Albert-Einstein-Stipendiat (2018)

Making Opera in the Steppe: A Political History of Musical Theatre in Kazakhstan, 1930-2015

Opera is one of the most sophisticated forms of musical and artistic expression. Not only does it require professional musicians but it also necessitates a considerable infrastructure, such as performance and rehearsal spaces, decorations and so on. Last but not least opera requires a specific audience interested in listening to its repertoire - often lengthy and performed in foreign languages. Because of these factors, opera has never been a purely 'musical' or 'artistic' phenomenon: Invented in the 17th century as a project aimed at reviving classical Greek drama, by the 19th century it had evolved into an important tool of political expression. In some cases, opera served as a demonstration of imperial grandeur, while in others it mirrored the construction of national identity or anti-colonial struggle.

Before the 20th century, neither classical music nor opera were part of Kazakh culture. Kazakhs had their own musical instruments and developed specific musical forms and genres, but the nomadic way of life prevented them from using musical notation and institutionalizing the performances. Instead, they created, transmitted, and preserved music through an oral tradition. However, after 1926, when the first musical theatre was created in Kazakhstan, the country quickly appropriated 'western' classical music and its genres. By 1934, a new opera theatre was built and the first 'national' opera "Kyz-Zhibek" was performed in Almaty.

Since that time dozens of new operas were created and performed, and many new theatres were inaugurated. Recently, a new flamboyant opera house was built in Kazakhstan's new capital, Astana. It stages both local composers and 'western' operas and ballets, from Verdi to Jarre. Why did opera - an unknown and untypical musical genre in Kazakhstan - become so smoothly a part of its cultural life? How did this process occur and what has been the evolution of opera-making since the 1930s? Which role did opera play in the nation-building process of contemporary Kazakhstan?

My Einstein fellowship allowed me to develop several initial assumptions that were crucial for the development of the research project. The months that I spent in the Einstein House allowed me to productively rethink and put in dialogue my previous background as a classical pianist and cultural historian to write the first draft of the manuscript whose essential idea is to demonstrate that opera did play an important role for the nation-building process in Kazakhstan in the 20th century. This role, however, was ambiguous and changed significantly over time. For instance, while its establishment in the 1930s was conceived as a symbol of modernization and cultural progress, it simultaneously pushed composers to collect and research traditional music and incorporate its melodies into the 'classic' genres that informed their works. What resulted was a métissage of 'western' superstratum and local substratum on the one hand; on the other hand Kazakh folk music was subordinated and 'normalized' through its incorporation in 'highbrow' genres, such as opera and ballet.

However, what can be considered as an act of symbolic violence, from a postcolonial perspective, did not have only negative consequences. After the initial phase of a 'sedentarization' of nomadic melodies and their incorporation into 'national' operas, a different period followed. The operas created from circa 1950s to the 1980s not only 'quoted' melodies picked randomly from Kazakh traditional music but also built on it for the creation of highly original artistic works. Previously an instrument of modernization and a translator of the 'lowbrow' folklore into a universal language of opera, by the late 1980s Kazakh opera became the opposite of what it was in the 1930s: a highly individual, almost dissident expression of aesthetical and political views that were not shared by the majority of the society. In the post-Soviet era, the project of Kazakh opera changed once again: now it was about the achievement of independence and the articulation of post-Sovietness.


Nari Shelekpayev has been a postdoctoral research fellow within the Excellence Chair on Security Studies at Sciences Po since November 2018 (ERC grant). He specializes in the intellectual and comparative history of empires in the 19th and 20th centuries. He submitted his PhD in history at the Université de Montréal, Canada. In the past he was a visiting research fellow at Free University in Berlin (2016-2017), a scholar-in-residence at the Canadian Center for Architecture (2015), and an associate doctoral fellow at the IRTG 'Diversity', formed by Université de Montréal in Canada and the Universities of Trier and Saarbrücken in Germany (2016-2019). Nari has taught at the Université de Montréal (2016), the Università di Roma La Sapienza (2018), and the Eurasian University in Astana (2015-2016). He has published and accepted essays and articles in Ab Imperio, Urban History, Planning Perspectives, Journal of Urban History, and Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie.