I am moved by the case of Brittney Griner, the WNBA player on trial in Russia for drug possession. I was about Ms. Griner’s age when I worked in the Soviet Union.
From 1990 to 1994 I composed and conducted for four months in three music theaters, moving through Central Siberia, the Urals region and the Far East. The best theater was in Yekaterinburg, then known as Sverdlovsk. I conducted Russian orchestras in my own musical—an elaborate adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers—and in the well-known American musicals Kiss Me, Kate and Sugar, the 1972 musical based on the film Some May it be hot.” The Russian title of this latest show translates to “Only Girls in Jazz Band”.
In 2012 I returned to Yekaterinburg, now boasting its pre-Soviet name, to conduct a production of The Duchess of Chicago by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán. The Sverdlovsk Theater of Musical Comedy’s production was the first Russian performance of the 1928 operetta since its Soviet premiere in Leningrad in the 1960s.
While US-Russia relations in November 1990, the twilight of the Soviet Union, might not have been as cold as they are now after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they were by no means friendly. Like Mrs. Griner, I was a stranger in a strange land. A summer crash course in Russian had taught me the Cyrillic alphabet, but little else. On our first trip to the Siberian city of Omsk, the production team consisted of seven Americans. Our Russian colleagues jokingly warned about KGB microphones hidden in our hotel rooms. But as the Russian proverb says: “There is a grain of truth in every joke.” Because of its military factories, Omsk was a zakritiy gorod, or “closed city”. Getting visas to enter the country was no small feat, although Omsk Music Theater executive producer Boris Rotberg knew how to operate the system. We were eventually accepted on a culture exchange visa.
During our artistic excursions in Russia, my American colleagues and I have always been on our best behavior and respected the laws of our host country. Growing up during the Cold War, we read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and gulag was one of the few Russian words we all knew. The idea of casually trying a bootleg narcotic — in other words, sharing a joint with an actor — terrified us. The thought of bringing drugs into the country was crazy. Not having Ms. Griner’s fame and the sense of invulnerability that fame so often conveys has been a boon to us humble theater people. When we were tempted to stray – which some of us were inevitable – fear kept everyone on track.
Although Ms. Griner says she broke the law, I hope she doesn’t receive the disproportionate 10-year sentence she faces. A lighter sentence seems appropriate for her unfortunate misjudgment. Why show such mercy? Because Ms. Griner’s situation gives me a feeling of relief “that I only have to go by the grace of God”. She plays for the basketball team in Yekaterinburg, a wonderful city where I’ve been very fortunate to work. Thirty years ago, one stupid mistake and that would have been me.
Mr. Opelka is a music theater composer and lyricist.
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Published in the print edition on July 27, 2022.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/i-might-have-been-in-brittney-griners-shoes-soviet-union-cold-war-musical-theater-u-s-russia-relations-drugs-gulag-prison-11658851361 I Might Have Been in Brittney Griner’s Shoes