Mr. Prokofieff wrote unfolds itself with rapidity. Theater habitués eavesdropping on the rehearsal mumble in the half-dark that there was never anything like this seen on earth or in heaven. Mr. Anisfeld’s scenery explodes like a succession of medieval skyrockets. A phantasmagoria of sound, color and action crowds the startled proscenium. For there is no question but that the proscenium, with the names of Verdi, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven chiseled on it, is considerably startled.
Through this business of skyrockets and crescendos and hobgoblins M. Coini stands out like a lighthouse in a cubist storm. However bewildering the plot, however humpty-dumpty the music, M. Coini is intelligible drama. His brisk little figure in its pressed pants, spats and fedora, bounces around amid the apoplectic disturbances like some busybody Alice in an operatic Wonderland.
The opus mounts. The music mounts. Singers attired as singers were never attired before crawl on, bounce on, tumble on. And M. Coini, as undisturbed as a traffic cop or a loop pigeon, commands his stage. He tells the singers where to stand while they sing, and when they don’t sing to suit him he sings himself. He leads the chorus on and tells it where to dance, and when they don’t dance to suit him he dances himself. He moves the scenery himself. He fights with Mr. Prokofieff while the music splashes and roars around him. He fights with Boris. He fights with electricians and wigmakers.
It is admirable. M. Coini, in his tan spats and gray fedora, is more fantastic than the entire cast of devils and Christmas trees and lollypops, who seem to be the leading actors in the play. Mr. Prokofieff and Miss Garden have made a mistake. They should have let M. Coini play “The Love for Three Oranges” all by himself. They should have let him be the dream-towers and the weird chorus, the enchantress and the melancholy prince. M. Coini is the greatest opera I have ever seen. All he needed was M. Prokofieff’s music and the superbly childish visions of the medieval Boris for a background.
The music leaps into a gaudy balloon and sails away in marvelous zigzags, way over the heads of the hobgoblins on the stage and the music critics off the stage. Miss Garden beckons with her shillalah. Mr. Prokofieff arrives panting at her side. He bows, kisses the back of her hand and stands at attention. Also the medieval face of Mr. Anisfeld drifts gently through the gloom and joins the two.
The first act of “The Oranges” is over. Two critics exchanging opinions glower at Mr. Prokofieff. One says: “What a shame! What a shame! Nobody will understand it.” The other agrees. But perhaps they only mean that music critics will fail to understand it and that untutored ones like ourselves will find in the hurdy-gurdy rhythms and contortions of Mr. Prokofieff and Mr. Anisfeld a strange delight. As if some one had given us a musical lollypop to suck and rub in our hair.
I have an interview with Mr. Prokofieff to add. The interview came first and doesn’t sit well at the end of these notes. Because Mr. Prokofieff, sighing a bit nervously in expectation of the world’s premier, said: “I am a classicist. I derive from the classical composers.”
This may be true, but the critics will question it. Instead of quoting Mr. Prokofieff at this time, it may be more apropos merely to say that I would rather see and listen to his opera than to the entire repertoire of the company put together. This is not criticism, but a prejudice in favor of fantastic lolly-pops.
[x] Mary Garden and Louis Biancolli, Mary Garden’s Story. New York: Simon and Schuster,1951, p. 172.
[xi] Prokofiev, Autobiography, p. 60.
[xii] Edward Moore, “Love of Three Oranges, Color Marvel, But Enigmatic Noise”: Chicago Tribune, December 31, 1921, p.
[xiii] Kansas City Times, 11 January 1922, p. 1.
[xiv] William B. Murray “Young Visitors Depart”:, Brooklyn Daily Eagle 26 February 1922, p. 40.
[xv] Buffalo Courier, 12 March 1922, p. 10