Secrets of Eugene Onegin

Name: Julia Fowler

Year: Junior at Southwestern University

1st place Live Arts Contest

Secrets of Eugene Onegin

The air was full, and it was full incomparably, with light and clarity and wide open spaces of sound and color. Suddenly, all these things gathered together and burst apart, cut through by a single blank tone coming from a small box sitting on a thick countertop in a room full of ceramic and steel.

“Anna, hey. The money wants to hear you do the letter scene and then the finale with Kokhlov. I don’t know how they think they’re going to hear it from there, but I don’t really have time for this, so both of you just Skype it in, ok? Listen, don’t bother calling back; I’m going to be really busy for a while. Break a leg.”

Anna Korsakov sniffed, leaned back, and shut the lid on the piano, her long fingers gliding over the smooth whorls and patterns on the dark wood. Soft night drifted in from the open window, caressing her face and her hands, clinging to her with the sickly fervor and assurance of a desperate mother to a grown child with whom she is well acquainted, and wishes to remain, always, entirely dependent.

On the stand above the piano rested sheets and sheets of tan paper, which together with their notes and rhythms, made up the love letter of a child; of Tatyana to her Eugene Onegin. Beneath it lay the scene of her grand Polonaise, and there in that darkened room, the thought of even that transitory triumph, was as far away from the woman whose voice gave it life as it was from the hopeful child in whose voice it was written.

Anna Korsakov, premier Russian soprano engaged to sing the role of Tatyana at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, gazed down at the pages before her for a heavy instant before releasing them, and walking softly away, gently shutting her bedroom door behind her.

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“Come on, Kokhlov! You love this woman, and she’s marrying someone else—she has married someone else! Please, God, look sad!”

Sergey Kokhlov, Eugene Onegin, was a bear of a man. Russian in the width of his shoulders, and the depth of his voice, and the way he walked across the stage as if it were an icy wilderness, untamed and unconquered, except by him who strode across it with careless and assured complacency, crushing the snow beneath his feet. How could such a man as himself be familiar with sadness? It must be foreign to him; the only emotions disturbing the face of his rugged calm those of pride and stasis. He was Russian—so were they both—but he did not remind Anna of home.

She remembered her home. She remembered the wilderness, and she remembered the people; thin, sallow faces in the winter, ice on the road, and snow. Darkness transfigured into a living being on the plains of Siberia, beneath the Verkhoyansk Mountains. The cold air of the Siberian High pooling in the hollows of the earth, and the image of her escape; tall mountains, reaching up to the sun. She remembered the wolves; the winter that killed the blue hare and the reindeer and caribou, when they came down from the high slopes, deprived, and desperate for the prey that, weak and less hardy than they, had been claimed by the ice and the freezing cold. Four hundred of them came out of the wilderness, and by sundown on the fourth day had taken thirty horses from their stables.

“Anna,” A voice spoke to her from the pit.

She glanced down at it, then at the man hovering nearby. “Victor. It’s fine. We can do it again, from the entrance.” She turned, swept her full, glittering skirts behind her, and moved toward the wings.

The small man in the pit yelled out again at the big Russian baritone, “And this time, for God’s sake, at least try for a little jealousy! You have a performance in two days!”

Victor Thierson’s eyes followed Anna, “No, no. Jealousy would be redundant, and two days is not enough time to learn it properly.” He slid off the podium he had been leaning against and climbed onto the stage. He stood; smiled, “Try for despair.”

“What?” said Kokhlov.

The smile grew a hard and hungry edge, “Despair,” he said, “You know it, don’t you?” Victor Theisman, stage director for the Met’s fall production of Eugene Onegin, was not a large man. She imagined a secret in the lines of his face and the slant of his encumbered shoulders. A cursed secret; the most terrible ever to be uttered into language, and that the hearing of it and the listening, would drive all thought, in front of it, before it, until there was nothing, and would be nothing, but a whisper in the darkness, despairing. Now he stood alone at the edge of the stage, and the shadows from behind held him close.

“Forgive me, no, of course not,” he continued.

Kokhlov shrugged, “I am an actor. You wish despair, I will make despair. Eugene Onegin is a proud man. I am a proud man; our despair will be a great thing, magnificent to behold.”

Victor laughed, Anna said nothing. He walked toward Kokhlov, “I am sure it will, my fine, eager, friend. By all means, regale us with the depth of your emotion. But do be careful.”

“Care is not needed,” Kokhlov said, “This thing is required, I will do it.”

Victor smirked, “I meant for yourself, but perhaps you are right. Onegin, at least, would be far beyond care. I imagine that the realization of his own impuissance would be the most sublime and awful of his life.”

“Awful? It is love, it is sweet tragedy,” Kokhlov waved his hand, “sublime, yes. It is the music.”

“I see,” Victor met Anna’s eyes and bared his teeth, “It is the music.”

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New York City hangs on the eastern seaboard of the United States of America like a jewel. They call it an apple, and it is; a plum, ready to be plucked. In the summer it is hot enough, and the people who live there, or have come to find their fortune, scurry to and fro through the gritty wind blown in from the harbor, salty with the sea. The river Hudson runs through the city, slow and tranquil, but its waters are dark with the refuse from the dwellers on its shore, and it does not glitter.

Once, the streets of the neighborhood called Little Italy were filled with refugees from the old world, and a language bright with the tang of olives and the hot Mediterranean sun. Their food and their customs they brought with them, and now pavement is littered with little awnings and outdoor café tables, where harried businessmen go to drink cappuccinos from small ceramic mugs colored in stripes of red and green and white.

