Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” as Immersive Electro-pop Opera

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812″ is a new immersive electro-pop opera, by composer Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, who previously collaborated on the acclaimed “Three Pianos.” The show is already in previews at Ars Nova and officially opens Oct. 16. (through Nov. 10; tickets online here). Culturebot’s Ethan Philbrick sat down with Malloy and Chavkin to discuss the piece. 

Ethan: So what’s exciting about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812?

Dave Malloy: Well essentially it’s an opera—an electro-pop opera we’re calling it. That’s the nicest term we ended up with, the most comprehensive term…but it’s based on just one section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Book 8 I think, this one little sixty-page sliver which is extremely dramatic and melodramatic, and exciting. It’s a book that I read six or seven years ago I think, and as soon as I read this particular section I was really drawn to it. What’s beautiful about it is that this sixty-page section is perfectly in the structure of a traditional musical, but at the same time it has a twist on it as well. And then we’re doing it environmentally, so it’s immersive and like a Russian dinner club, there’s no stage and the performers and audience are all mixed together.

Rachel Chavkin: And that was part of Dave’s original concept. When Dave and I first started talking about this he shared a little bit about his travels in Russia and this feeling of going down an alley that you don’t recognize, with no signs that there’s any life there, and going into a music club. I recognize it in the Céilidh environment from my time in Ireland and Scotland. It’s a very similar thing—a culture drenched in group song, in folk song, in everyone playing instruments, in tons of alcohol.

Dave Malloy: And also there not being very much of a division between performers and audience. This club in Moscow was so crowded and packed that I was literally sitting six inches from the viola player. So that’s a lot of what we’re doing spatially with the music, the band is scattered all about the room so that depending on where you sit in the audience, you’ll have a really different experience. You’ll get to intimately know the oboe part, or the cello part, or the viola part, depending on where you are.

Rachel Chavkin: It’s beautiful also because it’s that way with the singing as well. For the directing work, I moved all around the room to try to check out every seat. Sometimes I was next to Gelsey [Bell, playing “Princess Mary”], so I’m hearing the whole group sing, but there’s also this beautiful soprano in my ear. I’ve never seen this kind of traditional story told in this way. It’s actually, as Dave said, a very romantic story of this young girl who ends up getting destroyed by a rake. It’s very classic, and because it’s Tolstoy, buried within that, there’s also this spiritual rebirth of Dave’s character Pierre [Malloy is starring in the production as well as having written it]. In the novel, this book is the half-way section. From this point forward, you know that Napoleon is about to descend on Russia and Moscow, and this city that is presented as this luscious, decadent place is going to be burned in a matter of months. So it’s very potent—this violence is at the door.

Ethan: Dave, what attracts you about the ways in which Rachel works, and Rachel, what attracts you about the ways in which Dave works?

Dave Malloy: Well one thing that deeply attracts me about Rachel, if I may, just knowing her work with the TEAM—not just the actual work with the TEAM, but the culture of the TEAM—Rachel creates a community, a giant family in the rehearsal room. That’s something I really respond to—this very familial feeling. I think that shows in the work as well, it’s very ensemble driven. I also love the way that Rachel works with music. She’s very much not a traditional musical director, but yet has a very keen sense of the musical. I think one thing we’re both interested in is the intersection of Downtown theater and Broadway musicals because I think that it is a really untapped area.

