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Shostakovich Didn't Want It, But Opera Debuts Anyway


A long-lost Soviet opera by Dimitri Shostakovich gets a posthumous premiere this weekend in Los Angeles. The opera called "Orango" was found unfinished, dumped in a museum with other scrap paper from Shostakovich's house.

GERARD MCBURNEY: It's 13 sides of manuscript paper with this 40 minutes worth of music. It looks like piano music and the voices are written above it, rather like in a song.

SIMON: British composer Gerard McBurney turned the music into a performable orchestra score. Tried to make it sound as Shostakovich might have imagined it in 1932.

MCBURNEY: When you orchestrate in somebody else's style, you try and get to deep inside their soul and imagine what they would have done at any given point.

SIMON: So Mr. McBurney drew from other pieces from the same pre-World War II period in the composer's career.

MCBURNEY: I raided every theatre score of his I could and stole from them shamelessly.

SIMON: And the result is a score that reflects some of the absurdity of the opera's plot. "Orango" is a genetic experiment gone wrong, a human/ape hybrid who takes a job at an anti-communist newspaper where he's surrounded by rabid capitalists, driven to insanity and ends up as a side-show freak in a circus.

MCBURNEY: All of this music is very satirical. It's like cartoon film music, it's like "Tom and Jerry" or "Yogi Bear" or something.

SIMON: Since "Orango's" being performed for the first time ever this weekend, we don't have a recording of the new opera; we can hear the same satirical sound in this other Shostakovich piece, "Hypothetically Murdered."


SIMON: "Hypothetically Murdered," by the way, was also reconstructed by Gerard McBurney, performed here by the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.