Rasputin composed many operas during his lifetime, but it was his final one that truly stood out.
Until recently the faith healer’s numerous librettos sat forgotten, lying dust-drenched in the dank cellar of a former Soviet strip club.
All of this changed though after a chance encounter I had with the material.
At the time I was living in Russia and practically a vagrant, having lost almost everything in a rather nasty divorce.
But one day, along with the help of a three-legged poodle I had befriended named Petra, I rummaged through the rubble of the former cabaret and discovered a wooden crate containing hundreds of pages with the mystic’s distinct signature.
Holing up in a pungent yet sturdy potato box in St. Petersburg, I began reciting the arias aloud, my astonished and quivering voice causing Petra to paw and howl from a cozy corner of the cardboard.
First there was проститутка, in which a prostitute named Vera is transformed into a ventriloquist dummy by the villain Raspun, who forces her into a life of sexual slavery.
Then there was ведьма, in which a prostitute named Galina is wed to a warlock named Spunras, who subsequently forces her into a life of sexual slavery.
And of course the now famous флейта, in which a prostitute named Dominika is imprisoned and coerced into performing the kalinka dance in order to save her asthmatic son from a demon named Rasput. She fails and is forced into a life of sexual slavery.
All of these possessed the charm and wit of the familiar operas already cemented within the Russian canon. But it was the final composition, Охотник кролика ,that forever changed my life.
Охотник кролика tells the story of a seven foot tall rabbit named Slava, who after finding his wife and young daughter murdered by a one-eyed farmer named Faddey, seeks revenge on the local villagers; pillaging their property, urinating on schoolchildren and killing almost every able-bodied man with a machete.
The richness of the libretto leapt off the page, and as I sat calming Petra with a mangled and mold-ridden stick of celery, I saw the entire opera before me; Slava’s booming baritone and the tenor of the tavern owner’s wife filling my mind with the greatest of melodies.
I knew I had something significant, and after loaning Petra out as a luxury footrest, managed to make enough money to return to the States.
With the help of my estranged uncle Eustice I obtained a job as music director of Central Middle School in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
During this time the town was going through a severe artistic drought, and other than an elderly pronghorn who was quite proficient on a kazoo, there was not much in terms of performance that the citizens could observe and enjoy.
Of course I saw this as the perfect opportunity to stage Охотник кролика, and with the help of my eighth grade class, launched into rehearsals in the goulash-smelling confines of the cafeteria.
Unfortunately Neil Winslow, my spritely Slava who had first gained acclaim as a downed trashcan in a sanitation commercial, began questioning my interpretation of the material at every turn.
“It’s just, I mean, don’t you think his reaction here is a little extreme,” Neil asked, holding the frayed, papier mache head of Faddey in his hands.
“Anger Neil. How many times can I say it? Your family has been murdered. Hey, hey, are you paying attention,” I said gripping and spinning the youth around by his shoulders.
“Yes, but I just think you’re adding an unwanted cheapness to the scene. Now, when I was a trash receptacle…”
“Okay, okay, enough. This is how we’re doing it. Come on, we’re behind schedule. Let’s see how you urinate on the villagers.”
Despite the tug-of-war with the teenager we still managed to open on time, and as The Red Cloud Tribune later observed, the show was a sensation; every melody and movement causing the audience to shout and clap uncontrollably.
Inevitably a reverence for Rasputin developed amongst the town, and the mayor, whose affinity for mannequins would later lead to scandal and suicide, declared January 21st , the birthday of our glorious composer as a holiday, where floats bearing the monk’s resemblance would ramble down Main Street spewing forth candy into the hands of the excited spectators.
As for me I eventually returned to Russia, hoping to promote and preserve the mystic’s artistic reputation within his mother country. Needless to say things didn’t quite go according to plan, and once again I found myself taking refuge within a discarded produce box.
And yet I never felt alone, for even on the coldest and loneliest nights in my box I found myself pulling forth the original parchment I first acquired in St. Petersburg, humming the moment when Slava forces the employees of the local beauty academy into sexual slavery.