Rachel Chavkin: We’re both interested in the formal ingenuity of downtown, as well as the really good story telling of Broadway. The best of both worlds… Well, I am really attracted to Dave, period. (laughs) We first kind of got to date on a musical that was originally a play that I had been working with a playwright on for a long period of time, and she was really bored and she was like, “Lets make this a musical,” and I had seen Dave’s Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, with the company Banana Bag & Bodice. I thought it was one of the smartest pieces—erudite but also playful—and the music, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was meaty, but also delicate when it wanted to be. There was something really ballsy about it. So I invited Dave to do this show with me up at Vassar and I think we also just had a really great time as people—talking about literature, and theater, and music—me learning a ton of new stuff about music from Dave…

Dave Malloy: And Rachel teaches me all about acting…

Rachel Chavkin: Yeah, our specialties are actually really different. I’m hyper-story driven, character driven, emotionally driven. And Dave is this fount of knowledge about music of so many different stripes. What’s fantastic about Dave’s music is that there isn’t one or two specific genres that can ever categorize it. In the case of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, electro pop is a container of many things that are alive in the score.

Ethan: Rachel, what are some of the directorial challenges and possibilities of working in an environmental and immersive way for this piece?

Rachel Chavkin: Well with any new play—musical or non-musical—there’s a big question of how it wants to move, what the metabolism is, how detailed the movement wants to be, or doesn’t want to be. With this we found very early on that what’s wild about the challenge of it is that the actors have to basically be acting cinematically because there are audience members a foot from their faces so if it’s not alive in their eyes then it’s not there. Yet at the same time they have to be carrying the story for the person across the room. So it has made for this delicious thing of cultivating a profound level of detail without anything slipping into feeling stage-y. We learned early on, with one of the big numbers in the show—we tried first doing all these dance sequences, the actors were doing this amazing YouTube research of Russian dancing and drinking games, and we did that and we’ve slowly trashed it entirely—it felt too contrived, the space doesn’t want that, won’t let you do that, and will call you on it in a heart beat. So that’s probably the biggest thing—telling the story visually without it feeling staged in any way. And that’s been an acting challenge as well, the actors kind of just have to be. The minute it starts feeling like they’re on a stage, you’re sort of sunk, because the space just doesn’t want that sort of artifice.

Ethan: Dave, I’d love to hear about how you approached this play musically while also getting at your engagement with Tolstoy. I’m interested in the turn to a crusty and canonical piece of literature for the experimental stage and also how this inflects your musical vocabulary. What is the process of going from the language of Tolstoy to thinking about musical genres and a musical language? How does that emerge for you?

Dave Malloy: Well first of all, I wrote the libretto as well and this is the first time I’ve done that so that was very, very informative. One thing we’ve tried to do is keep the sense that it is a novel. So rather than actually adapting it into a “play” play, characters are very often self-narrating themselves, saying things like “he walked in the door,” and “he did that,” so the novelistic quality is still very much there. Because the language is like that, because it’s not metered rhyme at all, it required a very delicate and unusual kind of melodic writing. But then as far as genre is concerned, genre isn’t something I think about too much. I mean obviously it’s Russian, so I’m like, “okay, I know that Russians like minor chords,” you know? But there isn’t really that much about it that is explicitly Russian, any more than it’s explicitly electro-pop, or jazz, or indie rock. There’s touches of reggae in places, and definitely a huge romantic classical tradition going on, like Schubert and Mahler, those kinds of language are in there. But I never really approach a piece thinking, “Oh this is this kind of story so the music has to be reggae, or it’s this kind of story so the music has to be jazz.” I just listen to the story, and in this case it’s such a universal story. It’s not a story that has to be just about Russia, it’s about anything. Because of that, there are all kinds of different genres that I’m pulling from. And it’s basically just because that’s how I listen to music. I listen to music on shuffle all the time and I jump from avant garde classical music, to country music, to folk music, to whatever, so it’s all just brewing in my head.

One thing I’ve been exploring over the past two or three years in my music is playing a lot more with electronica. It’s crept into my scores for the stage more and more. I wanted to fully embrace that with this show, and there felt like there was a dramaturgical justification for it. The show starts off as this sweet and innocent story about Russian aristocrats, but then this guy comes in and electrifies the room and electrifies Natasha, awakening her sexually. That seemed, dramaturgically, to really support the entrance of electronic music. So that’s how the show works—the first five or six songs are completely acoustic and then his entrance is when the laptop first gets triggered. He kind of infects the score and then by the end when he leaves, the show finishes mostly acoustically. And I feel like electronic music, again, is something that’s pretty untapped in theater. It’s just not something that you hear very often or at all.

