Aria For A Red Turtle
Aria For A Red Turtle is the title of the first and last Experimental-Constructivist Opera ever written. It was composed in 1928 by the great German composer Franzs Hans, also known as Hans Franzs, or Franz Han, or Franz Hans and commonly misspelled Han Franzs.
Born in Leipzig into an unemployed family of traveling deaf musicians young Hans surprised his parents at the tender age of six by not being deaf. Seeing the natural musical predisposition of their only non-deaf child and harassed by debtors the family voted to sold him to a wealthier family of fish merchants that could afford giving him some education and understand whatever he said when he moved his lips.
Young Franzs Hans spent his childhood teaching bell canto to the death fishes in his adoptive family’s home and that constituted the only decoration in the house. He composed is first music at that time: The Herring Waltz a light tune to be played with a spoon and saw.
At the age of fourteen his adoptive family sent to him Vienna to get rid of him and to study composition. He was accepted as a pupil by the great Richard Strauss, in spite of the fact that Strauss was only seven years old at the time and still lived in Munich. Nevertheless he finished his studies and obtained a position in the Imperial Opera House of Vienna as a shoe shiner. It is during this period he composed his famous twelve sonatas for violin and twisted flute inspired by a brand of shoe polish called Lurz. The pieces were too modern for the Viennese taste and its public performance were banned by imperial decree after the shoe polish brand sued Franzs for copyrights infringement. Embittered by his failure to have his music performed in Vienna his political views radicalized and joined the Anarchist movement which he felt appealing to his political ideology since their quarters where the only place he was allowed to take his socks off in public. He moved to a more squalid quarter than the one he lived and where he shared room in a boarding house with a family of gipsies for double the price of his former apartment.
Fired from his job after mistakenly shine a barefoot Hussar he tried to survive by playing the platypus on the streets until he discovered it wasn’t instrument when it laid an egg on his shoe. He felt devastated after six years invested in writing a cantata for platypus and orchestra of fish bones.
Drafted to play in a military band at the outbreak of the Great War he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for bravery shown taking a German machine gun nest with his trumpet as only weapon. Although he had to return the medal when somebody pointed out to the Austrian General Staff that Germany was fighting in their side. For this infraction of the military code of conduct he had to spend the rest of the war peeling potatoes, which he decided wasn’t so bad after all when he saw what happened to people’s heads when crossed trajectories with a bullet. The time spent in potato shift inspired him to write the score for his minor work Tuberculous Cantata although he failed to have it performed when he couldn’t get any decent mezzo-soprano among the thousands of potatoes he examined.
After the war he moved to Russia attracted by the revolution that seemed to be taken place there. He spent eight years wandering the Russian tundra looking for Petrograd until an illiterate mujik informed him that the city has been renamed Leningrad, that he was standing in the middle of Nevsky Prospekt and that if please, would he be so kind to step off his toe.
It was while in Petrograd that his life took a prodigious turn of events when he was mistaken by the man in charge of heating Stalin’s slippers. After seventeen years at the service of the Soviet dictator he addressed him for the first time on a rare day Stalin appeared to be in a good mood. Impressed by the bold and innovative musical notions of Franzs Hans, that were alien to one of the tyrants with less musical sense History has ever known – Stalin always felt jealous of Hitler who could play “Oh, Susanna” with a comb – the Soviet ruler commissioned him to compose an opera depicting the struggle of the proletariat and the achievements of the Soviet regime. The work should be befitted of his megalomaniac ambition of making Soviet Union the most modern country in the world and, if that failed, it should at least amuse the more sour members of the Politburo.
The opening was scheduled to take place one year later to coincide with the inauguration of a new petrochemical plant in Minsk and would be attended by the higher rank members of the Politburo accompanied with their wives and household poultry.
From the very moment of its conception Franzs Hans envisioned the production as the most costly and extravagant work of art the World had ever seen but after experiencing the unpleasant contact of a NKVD agent’s gun in his temple he reconsidered the foolishness of his vision and significantly reduced the scale of the project. Nevertheless the production was bound to be the most avant-garde and cost-profit balanced in history.
For the writing of the libretto he trusted his parrot who always wrote all his lyrics in one of the few recorded cases of a durable and successful collaboration between a composer and his pet. Like the celebrated case of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s dog who used to clean the maestro’s hears and caused him an infection that left him deaf.
