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Risk and Regret: Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin'

There are plenty of ways to take intentional risks in life. You might take up skydiving, bungee jumping or freestyle rock climbing — a few of the many activities that risk-averse individuals tend to avoid.

But even those who seldom take physical risks will often take a chance that may be even more intimidating — making what might be called a "romantic plunge." That happens when you fall so hard for someone that you simply spill it, telling your new heartthrob exactly how you feel without knowing if those feelings are mutual.

These days, that sort of risk is often taken without truly thinking about it: in a spontaneous e-mail reply, an ill-considered IM or a reckless tweet. But before the time of instant communication it was often done with a love letter, and a letter is more than just an impulse. A love letter takes real courage — the courage to ponder your fondest hopes, carefully put them down on paper, drop them in the mail and then wait, helplessly, for a reply.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky knew all about love letters. In the spring of 1877, he received one from a music student he hardly remembered from the Moscow Conservatory. It seems he didn't pay it much mind. Then, during the same month, a friend introduced him to Eugene Onegin, a verse novel by Pushkin, thinking it might make a good opera. In the story, the title character receives a touching love letter from an earnest young woman — and rejects her out of hand, with disastrous consequences.

Tchaikovsky was determined not to live out that same scenario. So when he received another letter from his admirer, he agreed to meet her, and before long actually proposed marriage. Weeks later, with the wedding at hand, he had also finished two thirds of his new opera.

The composer's marriage didn't turn out so well. Tchaikovsky and his new wife were both miserable, and they ended things after only a few months. The opera has fared much better, and may now be the most popular Russian opera of all time.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a lush production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, with a first rate cast of singers, from the Vienna State Opera. Baritone Simon Keenlyside is Onegin, with soprano Tamar Iveri as Tatyana and tenor Ramon Vargas in the tragic role of Lensky, all led by conductor Seiji Ozawa.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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