If Boris Yeltsin could sing, he’d be a bass.
The late, larger-than-life Soviet leader is depicted in the modern comedic opera Yeltsin in Texas!, which will world premiere at TCU, Feb. 7-9. Yeltsin in Texas! sensationalizes the unlikely but true story of Yeltsin’s historic 1989 visit to the U.S.—specifically his unscheduled detour to a dazzling supermarket in the Lone Star State.
A Historic Visit
September 1989 was Yeltsin’s first trip to the west. He flew to New York City and saw the sights: the Statue of Liberty, the UN, even Trump Tower. He was unimpressed. Following a visit to Houston and a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, he was, again, left disappointed.
But, an unplanned stop at a Randalls grocery store in the suburbs was reportedly such a remarkable experience that it shattered his view on communism. Yeltsin was amazed by the store’s plentiful shelves and range of products, which was a stark contrast to the conditions back home with long lines of shoppers and food rationing.
“Diplomacy In The Produce Section”
Yeltsin in Texas! tells the story of Yeltsin’s transformative grocery store shopping trip complete with 1980s music, pop culture references and laugh-out-loud moments. Co-commissioned by TCU in partnership with a handful of other opera companies, composer Evan Mack and librettist Josh McGuire took some creative license to create a comical cast of characters who come together in the aisles of the fictional Shop ‘N’ Shop.
David Gately, director of the award-winning TCU Opera Studio will direct the world premiere. The cast includes a number of talented undergraduate, graduate and artist diploma voice students who play fictionalized characters, while alumnus Sam Parkinson ’19 will play the titular character.
The bass singer says he watched videos and read interviews to prepare for the role, learning how Yeltsin “moved, acted and reacted.”
“After enough research you start to figure out how to step into character,” said Parkinson. “Impressions as a whole are not too terribly complicated. They really only require the refined exaggeration of one of the person’s unique habits.”
Less than a year after the fateful visit to Randalls, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist party and later went on to become Russia’s first democratically-elected president. Much like what happened after his U.S. visit in real life, Yeltsin in Yeltsin in Texas! waxes poetic about the prosperity he sees in the Shop ‘N’ Shop.
“What I think is fascinating is that…in many communist nations, everything the outside world sees is so controlled,” says Parkinson. “Yeltsin’s visit to a random grocer is so organic and unplanned, there is no way it could be prepared; this is how stores in American actually are. The illusion of prosperity isn’t actually an illusion.”
TCU Opera Studio
Notably, Yeltsin in Texas! marks the second of three world premieres in four years by the TCU Opera Studio, following the spring 2018 opening of The Falling and the Rising and the forthcoming spring 2021 opening of A Wrinkle in Time, inspired by the classic novel. In 2018, the National Opera Association awarded the TCU Opera Studio a first-place prize for its world premiere of The Falling and the Rising.
Gately notes that he likes premiering new operatic works because there are “no preconceived notions” and oftentimes there is as much focus on the story as the score.
For a behind the scenes look at rehearsals and interviews with the cast, follow the School of Music on Instagram this week.
Performances of Yeltsin in Texas! are Friday, Feb. 7 and Saturday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. in the Ed Landreth Auditorium. Tickets are free with TCU ID and $10 for the general public.