THE MOSCOW MUSICAL THEATER FOR CHILDREN presents Natalia Sats’s highly-acclaimed production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with a cast of Bolshoi-trained singers in the Main Theatre of the Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany, at 8 PM Friday and Saturday, 2 PM Sunday, and 10 AM Tuesday and Wednesday.
And she has decided to do her own speaking, in English, as her helpful interpreter stands by with the occasional elucidation.
At a private session in her hotel room, Mme. Sats confessed that she was tired and wouldn’t speak for very long; but the interview became a performance as she sat back in her chair, eyes afire with reminiscence, and recreated the astonishing childhood that led to the founding of the Moscow Theatre for Children.
Metroland: You have devoted so many fruitful years to working with children. What provided your inspiration to do so?
Sats: This is difficult to explain. It begins with my parents, who were both such very interesting persons. My father was a composer with the Stanislavsky theater, and wrote for him The Blue Bird, which has become inseparable from the name of Stanislavsky.
Back then it was usual for the adults and children to have a separate life: the adults here, the children there. But not us. We were too poor – we had only two rooms in the house. So the children were all the time with the adults.
And my father, who was not in good health, had so many visitors. This was the very beginning of the 20th century, an interesting time. Besides Stanislavsky there was Chaliapin, there was Rachmaninoff ... Chekhov ... Lev Tolstoy! Ah, I can still see him, Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia, visiting my father. I was a little child with big eyes and big ears and a big interest in everything around me.
But this was for me not unusual to see these great men, just coming to visit as friends, with so much to share with my family. At the time there was great famine in Russia, so Tolstoy got money from subscriptions and asked my father to help organize food distribution for the needy ...
When my family had absolutely nothing to eat, we would go to the sister of my mother, who was not rich, but ... I remember my father asking my little sister, “Ninachka, what do you want to eat?” and she said, “Eggs.” “Eggs? We have no eggs – but I can compose for you some music about eggs.”
And he wrote a children’s opera about The Goose Who Lays the Golden Eggs. My father was the Old Man, my mother was the Old Man’s Wife, I was the Goose and my sister was the little Mouse. (She leans forward and sings in Russian, accenting a folk-like melody with waves of a hand.) Then the golden egg is broken and the little mouse begins to cry, and I sing, “No tears, no tears, I have other eggs – they are not golden but they are eggs you can eat!”
We went to sleep that night absolutely sated, full from the music of my father.
Fifteen years ago, Sats and her company visited Berlin; the resultant press conference filled a large room with journalists who recalled her 1931 success with Verdi’s Falstaff at the King’s Opera. Her vision of musical theater includes the mainstream operas as well as Golden Goose-like children’s tales.
Through the many turns of my life, I have always thought of my father, and his power of creation and fantasy. He was such a comfort, even when we were without food and without heat ... without fantasy, then you have nothing.
This is how my father was: when we went to the village where my mother’s sister lived, we would see many musicians. A shepherd playing a horn, a singer with a special Russian harp. And all the musicians would come to the house where there was never silence. And this made my aunt a little bit angry.
But my father explained: Nature is filled with music. The silence of winter is replaced by the music of spring, the first songs of the birds – then you see the green leaves begin to grow.
I used to organize plays, performances of fairy-tale stories in my yard with the children I knew. I was five-six years old at the time. After one of them, when I played the piano, Rachmaninoff came to my father and said, “Natasha has very good hands for the piano, you know.”
We lost my father when I was ten, and I went with my mother on a tour as her accompanist. I remember posters saying, “Singer Anna Sats is performing with wunderkind Natasha.” I also earned money giving lessons, first to the daughter of our yardkeeper. For this I made five rubles a month, which was a great pleasure.
Has the fatherless child become an idee fixe with Sats? The hero of her (and Prokofiev’s) Peter and the Wolf lives with his grandfather; in Butterfly we find the title character trying to win back a husband through their newborn son.
When I was 14 I began to work with the Stanislavsky theater. I played the violin in his theater; I also was in many plays. One great actor, Vakhtangov, said to me, “What a pity you are a woman – you could be a great director!”
After the revolution, I took any work I could: answering the telephone, looking after the coats – anything to be in the theater! When I was 14 I began to organize for the children of the city concerts at the Moscow Soviet, and I also was seeing how important it was for me to share the knowledge I possessed. It was not just important – it was a need.
For the first time in my life, I saw that all those friends and acquaintances who came to my father had been raising many questions of culture and education, and just by being around them I learned so much. It made me think that the children, our children, is the generation that should have our attention first of all.
Rachmaninoff came to the house and played the piano. Not for $200 a ticket, but to share his music with the children. He wanted to give that to us, to share his talent.
Now, there are many, many well-known and intellectual persons who resemble big bookcases, with so much information they keep behind glass doors, and they reserve and reserve and reserve it. But Rachmaninoff took it out and gave it to us.
It is of paramount importance to share this knowledge – with joy! I have a joy when I can share it. I am happy that I could create the first children’s theater in the world and run it for 70 years. I am happy that now we have so many children’s theaters all over the world, in Socialist countries, in other countries – the theaters may be different, the ideas may be different, but the necessity is the same: to give art to children. This is the greatest happiness for me.
Have I answered your question?
– Metroland Magazine, 10 March 1988