Nikolai Gogol wrote his short story, The Nose in 1837.
A man wakes up to find his nose gone. After ten pages of hunting for his nose, having it returned, trying to reattach it to his face, despairing, and then waking up to find it back on his face, the story ends.
Chekhov described it as the greatest story ever written.
Shostakovich’s opera stays close to the Gogol. Every line of the libretto comes either from this story or from two other stories by Gogol.
What are the things that drew me to the story and then the opera? Firstly a delight in recognising in the Gogol a familiarity, a line of modernism going back so much earlier than I had realised. A modernism of a world in dissolution and of characters who have to make their lives in this chaos. A lineage that seems to link self-aware and completely blind Kovalyov (the bureaucrat who loses his nose) to later familiar characters in literature like Svevo’s Zeno. And the line linking the over-puffed, bombastic nose (at least in my reading) to Jarry’s Ubu.
There was pleasure in the open-ended possibilities of narration, of depiction of the world that Gogol’s story opened up and which Shostakovich’s music carries further. All is possible. But within the range of possibilities, that which is chosen is followed completely assiduously. The absurd is given gravitas.
In the opera the character of The Nose sings only in two scenes, maybe for two minutes in all. The stage is given to Kovalyov to tell his story. In developing the vocabulary for the projection in the production it became clear that the screen and the projections on them would be the terrain for the nose to wander off into. The opera has several musical sections in which there is neither singing nor stage direction. I have used these to pursue the independent life of the nose and the world he moves through.
This world is that of the extraordinary brightness of film, image-making, visual and literary imagination that flourished in the decade after the 1917 revolution. The conception of the opera, its range, inventiveness and daring of the music, is fuelled by the possibilities that seemed unleashed by the transformations in the society around the composer. The opera and, I hope, the production celebrate that moment of possibility. We know the post- history.