Aria Code S3 Ep 18
“The Letter Scene”
from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin
EWELL: I might die, but I’m gonna write a letter. Because I’d rather not live in a world where I can’t express myself. And let the chips fall where they may.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
FLEMING: She just pours out her heart in this letter. Telling him that she loves him, and she’s begging him to really see her.
GIDDENS: Every episode, we peel back the layers of a single aria so that we can see what’s at its core. Today, it’s the “Letter Scene” from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky.
MANLEY: I think at every moment that we either say something or don’t say something, we are defining who we are.
So, there was this relationship that I was in, and it was a long distance relationship, so we relied a lot on digital communication, you know, phone calls, a lot of texting. We were very big texters. And we were reaching that point in the relationship where you know it’s like… you really care about this person and it’s time to say it. You’ve been thinking it forever and now you actually wanna say it. And for us, when that time came, we were apart. And so, I remember very vividly, saying it, the L-word, “Love,” “I love you.” I said it over text.
And anybody who’s been in this situation where you’re saying something soul bearing, you know, something that’s really important over text and you’re waiting to hear back from the other person, and those dots appear, you know, where they’re typing but you don’t know what they’re saying yet and it takes forever because obviously they’re composing their thoughts and you’re like… are they thoughts that say “I’m sorry I don’t feel the same way,” or are they thoughts that say “I do feel the same way” and you’re in this agony. It’s like five seconds, right, but it feels like five years. And I’m like, imagine that, but like with letters. What was it like when it wasn’t instantaneous, and what kind of bravery would it take to put the words “I love you” into an actual letter that you have to write with a pen and then seal up and mail it off and then wait? And this is exactly what we’re talking about today. This is what Tchaikovsky captures in the “Letter Scene” from Eugene Onegin.
Now this opera is based on a book-length poem by Alexander Pushkin, who is the most celebrated writer in all of Russian history by the way.
The poem tells the story of a teenage girl living in the countryside, Tatyana Larina. She’s quiet and sheltered, a daydreamer who only knows the world through what she reads in her books. But one day, her family gets a visit from the dapper gentleman Eugene Onegin, and well, she falls hard.
Now later that night, she’s so caught up in thoughts of Gentleman Gene that she can’t sleep, so she decides to write him a letter. She pours her heart out to Onegin, knowing full well that he might not feel the same way about her. And even worse, that he might find her completely ridiculous.
But she’s determined to tell him the truth, come what may, and it’s a decision that defines the rest of her life, and the rest of the opera.
This scene is really one of the greats, with four mini arias over the course of 12 minutes… I mean, it’s a total rollercoaster of emotions! But who can’t relate to all the different things that you would be feeling after you’ve laid your heart out on the line? So let’s delve into it all with three terrific guests.
First, soprano Renée Fleming. Tatyana was a signature role for her.
FLEMING: I mean, there’s so much about her that related perfectly to who I was as a young person. She is the role who I think is the most closely aligned with who I am. It’s not to say that it’s not fun to play you know a man eating sorceress. Those are fun, too!
Next, Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at Hunter College in New York. Russian music is one of his specialties.
EWELL: Over the years, I’ve spent seven years of my life, total, in Russia. The first time I went there, I went to study language in the summer of 1991. It was still Leningrad and it was still the USSR. By the time I left about two and half years later, it was St. Petersburg, Russia, though I had nothing to do with that, that was coincidental, by the way. So, I have always loved the music quite a bit.
And finally, Tim Manley, a writer, storyteller, and filmmaker. Several years ago, Tim told a story on stage, in front of an audience, about his own confession of love.
MANLEY: I had told that story as part of this solo show that I had done, which was also largely a show about coming out as bi and reckoning with that, and it was terrifying. But I was kind of terrified all the time anyway, so why not at least say it out loud, right?