Initially the opera was titled Roaring Red Rural Rage in Russia but the scarcity of R’s in the Soviet typesetting industry attributed to counterrevolutionary and revisionist elements who snatched the R’s needed to spell their own names caused Franzs Hans to panic and he picked up a name at random from the Vladivostok’s phonebook. The Red Turtle was the name of a Vladivostok’s Bolshevik pub with no chairs, no tables, no drinks and no music but that used to be packed on Friday nights.
Aria For A Red Turtle is not only the first opera whose score is designed to force the players to play their instruments upside down but also the first one in which only animals are on stage. It is said that served as source of inspiration to George Orwell to his brilliant satiric novel Animal Farm, although the story sounds apocryphal or even preposterous to hears trained in those things. This opera script contains several features that make it unique. Conceived as a total artistic experience the thirty thousand pages libretto include complete sets of instructions and regulations that extend to every aspect of the production: sets, stage, make up, animal wardrobe, lighting and even includes a detailed trading code dealing with the purchase of pop corn during the show and pricing of fresh drinks.
The opera opens with a loud French horn delivering a beautiful solo while delivering also the program to the audience. The program is written backwards and stained with coffee to symbolize the backwardness of the literate upper classes and reactionary intellectuals but the coffee stains are probably the result of somebody’s clumsiness.
Public must attend the representation naked but for a bow tie drawn with charcoal in their necks. This seems to be a reference to the pauperization of the coal workers that could rarely purchase tickets for the capitalist theater shows, specially if they showed up naked at the ticket boot. In fact the idea seems to be closely related to a similar event of the mythology created around the October Revolution. Still under Tsarist rule it became fashionable in Saint Petersburg among the Soviets to attend Opera performances naked to show their contempt for middle-class conventionalism. The practice was abandoned when winter came and several members of the Supreme Soviet had to be unfrozen by placing them unusually close to a samovar. They had been found frozen in the snow while waiting in line to buy a ticket for a performance of Snowhite and the Seven Dwarfs. Lenin himself almost lost the tip of his nose because frostbite in a completely unrelated incident that involves a talking mollusk.
The overture of the opera consist in a cacophony of horrible screams of pain and anger achieved by dropping six tones of molten lead on the orchestra pit while the members of the orchestra are arranging their scores unaware of what is in stock for them. The screams of the musicians constitute an exquisitely vivid metaphor of industrial power smashing the proletariat, or at least is certainly vivid for them although probably not so exquisite.
When the havoc subsides the surviving members of the orchestra engage in a beautiful melody in which the violin takes the lead and propels himself in a tragic solo that is only interrupted when the much bigger Contrabass, who likes exactly like a violin on steroids, smashes the helpless violin to bits. The melody becomes then an eerie repetitive tune in which this time the tuba takes the lead. Being so big the tuba is not scared at all of the bullying of the Contrabass that is so full of himself that wants to be called Double Bass. The sinister tune increases progressively first to become a loud noise and then an insufferable cacophony not unlike the sound produced by millions of chickens being cooked alive at the same time. The public vomits and the red curtains rise.
The background of the stage is covered by a large black and white photo of Stalin. He his depicted in heroic position while fighting with his dog in the bathtub. Both are naked but the dictator seems to be winning the fight and had managed to pin down the dog near the faucet. This curious historic photograph was taken one spring in the dictator’s Crimean summer home by is sister-in-law called Boris. In the original picture Leon Trotsky is also in the bathtub with Stalin helping him in his struggle by bitting one of the animal’s paws. Later on Trotsky traveled to Mexico City where he died after spending too much time with an ice axe buried in his head. He had fallen in disgrace when he mistakenly wore Stalin’s underwear with Stalin still in it. They made themselves the laughing stock at the day session of the Politburo and Trotsky was outlawed as a counterrevolutionary element, his name vanquished of the history book and his library card cancelled. Secret police experts doctored the photo to erase any impression that the man that ruled the biggest country in the world with iron fist needed anybody’s help to drown a dog. The image of Trotsky was retouched to look like an inconspicuous giant rubber duck that is actually much better looking than Trotsky.
In the middle of the whitewashed stage floor there is a giant boiler made of brass and crisscrossed by an intricate pattern of pipe-works. Through a hatch we see the roaring flames of a coal fire. Clouds of hot steam puff occasionally out of leaks between the pressure joints. A dirty man in a overalls enters the stage with a toolbox from which he produces a key to fix the problem. He fixes the problem and leaves.
