In 2004, a substantial cache of Shostakovich autographs, sketches, and rejected drafts was discovered in a Moscow archive by the scholar Olga Digonskaya. While much of the new material helps to illuminate the compositional process behind well-known works, undoubtedly the most sensational find was music intended for an operatic satire dating from the early 1930s, titled Orango, that never saw the light of day.
Genesis — The opera was commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater in 1932 for the purpose of commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Revolution. Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov signed on as librettists to compose an opera with Shostakovich on the broad theme “human growth during revolution and socialist construction.” Ultimately, the collaborators conceived their opera as “a political lampoon against the bourgeois press,” adapting the plot from one of Starchakov’s stories concerning a human-ape hybrid conceived in a medical experiment. Brief summary of the Tolstoy-Starchakov proposal for Orango
Act I — In a scientific experiment, a French biologist impregnates a female ape with human sperm. A journalist finds out and publishes an exposé that ignites a political and religious uproar. The biologist continues his research in secret and when the ape conceives, he ships her to a colleague in South America. In due course, he learns that the ape has given birth to a male hybrid which differs little from a baby born to a woman. Correspondence between the two scientists continues until the summer of 1914, when war breaks out in Europe.
Act II — One evening after the end of World War I, a stranger knocks at the French biologist’s door, introducing himself as Jean Or, the adopted son of the biologist’s now-deceased South American colleague. The biologist recognizes the hybrid offspring of his 20-year-old experiment, introduces him to his daughter, and offers assistance. Eventually, the young “man” finds work on a newspaper owned and edited by the very journalist who had originally exposed the scientific experiment in which he was conceived. Or(ango) flourishes, becoming involved in shady dealings, blackmail and financial speculation. He rises rapidly to become the newspaper owner’s closest assistant and, ultimately, his successor.
Act III — A rabid anti-Communist, Orango now wields enormous power, financial and political; he is an arbiter of taste and fashion. But he is frustrated in his desire to possess the French scientist’s daughter. She joins her father — now a communist sympathizer — and others in a campaign against the newspaper magnate. Orango marries a Russian émigré who has become a Parisian courtesan. His hatred of the working class and the Soviet Union festers. With the years, atavistic features in his face become more apparent; he becomes more and more like his mother. A scandal erupts after he tries to rape the scientist’s daughter and Orango is finally unmasked. He embraces the Catholic church for protection. But a world crisis breaks out and Orango goes bankrupt. The Pope rejects him. Orango goes mad. He degenerates entirely into an ape. His wife sells him to the circus. He is shown in a cage….
The subject of animal-human hybrids had both literary and real-life precedents. H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1925) number among the former. Among the latter was one drawn from the pages of the contemporary press, about research in crossbreeding by the Russian scientist Ilya Ivanov, who was sent by the Soviet government and Academy of Sciences to Africa in 1926 to carry out experiments involving the artificial insemination of female chimpanzees with human sperm. Upon his return to the Soviet Union in 1927, Ivanov continued this controversial research at a primate station in Sukhumi; while travelling in the South in 1929, Shostakovich visited the “ape farm” and recommended it as a sight worth seeing.
• Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (1870-1932), biologist, specialist in artificial insemination and interspecific hybridization. As a result of a political shake-up in the Soviet scientific community, Ivanov was arrested in 1930, convicted of counterrevolutionary activity and sentenced to five years of exile, where he died of a stroke in 1932. Librettists
• Alexei Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1883-1945), famous Russian writer of noble descent. He sided with the Whites at the time of the Revolution, but his sympathies changed. In the 1920s he became one of the prominent artistic figures to re-emigrate to the Soviet Union, where he established himself as an elite member of the Soviet literary establishment.
• Alexander Osipovich Starchakov (1892-1937), Leningrad-based journalist and literary critic. He was a close friend of and regular collaborator with Alexei Tolstoy, and published about him. He was arrested in 1936 and shot the following year.
[Thanks to Humphrey McQueen]