This article is based on the key-note lecture given at the conference “Non-Nationalist” Russian Operas, Leeds, U.K., on 17 November 2010. It engages with the conference's distinction between the “nationalist” and “non-nationalist” and proposes six potential situations for when an opera might be described as “Russian”: by composer's intention, by reception, by interpretation, by association, by blood or culture, and by emanating from the nationalist school. Given that these six categories of Russianness (some of them mystificatory) form a network of conflicting claims upon any opera, there is no straightforward method for assigning operas to Russian or non-Russian categories. Therefore an alternative approach is proposed: to revive the older concept of “local color,” which figured prominently in nineteenth-century Russian discourse on opera, and to use this as a lens through which almost any nineteenth-century Russian opera can instructively be viewed.
After examining how the concept was understood by leading Russian critics, Serov and Cui, the author offers a selection of her own examples to elucidate the use of “Russian” local color. It is emphasized that there are certain limits beyond which this color cannot be applied: characters of noble birth, even when Russian, are rarely portrayed in Russian colors; scenes that take place outside Russia usually have their own, appropriate color, e.g., “Polish” or “Oriental”; most importantly, themes that are considered universal, such as love or death, are usually exempt from Russian coloring. Examples from the late operas of Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrate his conscious and sometimes obsessive efforts in creating appropriate colors, Russian and otherwise. This approach allows us to set aside preconceived notions of which composers were truly national, especially when we generalize that local color denotes any distinguishing device designed to evoke a specific time and place, as well as the social identity of a character. Thus Tchaikovsky's operas, often criticized for their lack of “Russianness,” display a subtle understanding of appropriate coloring: Eugene Onegin, for example, uses an idiom based on the parlor song of the Russian gentry, while The Queen of Spades takes up eighteenth-century idioms—in both cases lending the drama an appropriate color.
The article concludes that local color, a much-used device in nineteenth-century opera across Europe, was an almost obligatory requirement for Russian opera composers who adopted an aesthetic of the characteristic, along the lines proposed by Victor Hugo in his Preface to Cromwell. The concept proves to be a valuable critical tool that allows us to deal with nineteenth-century Russian opera without becoming ensnared in essentializing distinctions between “nationalist” and “non-nationalist.” At the same time, it allows us to put Russian color in perspective, as one color among many cultivated by opera composers.