BORIS YELTSIN LIVED AN OPERATIC LIFE. Now there’s an opera to match. Yeltsin in Texas, part of this month’s New Works Festival at Opera in the Heights, is based on a historic moment that took place in September 1989. After a visit to Johnson Space Center, Yeltsin, then a Russian legislator, spontaneously stopped by a Clear Lake–area Randalls. What he saw blew his mind—the abundance, variety, and quality of the merchandise. It was a far cry from the Soviet Union, where bread lines were still commonplace.
This improbable episode was tailor-made for the opera treatment. “It was just too perfect,” says composer Evan Mack, who created the 65-minute comedic chamber opera with librettist Joshua McGuire. “It was this sense of a very significant moment in history that nobody knows about.”
According to some reports, during his visit to the grocery store, Yeltsin took a special interest in Jell-O Pudding Pops. But the experience affected him on a much deeper level as well. After leaving Houston, Yeltsin was near tears. “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands,” writes biographer Leon Aron. “‘What have they done to our poor people?,’ he said after a long silence.”
Fittingly, Yeltsin’s Chris Farley physique and reputed fondness for drink seemed to come straight from opera buffa—an archaic term for comic opera; note the similarity to “buffoon”—while the details of his trip have a certain can’t-make-this-stuff-up quality. The Russian leader’s first stop on his U.S. trip had been New York, where he visited the United Nations, the Statue of Liberty, and Trump Tower(!). Nothing he saw there impressed him much, nor did NASA. But Randalls left him speechless.
“[The opera’s] subtext is ‘What is American greatness?’,” Mack notes. “American greatness lies in the ordinary—the amount of Jell-O Pudding Pops that we have in the fridge.”
One newspaper article Mack read during his research likened Yeltsin’s Randalls revelation to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when the film switches from black-and-white to color. He and McGuire took that idea and ran with it, patterning their aimless grocery clerk after the Scarecrow, the perfectionist store manager after the Tin Man, and the paper-tiger rent-a-cop after the Cowardly Lion.
As for the music, the score is “very operatic in its DNA,” Mack promises. A chorus of shoppers chimes in every so often with jingles from the period (Kit Kat, Alka-Seltzer), while the songs themselves take on a bombastic veneer reminiscent of Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and Journey.
“Basically I’m writing my childhood,” the composer says. “It’s fantastic. That’s why I had so much fun writing this.”
Feb 22 and 28 at 7:30 p.m.; Mar 1 at 2 p.m. From $34.50. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-861-5303