I’m a 19th-century Russian soldier: an infantryman in the Ismailovsky Regiment, to be exact. It’s a storied regiment: Catherine the Great visited the regiment. In the 20th century, we protected the Tsar from the Bolsheviks (not that well, clearly). But how did a Polish boy who grew up in Newark and lives in the Bronx find himself recruited into the Napoleonic Wars fighting on the Russian side?
The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Prokofiev’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, of course.
The Met advertised that they were “looking for a few good men” to march around behind the singers. I am a “supernumerary,” or, in more pedestrian terms, an extra, chosen in the second open audition. I am proud of the crisp military bearing that won me my role, because I’m a 40-year-old English teacher who’s not noted for his military bearing. I get to wear a dashing uniform.
At the first rehearsal, a Russian soldier named Sasha put us through our paces. He’s a very good teacher: crisp, authoritative, funny. However, an older Russian, who’s standing in for the book’s General Kutuzov, and who helped direct the St. Petersburg production, can be mean. I have often been the object of his whip-cracking. I don’t deserve the abuse. I suspect he doesn’t like Poles, or Ukrainians (I don’t know which exactly I am: it’s a long story). Maybe he even senses and despises my ethnic confusion.
Unlike some of my comrades, I have really been trying to be a good soldier. Here’s how I’ve prepared. I have:
1. Read all of War and Peace (1,400 pages).
2. Seen the eight-hour 1968 Sergei Bondarchuk film of the book at the Film Forum.
3. Listened to the opera on CD and watched the Kirov Opera’s production on DVD.
4. Subjected myself to the Audrey Hepburn version of the film (perhaps her only filmic misstep).
5. Read Isaiah Berlin’s book Russian Thinkers and Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, to capture the intellectual zeitgeist of the 19th century.
6. Rewatched (for the 12th time) Woody Allen’s spoof of Tolstoy, Love and Death.
Sadly, these efforts have not yielded the promotion I was hoping for. In fact, I feel like I’m on the verge of being demoted to the ranks of the hairy and untrained Cossacks. I should have been practicing my marching. The marching, clearly, is the hard part. And Woody Allen’s bumbling influence on my style is unmistakable. In the last rehearsal, at the command to “about-face” (kroo gom!), I marched forward, kicking proudly to the sky. At the command to halt, I kicked the Cossack in front of me. I’m good at “Attention!” (smer no!), because when a mean Russian is screaming at me I tend to stiffen up naturally. Unfortunately, I do the same when he yells, “Bez perevoda!” (at ease).
It turned out that the Russian general screaming in my face was not interested in my opinion of Pierre’s love for Natalia, or Prince Andrei’s vision of God, or Tolstoy’s use of the omniscient point of view. He just wanted me to kick my leg up in time with the other 30 men in my regiment. Though it should have levered stiffly upward like a tollgate, my leg tentatively kicked at the knee like a Rockette’s. When 30 left legs were coming crisply to the ground, my right leg was rising shyly up into the air. He wanted my back straight and my chest out and my head to snap to the left. He wanted me to do this in a split second at his Russian commands. His Russian commands can be one second long or can go on for 10 seconds. But, at the end of them, something is supposed to snap toward something.
I’ve got to shape up. We’ve only got four more rehearsals before our first performance, on December 13. Luckily, my wife was once a cheerleader. She knows how to kick in time. And so we are drilling on our living-room carpet: “Left, two, three, four. Left …”
At the second rehearsal, my marching was crisper, thanks to my wife. I also had a ballet dancer next to me whose crisp kicks were a real boon. I could try to imitate them. Also, the Russian general apparently left out an all-important “and” in the kick command, which is why my kick was hopelessly out of time.
My wife consoles me by saying I was probably transferred to the elite (and effete) Ismailovsky Regiment because of my tiny stature and delicate features, not my inept marching. In the novel, all the effete princely characters are in the Ismailovsky. I want to ask General Kutuzov about it, but my wife advises me not to, lest I be busted down to "chasseur"—whatever that is. I don’t like the sound of it.