Alright, we’re off to the Russian countryside to hear Tatyana confess her love in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
FLEMING: I sang this in St. Petersburg for a major anniversary of the city. And I sang the “Letter Scene” in this gala, and it was supposed to be all Russian singers. Every head of state in the world pretty much was there. And I was the only non-Russian. And I'm thinking, why am I singing this piece that is identified with Russian history and culture, and as an American, I'm going to come and do my best singing and having learned this by rote. So I just, I was terrified. But it was wonderful, and I'm sure half the heads of state were sleeping at this time anyway.
EWELL: Well, Eugene Onegin is a lyric poem by Alexander Pushkin who is generally regarded as the most famous Russian author. The major story is boy meets girl.
It's a story, of course, of unrequited love.
MANLEY: I'd grown up on Long Island. I was raised Catholic. I was a quiet kid with very long, shaggy hair who was always reading, always had headphones in, and always drawing. All through college, I was dating the girl who I'd been dating in high school, and she was Christian. And I had this idea of my future, where I would move back to Long Island, I would be a high school English teacher, I would buy a house, I would get married, we'd have kids--that would be my life.
EWELL: So, Eugene Onegin, set in the 1820s on an estate outside of St. Petersburg, and it's the Larins’ estate. The owner, Madame Larina, is widowed. And she has two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. And, these are girls, right? They're young. Tatyana is 16 and Olga is younger, 14 or 15 years old, probably.
Everyone was teenagers with the exception of Onegin who was an old man--he was 22. And he is bored. He comes to take care of his ailing uncle only to get this estate and the land, not because he cares about the uncle. He talks about how horrible it is to take care of this ailing man. And you get a sense right away of who Eugene Onegin actually is.
He ultimately became known as, as the archetype of what in Russia is called the lishniy chelovek, translated into English as “the superfluous man.” But the whole concept of the lishniy chelovek is a very common topic, actually in Russia. There were a lot of men who had inherited wealth, who literally just were kind of hanging out, and they didn't really have much to do. And one of the crucial elements of the lishniy chelovek is boredom. They were just plain bored, bored with life.
MANLEY: I went to college in New York City, but I was almost never there over the weekend. I would go home to Long Island and drive around in my car listening to mixtapes and crying, specifically to Simon and Garfunkel's “America” until I could finally let myself sleep.
I met my friend Ben in my college improv group. I wasn't very good at improv because I always made the scenes too sad. I, I think I thought things were funny, but they were just, just sad. And Ben and I became best friends over the next few years. We were sad boys who would sit around and drink and talk about women and talk about art and talk about the future.
EWELL: So Tatyana is a fascinating figure. She is young, she’s 16.
FLEMING: She’s bookish, she is a dreamer.
EWELL: She takes long walks, she goes reading.
FLEMING: She’s relatively shy, she’s serious.
EWELL: She is naive by all accounts.
FLEMING: But she still had this core, this strength, this conviction, and a passion. And an ability to go after what she wanted.
EWELL: She’s thinking deeply about societal norms, what is expected of her, yet what she wants.
MANLEY: Toward the end of college, I was breaking up with the girl who I was living with and thought I was going to marry, and I ended up sleeping on Ben's couch a lot of the time. And I remember one night I was having a hard time, and so I called up Ben and he invited me over, and I went and I buzzed the door of this kind of dilapidated mansion in Williamsburg that he was living in at the time. And he opens the door and he was just like, “ah, Manley.” And he opens his arms, and he's like a foot shorter than me, but he's very strong and I just fell into his arms and he held me. And it made me feel so good to be there.
EWELL: So one day at the Larin estate, Olga and Tatyana are just walking around. And Lenski, their neighbor and the betrothed of Olga, brings his good friend, Eugene Onegin to the estate. And as soon as Tatyana sees him, she realizes that she is completely smitten, and that he is the one for her.
FLEMING: She sees him and immediately has this attraction, this strong attraction to him. I mean, it didn't hurt that the person I played it with at the Met was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, so that was not hard to do. He brought this nobility to everything he did. He could have been royalty.
