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When Anna met Isaiah

A new opera dramatizes the storied all-night meeting in 1945 between Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and british philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Was the encounter a key moment in cold war history, as she believed? (And can philosophy REALLY be sung?)

THE WORLD, A WIT once said, is made up of two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. A little over 50 years ago, the eminent British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin pitched his tent firmly in the first camp with his 1953 essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which divided all humanity into hedgehog-like folk who "relate everything to a single central vision" and those who, in a foxier manner, "pursue many ends." Perhaps because of its rather fetching zoological imagery, the essay has become the best known of Berlin's writings -- so well known, for example, that in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," Judy Davis's uptight character obsesses, following a sexual encounter, about whether her lover is a hedgehog or a fox.

The reference turns up again in the new opera, "Guest from the Future," which premiered at Bard College on Friday and runs through Aug. 1. With a libretto by Jonathan Levi, the polymath who cofounded the literary magazine Granta, and music by occasional Broadway composer Mel Marvin, "Guest from the Future" theatricalizes a key moment in intellectual history: the storied meeting between Berlin, then working as a diplomat, and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in her Leningrad apartment in 1945.

Berlin would later consider this encounter -- the result of a chance conversation he'd struck up at a bookshop -- to be "the most important event in his life," according to the 1998 biography by Michael Ignatieff, who writes that the episode influenced "nearly everything [Berlin] wrote in defense of Western liberalism and political liberty thereafter."

An entry in the newly published collection of Berlin's letters, edited by Henry Hardy, underscores how strong the reverberations of the incident were for a man eulogized at his death in 1997 as one of the greatest minds of his era: "The most thrilling thing that has ever, I think, happened to me," Berlin wrote to the British charge d'affaires in Moscow after Akhmatova, in a follow-up to their initial meeting, inscribed a brand-new poem to him.

Harshly censored and isolated in Stalinist Russia, Akhmatova was equally stirred by the all-night conversation, which inspired several of her verses, including "Cinque" (1945-46), a poem cycle so erotically charged, Ignatieff writes, that no Russian "has ever been able to believe that [Berlin and Akhmatova] did not sleep together." (In reality, he emphasizes, "they hardly touched.") But the rendezvous may also have been responsible for the rearrest of her son and the intensification of her persecution.

Adulated in Russia during her lifetime, Akhmatova has been hailed there and abroad as a courageous witness to Stalinist terror. Eventually she concluded that her hours with Berlin had marked the beginning of the Cold War itself, an interpretation she hinted at when she wrote, in a 1956 dedication to her "Poem Without a Hero," that she and a mysterious visitor -- presumably the "guest from the future" who materializes later in the poem and who gives Levi's opera its title -- would "confuse the Twentieth Century."

In a later account, Berlin sounded dubious about Akhmatova's grandiose notion that their tete-a-tete had "changed the history of mankind." (She "somewhat overestimated the effect" of the evening, he suggested.) On a more symbolic level, though, her interpretation may be less ridiculous. Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin had personally experienced the effects of the Russian Revolution (his family fled to England in 1921), and his background made him more skeptical about the Soviet Union than other intellectuals of his era. He racked up credits as a diplomat and Russia expert before settling in at Oxford, and his academic writings reflected that experience.

His seminal 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" famously distinguishes between "negative liberty," or freedom from coercion, and "positive liberty," which he defined as "not freedom from, but freedom to -- to lead one prescribed form of life." The former, which favors pluralism, "seems to me a truer and more humane ideal," he wrote, while the latter -- presumably implied in utopian schemes like Communism -- can lead to tyranny.

Such ideas ultimately made Berlin an influential proponent of anti-Communist liberalism in the West. As for Akhmatova, who died in 1966, it is not hard to see why he described her life as "one uninterrupted indictment of Russian reality." By the time she met him, she had already endured the execution of her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, and the arrest and death (en route to a labor camp) of her friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, among other horrors. She was prevented from publishing for years, and in the aftermath of her evening with Berlin -- a rendezvous that reportedly infuriated Stalin ("So our nun is now receiving visits from foreign spies," he is said to have fumed) -- she was denounced, expelled from the Writers' Union, and otherwise oppressed. No wonder Berlin wrote of her "heroism" and stated that his friendship with her and the poet Boris Pasternak "permanently changed my outlook."

. . .

From the conjunction of these two individuals, "Guest from the Future" spins two-plus hours of eerie modern arias and harmonies, going a good way toward capturing the steely lyricism of Akhmatova's poetry and the geopolitical scope of Berlin's thought. As the action flashes back to Akhmatova's past and forward to a nightmarish vision of the future, Stalin appears as a character, as do the painter Amedeo Modigliani, Virginia Woolf, and tragic Russian literary figures like Mandelstam. But while Levi has managed to work in quotes from Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech and Charles Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage," plus references to Pushkin, Chekhov, and "War and Peace," he says he cut from an early draft a song that referred to "Two Concepts."

