Guy meets girl. Girl loves guy. Guy is a jerk. Guy kills his best friend. Guy loves girl. Girl’s got another guy.
In an extremely small nutshell, this is the plot of Eugene Onegin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s most popular and enduring opera. You may have seen posters around campus for it, as the Pittsburgh Opera is performing it at the end of the month, and Carnegie Mellon students can get some pretty cheap tickets. If you’ve never seen an opera before, Onegin is a great place to start.
Based on Pushkin’s epic poem of the same name, Eugene Onegin is set in Russia in the 1820s. The opera begins with the cynical Onegin accompanying his friend Lensky to the home of Lensky’s fiancee, Olga. When Olga’s older sister Tatyana spies Onegin, she is smitten. She writes him a letter, which he flatly rejects, telling her he is not suited or inclined to marry. Later, he is convinced by Lensky to go to a party for Tatyana, only to flirt with Olga instead. Lensky is furious, and, in a fateful duel, Onegin kills him.
The final act takes place many years later as a dejected Onegin visits Tatyana at the home of her husband — a prince. They confess their love for one another, but she has resolved to stay with her husband. At the finale, she leaves him alone without friends or a lover.
Oddly enough, the story eerily parallels Tchaikovsky’s own life. While writing Onegin, he received a letter from a former student of his, Antonina Milyukoff, confessing that she had been madly in love with him since her days at school. He rejected her, but as he wrote the opera, he began to wonder if he, too, would end up alone. After a second letter, he told her that he did not love her — many think that he was a closeted homosexual — but he agreed to marry her. The marriage, unfortunately, was short-lived, and Tchaikovsky suffered a nervous breakdown, fleeing to Switzerland to recuperate. What may have transpired between Tatyana and Onegin is left to the imagination, but Tchaikovsky was truly not suited for marriage.
Metropolitan Opera regular Dwayne Croft sings the title role, with rising Russian star Anna Samuil as Tatyana. Raymond Very, husband of Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of voice Laura Knoop Very, sings the role of Lensky, Onegin’s ill-fated friend.
If you think that opera is outdated and only for old women with funny glasses, just give this one a try — you may find yourself in a love affair of your own.