MANLEY: This became a trend where basically, whenever I was in a high emotional place, I would call up Ben, and we would just hang out all night. And then at the end of this one night, he invited me up into his bed to sleep instead of having me sleep on the floor. And I, I see that he's wearing these like cheap plaid boxer shorts from Target. And I'm thinking that I wear cheap plaid boxer shorts from Target. His middle name is Edward. My middle name is Edward. Like, come on. The universe thinks this is okay.
EWELL: In Tatyana’s character, the notion of love is this thing that’s fated or predetermined.
FLEMING: She also, of course, was projecting all kinds of fabulous qualities onto Onegin that weren't actually there. I mean, it's wonderful to have this hope that you'll meet and fall in love and have this fantastic union with a true soulmate.
MANLEY: We're laying there like a foot between us. And I'm just thinking in my head, like, we are pioneers of a new masculinity, you know? We are comfortable expressing our platonic affection for each other. We're not worried about homophobic social norms. And then I'm looking at his bare shoulder in the streetlight. And I'm thinking, okay, that being said, like, I would like to kiss him. And I don't know where that falls in the rules of the new masculinity, but like, we haven't written them yet. It could be rule number one. You kiss your friends. This is totally normal. I don't know!
EWELL: So, the “Letter Scene” takes place in Tatyana's bedroom. And it's nighttime, and she has just met Onegin earlier that day. And she's talking with her nanny Filipyevna, essentially a serf on the Larin estate who was formerly her wet nurse. And her mind is racing because she has this Onegin on her mind, and she feels that she loves him.
FLEMING: Because she's walking around with a book all the time, she's definitely reading love stories, she's definitely exposed to them in this literary way. But this is her first experience with it, and it's incredibly powerful for that reason.
EWELL: So she talks with Filipyevna, and asks her, “tell me about love, like what was it to you?” But for peasants in Russia from the 19th century, it was always about God's will, and love was not something you would ever even think about acting on.
MANLEY: So Ben, he can hear that I'm not quite sleeping yet. And he leans over and he goes, “do you need anything?” And I was like, do I need anything? And I can feel the words that I want to say stacked up inside of me. Like physical objects. I can feel them inside, from my stomach all the way up to my throat. But I can't say them. And I say, I'm okay. And he starts to snore.
FLEMING: So she can't sleep. She's obsessed already.
EWELL: So finally, she's like, you know what? Nanny, get my writing stool, bring me something to write on. And that's when she begins to pen this letter to Onegin.
FLEMING: And she just pours out her heart in this letter, telling him that she loves him, that she's begging him to really see her. This is something we all desire, we want to be seen.
Tchaikovsky wrote this letter scene first, before he did the entire rest of the opera, which I find really interesting. It tells you how crucial and how important the piece is, actually.
EWELL: So you have essentially four small arias, romances, and instrumental interludes, and also recitatives, all kind of woven into one texture. In terms of the instrumentation, it’s a little chamber orchestra. You’ve got no percussion at all, you’ve got a timpani and that’s it. And then the chamber orchestra, 2:2:2:2 of flutes, clarinets, bassoons, and oboes. And maybe there are three french horns, a couple of trombones, a couple of trumpets. But you hear that, of course, that intimacy of the smaller orchestra in the music of the “Letter Scene.”
FLEMING: So when I hear those opening chords and I know I'm in the land of Tchaikovksy, my heart is just pounding. I'm already happy and, and excited, and I want to hear how the scene unravels.
EWELL: So at the very beginning of the “Letter Scene,” there's uh, an orchestral introduction, brief introduction in a no sharp or flat key signature. But it immediately moves to the home key of D-flat major. And there's this excited writing in the strings. And it's just the strings.
FLEMING: We have to kind of imagine that she’s, you know, pulling together the pen and the paper, and really wrestling with herself, and she’’s agitated. And then she has this outburst, Puskai pogibnu ya!
EWELL: Okay, I might die,
FLEMING: I’m just gonna die from this.
EWELL: But before I do,
FLEMING: But first,
EWELL: I’m gonna write me a letter.