"One philosophical point per opera is enough," Levi joked during a recent interview in his office at Bard, where he is the director of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, housed in a Frank Gehry building with an undulating steel roof. "The thing is to slip these things in with a light hand."

Levi's credits (journalist, novelist, violinist, etc.), include cofounding Nine Circles Chamber Theatre, which is presenting "Guest." Nine Circles grew out of the semi-scored staging, first in Boston, then elsewhere, of poet Robert Pinsky's adaptation of Dante's "Inferno" in 1998. In keeping with its goal of exploring intimate interactions between language and music, Nine Circles' latest project, "Guest," uses a chamber orchestra enhanced by electronic processing for a percussion-rich score that, Marvin says, pays "homage in subtle ways" to Soviet composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

The resulting opera may wax emotionally intense -- meditating on the anguish of memory, the fear of death and of isolation, and a certain ardor between the 56-year-old poet and the 36-year-old Berlin -- but the catalyst was philosophy. Levi grew up as the son of a philosopher (Isaac Levi, now a professor emeritus at Columbia) and met Berlin as a child. The acquaintance was renewed in later life, and Levi occasionally lunched with Berlin at the philosopher's favorite Austrian restaurant in London, where he proved to be "an incredible raconteur."

There were no juicy anecdotes about the Akhmatova meeting, but Levi knew the story, and a few years ago proposed it to his Nine Circles co-artistic director, violinist Gil Morgenstern. The idea was not an instant hit. "Gil thought it sounded like a very good two-character play," Levi says, "but where's the opera?"

The musician's interest perked up, however, when Levi pointed to a line about Bach in the third dedication to "Poem Without a Hero," a passage known to be about Berlin. They then recruited Marvin, composer of the musical "Tintypes" and other theater scores, and director David Chambers, a professor of directing at Yale. In spring 2001, the artists hied off to St. Petersburg, where they visited Akhmatova's apartment and spoke with Russians who had known her. This research fired up their work. Chambers, for example, says he's "cribbing" an elaborate mirror that still hangs in Akhmatova's building: His staging emphasizes mirror imagery, echoing Akhmatova's verses. (Mirrors reflect the "guest from the future" in her "Poem Without a Hero.")

Levi, too, drew from his St. Petersburg sojourn, weaving interview material together with snatches of Akhmatova's poetry ("I messed with the lines a little") and facts drawn from Berlin's reminiscences and other sources. He thought it important to give "Guest" an intense intellectual atmosphere, reflecting the fact that "the electric charge of the night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together came from an exchange of ideas."

Permitting himself inventive latitude, he imagined that the line by the Greek poet Archilochus famously cited in "The Hedgehog and the Fox" -- "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" -- had also made its way into a Russian popular song. This ploy gave the phrase a niche in an Act I sequence set in a 1913 cafe, where bohemians start warbling about foxes and hedgehogs to a loping, melancholy melody.

A variation of the ballad returns in an Act II dream sequence, where Berlin's two-types-of-people theory suggests broader dualisms: tyranny and freedom, East and West, courage and fear. Up to this point, the opera has chronicled the basic facts of the meeting, interweaving flashbacks to the poet's past (the cafe sequence, for example, is based on a real establishment). The dream sequence segues to the post-1945 era. It chronicles Akhmatova's hardships; quotes Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech; and appears to show Berlin extrapolating philosophically from his Leningrad sojourn. "All these revolutions, all the brutalities" he sings. (It's worth noting that in real life Berlin was a passionate devotee of music.) "All this for nothing, for a perfect universe impossible to build."

The intimation of a conceptual watershed reflects Levi's opinion that the 1945 heart-to-heart represented, for Berlin, a "loss of intellectual virginity." For the philosopher, he says, "There was something totemic about this evening. It's not that he got his ideas from it, but when you have a furnace that's burning at this kind of heat, there's a lot of unformed matter that can take shape."

The heat of the encounter, which so influenced Berlin's ideas about tyranny, included Akhmatova's reading aloud of her poem "Requiem" (1939-40) in which she writes of the victims of Soviet terror:

I will never forget them, whatever comes.
Let the melting snow stream like tears from my bronze eyelids.
Let the prison dove call in the distance
And the boats go quietly on the Neva.

Celia Wren is the managing editor of American Theatre and the theatre/media critic for Commonweal. 


(Akhmatova: Hulton Archives/Getty; Berlin: Reuters Photo)
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