The giant boiler symbolizes the incipient and accelerated process that the Soviet nation was undergoing at the time this opera was written. In an unprecedented effort to catch up with Western technology and industry the Soviet regime had devised a plan to reuse all available land to grow joint rings instead or turnips but the harvest failed due to drought. The result was substandard joint rings that leaked. So the steam jets become a barely veiled call of attention to the Commissar for Heavy Industry who was found dead in his office two days after the performance crushed to pulp under the pressure of his area of responsibility.
The orchestra resumes with a mellow music not unlike some elevator tunes and a red turtle enters the stage. The original idea was to have used a real red turtle but it was impossible to find any with enough experince in bell canto to fill the role. A common green turtle was selected among thousands of applicants and submerged in a tank of red paint for six months. When the turtle was extracted from the tank she had perished and the new candidate was merely had her shell varnished with red nail polish.
The turtle faces Stalin’s portrait on the wall offering the tail to the audience and begins a recitation of inflated industrial production statistics following the dissonant beat of the syncopated music and the rhythmical hisses of the boiler that has come back to life and is leaking and fizzing as if it was about to explode. There is a general feeling of great pandemonium. The piercing falsetto voice of the turtle steadily raises the volume, the cheerful lyrics go on like this:
-One million two hundred thousand seventy five hundred tons of corn.
Two million six hundred thousand twenty nine tons of potassium nitrate.
Seven hundred thousand two hundred and three tons of tin.
Three million seventy five hundred one litres of chocolate syrup.
Six hundred twenty six war planes that can actually flight and three thousand two hundred sixty seven than cannot.
One million three hundred seventy five thousand six hundred ninety nine left socks.
One hundred and ninety nine right socks… – and the list goes on.
Meanwhile sheep slowly start invading the stage with a petrified look on their faces trying to figure out what is going on in there. They seem to converge in the focal point where the turtle keeps restlessly chanting figures in spite of the discordant noise and the fact that the steam vapor his cooking her alive. The meaning of this tableau could hardly be any more obvious.
The red helmet-shaped shell of the turtle represents the Red Army and Soviet military might. It is said that it was during one this performances that a young engineer from Pinsk derived inspiration for his design of the Russian T-34 tank when he saw how the turtle would hide head and legs into her shell. First he though it was some sort of magic trick because he was unaware turtles could do such things. Back in the tin appliances factory he supervised he draw the blueprints for the T-34 that went into production and proved later far superior to its German counterpart, mainly because the Germans have looked for inspiration in an otter and had to feed his tanks regularly with raw fish which proved a nuisance during the invasion of Russia.
The figures recitation serves the purpose of advertising the achievements of Stalin’s Five-Years plan of industrial production that, incidentally, felt so short of its initial goals that only lasted three and half years. A symbolic undertone also pervades the act of switching the traditionally mundane lyrics of an aria for the recitation of a state-level shopping list of sorts. The message is loud and clear: any form leisure in Soviet Russia is about to be replaced by hard productive work. This was indeed the fate of many aristocracy and clergy after the October Revolution. Many nobles were taken for a picnic to Siberia never to come back and the sight of Orthodox priest sweeping the streets with their long beards became commonplace in Russian towns.
Also the turtle, as is well known by historians of the period and people interested in historical curiosities, was the pet animal of choice for Stalin who always had one in his desk drawer. A fact that the German envoy Von Ribenttrop discovered during a comical incident after the signature of the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Back in Berlin and about to show his Fuhrer the signed papers as proof of the inferior penmanship of the Soviet tyrant he was bitten in his fingers by Stalin’s turtle that had wandered into the German’s suitcase attracted by the smell of a lettuce sandwich placed there by Frau Ribbentrop. To avoid a potentially lethal diplomatic incident the turtle had to be returned safely to Stalin in a heavily guarded train convoy but the pact was bound to fail when later on Stalin found out that Adolf Hitler was not only a nazi but also better singer than himself.