FLEMING: I want to have this dazzling hope.
EWELL: Because I’d rather not live in a world where I can’t express myself and just be free with my feelings and let the chips fall where they may. And from that moment on, you’re like, oh my god, I want this all to work out. As we all do, of course, that’s what opera is, we come to the opera to have things work out. And then we especially come to have them not work out.
FLEMING: And she's calling upon this dark bliss. I mean, the language, the words, that chromatic theme as it winds in and out of this piece--all of it expresses this juxtaposition between this extreme passion and the risk that she's taking.
MANLEY: I must have tried so many times to tell him how I felt. I knew I could not say it out loud. That felt way too terrifying. So I would try writing it down in a letter to him. But then you're rereading it and you get to see how embarrassing you look. So I couldn't do that. I tried writing it in a long email to him, but then what, I'm going to hit send and just sit and wait forever? I didn't know how I could possibly tell him. I didn’t know how you could say these words. But you have to do it. You have to say them out loud. You have to tell the person.
FLEMING: Every kind of thought that she has in writing this letter, from uncertainty to conviction, to descriptions of who he is--who she imagines him to be, how charitable, how much quality and character she projects onto him--it's just incredibly beautiful, and wonderful to act out.
She wants to know love. She wants to know this desire. And so she has this constant dreaminess seeing him everywhere. She sees him before her, this, uh, fatal idea of him standing there in front of her.
EWELL: Puskai pogibnu ya. No prezhde. Ya voslepitel’noi nadezhde.
FLEMING: Well, first of all, there are so many words. I mean, if you look at the libretto and just look at the “Letter Scene,” it’s… it's a tome.
And I thought I would just never be able to memorize it. Because having to explain to people that you're memorizing sounds by rote that have to sound completely native -- and you're not only memorizing the sounds, you're memorizing the sense of them, the meaning of them, the translation of all the people around you, so that you can look as if you live in the world and you speak the language fluently, you are Tatyana living in the story. So it's extremely time consuming. There's a reason why I've only sung one Russian opera. And I'm glad it was this one because, because it is genius.
EWELL: Ya p’yu volshebnyi yad zhelanii! “I will drink the magical poison of desires.” I just love that line, because, you know, she’s like, this might be my end. This is so much bigger than just, well, me picking up the phone back in high school thinking about whether I’m gonna ask a girl out to a dance. That was a big deal back then, so I’m just saying! But this is like, “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna drink this poisonous elixir of desire.”
FLEMING: And what mirrors the writing of the letter so perfectly is the music. For me, Tchaikovsky is the man. I mean, I just, I love the music. I think his life was difficult and he suffered, and you hear all of that.
EWELL: There can be no question that, um, Tchaikovsky's personal life is to one extent or another tied to the way he wrote Eugene Onegin. He was gay himself, he had gotten a letter from a woman expressing her love for him, and he was not prepared to reciprocate that love. And societal norms were key to who he was as a person. So this idea of unrequited love, his own sexuality, the pain and the anguish of some of that unrequited love--all come through in this opera.
MANLEY: So one night, I decide I have to tell Ben. And I'm sitting there in my own little bedroom, and I try to write him a letter, but it feels too cliche. I can't get the words right.
FLEMING: She's writing, she's writing, she says, “nope, I'm gonna start from the beginning. How am I gonna find these words?”
EWELL: You know, she started, but then she stopped, right? It was like a false start.
MANLEY: And for whatever reason, I take out a black pen and I write on the palm of my hand, “Ben.” And the ink shimmers for a heartbeat and it dries. And I continue writing.
FLEMING: Now, she’s really putting pen to paper.
EWELL: At the beginning of the second romance, the orchestra has a lot of interplay with the woodwinds. There’s these beautiful ascending oboe lines that then are answered by these descending fifths basically in the other woodwinds. The harp is also punctuating this beautiful musical texture, which is helping get the ball rolling in terms of Tatyana’s actually writing of this letter.
