Shostakovich Didn't Want It, But Opera Debuts Anyway

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A Shostakovich opera plucked from the Soviet composer's trash gets its world premier this weekend at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Disney Hall. We hear from Gerard McBurney, the composer charged with fleshing out Shostakovich's lost work, Orango.


A long-lost Soviet opera by Dimitri Shostakovich gets a posthumous premiere this weekend in Los Angeles. The opera called "Orango" was found unfinished, dumped in a museum with other scrap paper from Shostakovich's house.

GERARD MCBURNEY: It's 13 sides of manuscript paper with this 40 minutes worth of music. It looks like piano music and the voices are written above it, rather like in a song.

SIMON: British composer Gerard McBurney turned the music into a performable orchestra score. Tried to make it sound as Shostakovich might have imagined it in 1932.

MCBURNEY: When you orchestrate in somebody else's style, you try and get to deep inside their soul and imagine what they would have done at any given point.

SIMON: So Mr. McBurney drew from other pieces from the same pre-World War II period in the composer's career.

MCBURNEY: I raided every theatre score of his I could and stole from them shamelessly.

SIMON: And the result is a score that reflects some of the absurdity of the opera's plot. "Orango" is a genetic experiment gone wrong, a human/ape hybrid who takes a job at an anti-communist newspaper where he's surrounded by rabid capitalists, driven to insanity and ends up as a side-show freak in a circus.

MCBURNEY: All of this music is very satirical. It's like cartoon film music, it's like "Tom and Jerry" or "Yogi Bear" or something.

SIMON: Since "Orango's" being performed for the first time ever this weekend, we don't have a recording of the new opera; we can hear the same satirical sound in this other Shostakovich piece, "Hypothetically Murdered."


SIMON: "Hypothetically Murdered," by the way, was also reconstructed by Gerard McBurney, performed here by the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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