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Reversal of Fortune: Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin"

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WOO-1615-Eugene Onegin-story

There are plenty of ways to take chances in life -- some more obvious, and optional, than others. Skydiving and bungee jumping, for example, are among the many activities that daredevils may relish, but more risk-averse individuals tend to avoid.

Still, even those who are leery of physical danger will often brave emotional territory that may be even more intimidating -- by taking what might be called the "romantic plunge." That happens when you fall so hard for someone that you simply spill it all, telling your new heartthrob exactly how you feel without knowing if those feelings are anything close to mutual.

These days, that sort of risk can easily be taken without truly thinking about it: with a spontaneous text message, a reckless tweet, or an impulsive admission on Snapchat. But before the days of instant communication it was often done with a love letter, and a letter is more than just an impulse. A love letter takes genuine courage -- the courage to ponder your fondest hopes, carefully commit them to 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 -- never considering how that might affect his would-be lover.

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 passion 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 Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. The great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings the title role, with Australian soprano Nicole Car as Tatyana, in a production led by conductor Semyon Bychkov.