MANLEY: “Ben, when I don’t know what decisions to make, when I am overcome by my fears and my doubts, your face appears, and you are telling me yes.”
And I take a photo of my hand with my laptop's camera, but I can't email it to him. It feels like it would be way too vulnerable. And besides, then I’m realizing there's so many other people in my life that I have so many things that I need to say to them. So I decide I'm going to write a note on my hand to someone in my life every single night and take a photo of it. And I start a blog called, “I need you to know how much I love you.”
FLEMING: It is remarkable. How, how little I ever said to anyone about how I really felt. Just remarkable. I was too shy. I mean, the closest I would come would be a hint that no one would ever get. You know, this is pre-internet, so it's a very different way of living. I mean, I always say this, but I, and I told my children, I was just so innocent.
MANLEY: If you've ever kept a secret inside, it makes it hard to think about anything else. If you're holding something inside that you haven't said it has power over you, it's always there. Once you say something out loud, you release it and you are free from it. But I did not know how to say anything out loud.
FLEMING: My favorite part in this aria is when the music completely stops and she's singing pianissimo: you appear to me in dreams. She really had, feels like she's had him in a vision before. Like, “I knew you, I've known you before. You've been with me forever.” She uses the word dushe, my soul, your, your voice resounded in my soul. Uh, it's just so powerful.
MANLEY: And finally, one day I'm in my little bedroom and I decide i have to call him today, and I open up my flip phone and I go through my contacts until I find the name Ben. And I’m pacing back and forth in my bedroom until finally I don't know exactly what I’m going to say but I start the call, And I sit in the window of my bedroom and I'm looking out at the Key Food grocery across the street. and he answers and he says, “Manley,” like it's a full sentence. And I say, I have a question for you. And he says, go for it. And I say, do you want to go on a date with me? And there's a pause.
EWELL: There’s a bit of a driving sense here. In the strings you hear it’s 6/8, so lapapapap, and then the woodwinds come in to kind of answer that in a little call and response there. So, “I would not give my heart to anyone else but you.”
FLEMING: She uses the word “confession,” and she comes back to this passion and flaming these really strong words, which, you know, when you're young, you're, you're thinking it's life and death in this moment. You're not thinking this one might not work out. You're thinking this is it, this it's this all or nothing. But you can tell she's read a lot because she finds the words that are poetic that are beautiful.
MANLEY: And I say, “I have this idea of something that you and I could be you and I holding hands, you and I swapping t-shirts, you and I together.” And I tell him, “I'm so grateful that whenever I tell him about my fears and my anxieties, he says back, ‘Manley, you just have to realize that you're beautiful and everything will be okay.’” And I wait for him to say it now.
FLEMING: She's working through in her mind, all the various Manifestations of what she's feeling, what she's thought, how much he has opened up her horizon, because she's now thinking about a future with him. There's nobody else. There's no one else I'm going to give my heart to which turns out to be really true.
EWELL: Toward the end of the aria she writes, “Who are you? My guardian angel or a cunning seducer?” She's trying to figure out who this person is and the music is so very beautiful.
FLEMING: She acknowledges that she's in his power and she's hoping that he won't treat her badly or and scorn her, but she's just going to risk it. She's going to absolutely put herself out there.
MANLEY: And he says, “Manley, I think, you know,” and I do know, and I start to smile and I, I press my smile into my hand. I felt this certainty that he felt the same way.
And he says, “I think, you know, I'm only attracted to women.” And it almost doesn't hurt because I am so startled by how much it hurts.
I have to lay down on my bed and I say, “Of course, of course.” And we finished up the phone call. “I'll say, I'll talk to you soon.” And we hang up and I take out my black pen and I write on my hand. “Ben, thank you for helping me become the person who I wished I could be.”
FLEMING: As a young person to have the courage to do what she did, which was to write this letter, exposing herself. And even more than that to be writing in such a brash outspoken way, her love and expressing her love to Onegin at a time when women just didn't do that. And she is hopeful. I don't think she really understands what she's but it's courageous. It's extremely courageous.
