Some stories are universal: love, death, betrayal, murder. They speak to the human condition now as they have for centuries. But we do not often get the opportunity to see how these themes are interpreted through the eyes of another culture.
For Law and Society Professor Jeanne Umana, art is a unifying force and a common language. Russian opera has become not only a passion for her, but also a secondary profession. As the marketing director for the St. Petersburg Opera, she has endeavored to bring this cultural art form to Santa Barbara for an American debut tour, with the hope that it will open the lines of communication and foster greater understanding between cultures.
Santa Barbara’s Russian Season opens this weekend at the Arlington Theater with two performances by the St. Petersburg Opera. The inspiration for these operas is deeply rooted in Russian history and literature.
“These are human stories, not just Russian, but told in a Russian way, with Russian passion and pageantry, by Russian composers and directors,” she said.
As Umana explained, these particular operas are based on Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin’s literary works. “Boris Godunov,” by Peter Tchaikovsky, is the tale of a pretender to the Russian throne, while the lighter “Eugene Onegin,” by Modest Musorgsky, is a love story based on Pushkin’s lyrical poem.
“[The operas] have an orientation and an attitude that the Russians have to a production,” she said. “It’s very epic and lavish – the costumes, the scenery.”
It is the passion of the Russian people that, for Umana, is a fascination and creates a clear distinction from the Italian form of opera.
“[Russian opera] is a little heavier; the Italians are very much more romantic,” she said.
But Umana also understands the inherent difficulty in bringing opera to American audiences raised on radio, television and cinema.
“I think when you have to listen to someone speak through song it’s not as easy as it is to listen to them speak directly,” she said.
Umana hopes that audiences, and students in particular, will let down their guard and give opera a fair chance. To make these performances more accessible, there will be supertitles running above the stage to translate the Russian lyrics to English.
“You have to see [opera] once in your lifetime and you should see it done by someone who does it best,” she said. “You don’t know caviar until you try it. You don’t know filet mignon from hamburger until you try it.”
Ultimately, Umana sees this as an opportunity to bring cultures together and expedite greater understanding between both.
“Once you can start liking somebody’s culture you can get to liking them,” she said.
Both operas will be performed at the Arlington Theater – “Boris Godunov” on Saturday and “Eugene Onegin” on Sunday. Students receive a 10 percent discount on their tickets when they present a student I.D. Contact the Arlington Theater or Ticketmaster for further details.