Ethan: You’ve mentioned that you both have a common interest in bringing together the formal ingenuity of downtown theater with the story telling of Broadway. This mention of Broadway also got me thinking about the way in which the show is billed as an opera. In strikes me that the Broadway musical and opera both seem to be forms that are, at least in some ways, quite resistant to experimentation. How do you navigate this experimentation?

Dave Malloy: I think the thing that Broadway musicals do that opera and a lot of downtown theater don’t necessarily do is that they entertain. They entertain and delight and there’s a love of spectacle. For me, that’s the key thing to pull from the musical. That, and also the melodic approach and song form. In opera you have these long twenty-five minute things that never repeat, and it definitely has its place and I enjoy it, but I do prefer the form of a pop song. So it’s about combining that sense of recitative and using unmetered, non-rhyming text, but then mashing it into these weird pop form structures.

Rachel Chavkin: Another bridge that we crossed pretty early on regarding these three different spheres was that we not ironize the story. While it certainly doesn’t describe all downtown work by any means, there is a convention to use a big space between the intention of the storyteller, performer, creators and the characters, if there are any. It became clear pretty fast that this play would be dead in the water if we couldn’t fully enter the melodrama and trust that the story is a good one and worth releasing into. So every element, from casting to costumes, it’s actually why even amidst the totally immersive and experimental-ish staging, the costumes are completely period. It felt important that the characters feel totally genuine and embodied. That said, when the audience comes in, they will be seeing all of our performers as performers, so there’s still that presence of performer and character simultaneously, but it’s not with a sense of distrust.

Dave Malloy: And again, with the narration, with the fact that people are self-narrating themselves, it’s another thing that could easily fall into an ironic distance, but instead we’ve been doing it really, really genuinely. I was definitely hugely influenced by Elevator Repair Service’s recent work, where it works so well. Gatsby is not ironic at all. They’re just totally embodying it and yet nevertheless they’re obviously these office workers doing it, right? So they’re obviously not those characters, they are commenting on those characters, but they do it so fully. That piece works so much better than a strict dramatization of Gatsby. It’s not about an ironic distancing at all, and yet in its distancing you almost feel more related to the story. One thing that that work, and I hope this work, is doing is also just talking about what it is to read a book and falling in love with a book. I’m trying to keep Tolstoy’s presence in the room. The text, a lot of it, is verbatim Tolstoy.

Rachel Chavkin: The distance feels like awareness versus mistrust. Awareness versus comment.

Dave Malloy: And reverence. The idea that there’s a real reverence for Tolstoy.

Ethan: So I hear there is some food and drink involved?

Dave Malloy: Yes, vodka and dumplings.

Rachel Chavkin: With every ticket. We have even staged in the removal of the dumplings because at some point we need to act on the dumpling surfaces.

Dave Malloy: Pelmeni. That’s the Russian word for the dumplings.

Rachel Chavkin: It’s funny because Dave and I have asked each other, “is there a proscenium version of this show?” and I think there is, but that’s certainly not what’s happening for this production.

Dave Malloy: And honestly, Rachel and I, with our last show we did together, Three Pianos, that’s something we both really strongly believe in—having an audience that’s engaged and enjoying themselves and drinking. We both really love that.

Rachel Chavkin: Back to that question of what attracts us to each other. I think both of us are gatherers, are dinnerers, are…

Dave Malloy: Potluckers.

Rachel Chavkin: Hosts.

Ethan: And bringing an ethic of hosting into a production…

Rachel Chavkin: Yeah, I think that describes something in both of our work, something that’s of major value to both of us, and it carries through to the rehearsal room in how we’re with each other. Being good hosts.

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