When Shostakovich Adapted Gogol’s “The Nose” Into an Opera: Watch Giant Noses Tap Dancing on the Stage

The first-time read­er of a sto­ry called “The Nose” may expect any num­ber of things: a char­ac­ter with a keen sense of smell; a mur­der evi­denced by the tit­u­lar organ, dis­em­bod­ied; a broad­er iron­ic point about the things right in front of our faces that we some­how nev­er see. But giv­en its con­cep­tion in the imag­i­na­tion of Niko­lai Gogol, “The Nose” is about a nose — a nose that, on its own, lives, breathes, walks, and dress­es in fin­ery. The nose does this, it seems, in order to rise in rank past that of its for­mer own­er, the run-of-the-mill St. Peters­burg civ­il ser­vant Col­le­giate Asses­sor Kova­ly­ov.

Writ­ten in 1835 and 1836, “The Nose” sat­i­rizes the long era in Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia after Peter the Great intro­duced the Table of Ranks. Meant to ush­er in a kind of pro­to-mer­i­toc­ra­cy, that sys­tem assigned rank to mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment offi­cers accord­ing, at least in the­o­ry, to their abil­i­ty and achieve­ments. The fact that those who attained high enough ranks would rise the to the lev­el of hered­i­tary nobles cre­at­ed an all-out sta­tus war across many sec­tions of soci­ety — a war, to the mind of Gogol the mas­ter observ­er of bureau­cra­cy, that could pit a man not just against his col­leagues and friends but against his own body parts.

Near­ly a cen­tu­ry after the sto­ry’s pub­li­ca­tion, a young Dmitri Shostakovich took it upon him­self to adapt “The Nose” into his very first opera. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with Alexan­der Preis, Geor­gy Ion­in, and Yevge­ny Zamy­atin (author of the endur­ing dystopi­an nov­el We), the com­pos­er ren­dered even more out­ra­geous­ly this tale of a nose gone rogue. Incor­po­rat­ing pieces of Gogol’s oth­er sto­ries like the “The Over­coat” and “Diary of a Mad­man” as well as the play Mar­riage and the diary Dead Souls — not to men­tion the writ­ings of oth­er Russ­ian mas­ters, includ­ing Dos­toyevsky’s The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov — the 1928 opera com­bines a wide vari­ety of musi­cal styles both tra­di­tion­al and exper­i­men­tal, and among its set pieces includes a num­ber per­formed by giant tap-danc­ing noses.

You can see that part per­formed in the video above. The venue is Lon­don’s Roy­al Opera House, the direc­tor is Bar­rie Kosky of Berlin’s Komis­che Oper, and the year is 2016, half a cen­tu­ry after The Nose’s revival. Though com­plet­ed in the late 1920s, it did­n’t pre­miere on stage in full until 1930, when Sovi­et cen­sor­ship con­cen­trat­ed its ener­gies on quash­ing such non-rev­o­lu­tion­ary spec­ta­cles. It would­n’t be staged again in the Sovi­et Union until 1974, near­ly a decade after its pre­miere in the Unit­ed States. (Just a cou­ple years before, Alexan­der Alex­eieff and Claire Park­er had adapt­ed the sto­ry into the pin­screen ani­ma­tion pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.) The sociopo­lit­i­cal con­cerns of Gogol’s ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry and Shostakovich’s ear­ly 20th may have passed, but the appeal of the for­mer’s sharp satire — and the sheer Pythonesque weird­ness of the lat­ter’s oper­at­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty — cer­tain­ly haven’t.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Niko­lai Gogol’s Clas­sic Sto­ry, “The Nose,” Ani­mat­ed With the Aston­ish­ing Pin­screen Tech­nique (1963)

Revered Poet Alexan­der Pushkin Draws Sketch­es of Niko­lai Gogol and Oth­er Russ­ian Artists

The Bizarre, Sur­viv­ing Scene from the 1933 Sovi­et Ani­ma­tion Based on a Pushkin Tale and a Shostakovich Score

George Saun­ders’ Lec­tures on the Russ­ian Greats Brought to Life in Stu­dent Sketch­es

Why You Should Read The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Bulgakov’s Rol­lick­ing Sovi­et Satire

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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