Anna brushed past a little boy in a dark blue shirt with white stripes, kicking a soccer ball that shined in formal regularity—black, white, black, white—across its grooved surface. His parents rushed after him, and behind them she caught sight of Kokhlov, sitting at a café with his back to the windows, facing the street, sipping from a tall, thin glass filled with ice.

She sat down across from him, and he waved to her over the table, “You’ll have coffee.”

She looked at him; it might have been a glare, “I don’t want coffee.”

Amused, without quite knowing why, he gazed at her across patterned tablecloth, “You do.”

She shifted forward and continued to see him, eyes dark with tangled impotency and in-expression, “But really. Do you? Want it, I mean—really want it, so that you know that you do. I mean, have you ever not? Do you even care?”

“About coffee?” he looked at her, then seeming at a loss, shrugged.

She leaned back again, eyes straight, not wavering, “About anything,” she said.

“No” came a voice from the space behind her. She turned, and together both of them looked at Victor Theisman.

“Pardon me,” he said, “I should have said, ‘of course not.’”

Kokhlov sat up, “Theisman. That’s not good of you. I care about the music we all will make tomorrow night.”

“Do you, now” he replied, “how reassuring.”

“Yes, it should be; it will be very perfect.”

Victor smiled as he had on the stage, “It seems we will be getting our money’s worth, then. I am sure you will remember all my instructions.”

Kokhlov nodded, “Undoubtedly so. Now, if you are to excuse me, I must be meeting with the lovely madam Hayes for a last fitting of my military dress.” He stood and left as Victor took his place. Both sat in silence for some moments until Victor spoke suddenly.

“He does not know it,” he said.

“What doesn’t he know?” Though Anna did.

“Despair.”

She looked away from him, “The world must be larger than that, for you to know such things about him.”

Victor crossed one leg over at the ankle, “Oh, come now darling, there is no hiding; he is the world.”

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Color bled out from the center of the room, touched the walls, and faded back again. Even here, in the heart of the Metropolitan opera, they were a dull grey, and cracks crept lazily up them toward the ceiling. Anna gazed at herself in the mirror and imagined what she had seen, and what she still must see, as she tread the boards that night; her desperation and her heartache, Tatiana’s innocence almost too much, too fragile, too false to bear. It was enough that she should receive Onegin’s letter at the end, and know that the world was as she had always believed it to be.

A shadow covered the floor, “My dear.”

“Victor,” she spoke, turning her head just barely, “A little late, are you not? Have you come, vodyanoy, to sow the seeds of your last minute doubt?”

He paused a moment before speaking, “Let us not pretend, darling. You and I know that there is no worth to this; that there is no worth to anything. What have you felt in the last few months other than choked off? What have you felt beyond pain and fear and anger? These are the only things we are allowed to feel with any real consistency; most feel nothing at all. Your purpose—our purpose—is to fool those creatures out there, those idiots, into believing that they can have lives, full of happiness and light—that if they try hard enough, these things will stay with them. That their tragedy is beautiful and will be rewarded.”

Anna lifted her eyes to his in the mirror, and his image wavered before her like smoke, “You believe that. I have to wonder why you are here.”

He turned toward the door, “Simple, dear one; the same reason you are.”

He left, and Anna remained there, exactly as she was, until the bustle in the outside hallway gradually grew more frantic, and the stage manager came by for her last call before the final act. She rose, and followed the woman through winding corridors, down hallways, and under arches, until they reached the glowing portal draped in gold, which led to a world beyond her own.

Anna stepped out onto into the light as the orchestra began. She moved through the music in a haze of dark, and light, and grey, until finally, she met Kokhlov in the middle of the stage and he fell on his knees before her. His face was grave as she bade him to rise and listen to her as Tatiana had listened to Onegin when he dashed her hopes to pieces in the snow. Self-assured and remorseful, he did so, and begged her to have pity on the suffering of a man who has been punished for his transgressions. Surely the ice that consumed his soul was enough!

There was a pause, and in that pause, Anna felt the trembling of the earth that the condemned man feels when all the world is altered by his rage—that in his fury bends to his will; so that in anger he is able to claim what he never could in peace. Kokhlov felt it, saw it in her face, and the sudden spark of it drove him back from her and onto his knees again.

Anna saw him from the center of her storm once again until, at last, the knife blade fell, and, looking out over the audience, she found she could breathe again. Now sound and the blank spaces between thought and feeling came together and burst apart, before rushing through the air and the earth like a tide; relentless, indomitable, and full of light and color.

Throughout the house not a soul moved, and so even to the furthest row it was clearly heard; the dropping of a pen from a hand unable to hold it any longer, the thud of knees against hard wood—and seen; the reflected light of a dark, weary head, bowed in submission and astonishment behind a golden curtain.


[1]  I remember there was some hesitancy in class surrounding the “Russian stereotype” that I evoke with Sergey, but that was in essence my intention. I wanted to give the reader the sense of a sort of mask, maybe even a slight artificiality, born of the arrogance of never really having had to know oneself or one’s own desires, so it felt very important to me to leave it.

[2] In Russian mythology the Vodyanoy are the male counterparts to the malevolent water spirits known as Rusalki (most famously known by Dvorak’s wonderful opera Rusalka), who are the spirits of the unclean dead. This includes unbaptized children, suicide victims, women who bear children out of wedlock, and those who die without last rites. Rusalki lure men to their deaths by singing and dancing, while the vodyanoy would drag those he desires down to his river bottom to serve him in slavery.

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live arts finalM Julia Fowler lives in Texas, is inordinately attached to her god, and adores almond poppy seed muffins. One of her minors is music, and she grew up inundated with the the sounds and passion of opera. They inspired this story.

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