The sheep herd embodies the masses converging around this cluster of powerful symbols of the Soviet utopia. In fact the sheep used in the performance were selected in a rigorous nationwide casting from the different Soviet Republics that was named Soviet Idol but became popular under the name of Wailing Idol. The contest was won by a young lamb from the Republic of Georgia. Stalin, a Georgian himself, became good friends with the young sheep and invited him several times to graze in the Kremlin lawn. The lamb achieved great popularity afterwards as a soloist under the artistic name of Blackie Fourhooves with his rendition of a Soviet version of a popular blues tune with all mentions to cotton replaced by wool. His promising career as the best singing lamb of the Soviet Union was cut short by the one of the Stalinist purges, that in spite of their name have nothing to do with Stalin vowel movements that by all contemporary accounts were as fluid and efficient as his policies to the point that some political rivals suggested they originated in the same point of Stalin’s anatomy. Arrested by the NKVD and falsely accused of having received more than two thousand sacks of German fodder as payment for spying secret Soviet military sites while pretending to be ruminating, he was brutally tortured by a team of expert interrogators and a chef that roasted and ate his rear quarters with him still attached to them. He bravely resisted just to succumb later and sign a fake confession when they threatened him to roast his parents. He was tried in one of the infamous show trials that amused the Soviet population from time to time in absence of decent radio broadcasts and bread. His lawyer made a brilliant defense but all was lost when it was revealed during his final exposition not only that the he was a sheep of Jewish ascent but also that lamb is a Christian symbol and the favorite dish of many plutocrats. It didn’t help either that the defendant spent most of the time eating the tribunal’s folders or the feces the president of the tribunal found on the sole of his shoe. He was sentenced to death by firing squad and served for dinner to the tribunal members in the course of the trial after-party.
When finally the stage is virtually buried under sheep and some animals are already falling into the orchestra pit with great rejoicing of the audience the sheep initiate what only can be described a chant of Soviet political slogans at the tune marked by the Red Turtle. At that precise moment hundreds of chicken start to rain from the ceiling creating even more upheaval. For years critics tried to elucidate the symbolic meaning of those chickens without success and some speculated they were included to increase the commercial mass-appeal of the show holding no symbolical meaning whatsoever. Nothing further from the truth. Originally intended as a call for fraternity and understanding between nations, Franzs Hans got everything wrong and had them thrown on stage on the sincere belief that chickens, not doves, were the international symbol of peace and that they could fly too. The explanation for such a gross mistake lies on the fact that Franzs Hans was very shortsighted and never could differentiate between species of poultry to the point he always though his own daughter was some sort of bird until she gave birth instead of laying an egg. In subsequent performances the mistake was a undone by parachuting frozen chicken.
The orchestra tries to keep the pace of the fast evolving events and plays faster and louder trying to make themselves heard in the intense pandemonium that unfolds around them. The string section engages in a specially frantic movement and one violinist accidentally slips his bow inside the cello player’s nostril. When the chaos seems to subside a woman in the second row screams like possessed and gives birth to a baby helped by a dentist on the ninth row, all of this is achieved without any of them leaving their seat for fear of having to spend the rest of the performance sitting on the wet floor.
The newborn baby embodies the cathartic birth of the new Soviet Man and the dentist symbolizes the need for good dental hygiene. After that the stage is cleared out using flame throwers after which only the Red Turtle remains and smell of overcooked lamb chops permeates the air. A bitter remainder to the audience of what will happen to them if they don’t behave. The Red Turtle is then hoisted with a winch and the performance is over. The public is rounded up by soldiers and loaded in cattle carts in a train to Siberia where refreshments and a thirty years long critical analysis of the opera is scheduled for them.
The opera was a great success among public and received very good reviews from the critics. Specially from those interested in staying alive and that constituted a majority. Nevertheless recently undisclosed files from the KGB archives indicate that the music critic of Pravda was sent to a Siberia because he misspelled Stalin’s name in his otherwise positive review. He spent forty eight years writing “STALIN” in a giant blackboard until he run out of chalk and died on the spot. Ironies of history, he was already in the Bering Strait, having written his way across Siberia and just a few paces from Alaska’s frozen territorial waters.
Hans Franzs wasn’t very fortunate either. After the successful opening he retired to Smolensk to write a symphony dedicated to Stalin’s feet a theme he knew well and cherished. He died leaving his work unfinished when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and a inebriated SS corporal shot him at a fancy dress party Franzs had the bad fortune to attend dressed as a rabbi. The Red Turtle was never performed again until 1961 in East Germany during a visit of the premier Nikita Khrushchev but the German rendition of Aria for a Red Turtle turned up a fiasco when Khrushchev got food poisoning never achieving the levels of quality of the original performance in Minsk, that remains a classic to this day.