EWELL: So toward the end, there's a final, faster section, where the music is getting more and more excited because she's about to finish writing this letter. There's these, uh, hurriedly 32nd notes in the strings.
FLEMING: He has a way of setting strings that it's not like any other composer. And I think it's so glamorous.
EWELL: Well, it ends, uh, back in D flat major. So we get a sense of we're back at home from 12 minutes ago. We get a sense, I think, at the end of this long aria, with these big loud chords, that this just might work, oh my gosh, this, this might actually work.
And she is hurriedly scribbling down this letter. She really writes and writes and writes and writes and writes and finishes.
She says, “I'm finishing the letter. scared to reread it right now. , but I'm putting my hands in your honor,” essentially, “I trust you, Onegin, to do the right thing.”
FLEMING: There's this like outburst when she's finished. Uh, energy, you know, that mad conviction, that mad “I've done it.”
EWELL: It’s 12 minutes of singing by oneself. It’s like a very long gymnastics routine and let’s see if she can stick the landing, and that’s exactly what she does.
And then finally in the third scene of that opera, Onegin comes back and, essentially, reproaches Tatyana for so openly writing these letters. The first thing he says is, “You wrote me a letter, don't deny it. You shouldn’t be so open with your feelings.” Of course he turns away and you know, your, your heart goes out, she's 16.
FLEMING: She’s so devastated. And so crushed.
EWELL: Five years later, Tatyana has become this big socialite and she’s married very well and she’s this societal beauty, and now it’s Onegin who is pining for Tatyana and Tatyana is now unattainable.
EWELL: She says, “look, you had your chance, buddy, and you blew it. I’m married to another person and I’m not gonna throw everything away,” and of course he’s just crushed at the end.
MANLEY: Telling someone you love them is so embarrassing. You know, you feel this shame, it’s just urgh… But I said the thing I didn’t think it was possible to say. The person responded with my greatest fear of how they would respond. And not only was I still there afterwards, but I had transformed into someone else, into someone who can speak the truth.
I think at every moment that we either say something or don't say something, we are defining who we are. I think the process of speaking how you feel, the process itself is transformative and led me to become the person who I am. And the person who I am now is someone in a loving relationship. I'm a parent. And I don't hesitate to express that love now, even if sometimes it comes on a little bit strong, even if, sometimes it sounds a little bit silly. And honestly, even if, sometimes it sounds a little bit cliche because there's no real way to say some of these things that doesn't sound cliche. It all sounds cliché. I wouldn't mind if I heard clichés all day about how somebody loves me. That's fine.
FLEMING: There are so many great things about this story that are human, that are authentic, that are real… and honest about what happens between people. And because I had such powerful memories of being in that position, I mean, I was the queen of unrequited love, uh, so it, wasn't hard for me. But in this case I just, I felt like I knew her, and that the vulnerability, that's the key word. That's really the key word and risk and passion, all those things it's swirling around in her head. I mean, it's just, it's exquisite.
End of Decode
Soprano Renée Fleming, musicologist Philip Ewell, and writer Tim Manley decoding the “Letter Scene” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Renée will be back to sing it for you after the break.
Just a few hours ago, the young Tatyana fell in love for the very first time with the sophisticated Eugene Onegin. Now, alone in her bedroom and unable to sleep, she decides to confess her feelings to him in a letter. Here’s soprano Renée Fleming putting pen to paper on stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
THE LETTER SCENE
There it is, one of the most glorious confessions of love in all of opera, performed by one of the greatest sopranos ever to sing the role, what a combo. Renée Fleming as Tatyana in the “Letter Scene” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
And ladles and gentle spoons, thank you so much for listening, for being here throughout the third season of Aria Code, and for everything you’ve done to spread the word about the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure to share this music and these stories with you. And now let’s roll the credits on Season 3:
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Max Fine is our assistant producer, Helena de Groot is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. On the web at arts.gov.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next season!