When I think of pinnacle lyric baritone roles, Billy Budd, Pelléas, Don Giovanni, Athanaël, Wolfram, and Zurga all come to mind. But a standout amongst all these is Eugene Onegin.
It requires a long night of well-paced singing with a dramatic arc for the character that is so difficult to develop and sustain as a performer.
Onegin is a role every baritone aspires to sing but it is among the most difficult. The level of commitment it demands is unlike anything else.
Growing up, I dreamed of performing this role. Then, as a young artist at San Francisco Opera, I received the assignment to cover Onegin and I felt like the luckiest baritone ever when I got the news that I would actually get to perform during the run (sorry to my bud Russell Braun!).
That was my role debut and man it was wild. I was extremely prepared and it went exceedingly well considering the circumstances.
I dreamed of performing this role properly but at the time, there was still so much I had to learn.
Here’s my take on this legendary, iconic beast of a role and what I wish I knew before performing Onegin that unforgettable night.
What We Love
Onegin is arguably the most popular Tchaikovsky opera. Why? The music! The text! The characters! It’s all so RUSSIAN and romantic.
We love to hate Onegin and his condescending ways, and by the end, it’s all too little, too late. But the music – oh the music! It reminisces Tchaikovsky’s ballets, symphonic works, art songs, chamber music, etc.
When a production balances the intimate scenes with the crowded, boisterous balls, it is a fulfilling night of opera.
Pushkin’s story (talk about countless chill bump moments from his words alone) is known to many and the audience often arrives with preconceived notions of Onegin.
Selfish, cold-hearted, inconsiderate are all initial possibilities for judging Onegin. But I see it as my job to change that. It’s my job to take the audience deeper and help them understand why he makes his decisions throughout the story.
Mostly because, you have to give him heart. You don’t want the audience rooting against you when you realize the mistakes you’ve made. You want the audience to root FOR you, and that is an almost impossibly difficult task.
However, remember that you do have a long night. There is no one “scene-defining” moment for Onegin and that can work to your advantage.
His arrogance must become secondary—an accessory to his character, not a defining feature. Onegin feels he’s experienced all that life can possibly offer. Nothing surprises him anymore because of the opulent lifestyle he has known.
A true Russian aristocrat, he is a product of his time.
What We Need
As an actor, I try not to say negative words about the characters I portray. Instead of a word such as ‘arrogant,’ I use ‘confused,’ ‘conflicted,’ or ‘mistaken.’
Onegin was born into a situation where no one ever tells him no or denies his wishes. Because of this, we witness his inability to tell right from wrong which (spoiler alert) makes him commit the ultimate atrocity by killing his best friend in a duel.
He does not lose control often, but this is one of the rare times in which he does, and his mistake cannot be undone. The façade drops away and for the first time, the real consequences to his actions emerge.
He tries to move on and forget but the ghost won’t go away. From all of this he learns remorse.
When he finally sees Tatyana again, she is the way to recover something of what he’s lost. Onegin is desperately seeking salvation.
At the end of the opera, when she spurns and rejects him, he’s left with nothing but a shell of what he was. All of his potential happiness and noble bearing are gone in a flash.
That’s the moral of the story: be happy for what you have, be content, be kind, be open to life, don’t let love go by. It’s a cautionary tale.
For Onegin, he lives this drastic character arc. So, to portray him well, you have to give him the time for that arc to unfold.
This takes patience. Give him time to develop. Don’t rush it. Trust that the audience will come with you on that ride. Tchaikovsky gives you a great foil to ride.
Gaining empathy is crucial, and that is achieved by understanding his back story. Onegin was raised by his uncle—meaning his parents weren’t in the picture.
He was most likely raised by a nanny and wasn’t given much discipline or structure.
He was a spoiled kid who was never told no. Knowing this about our protagonist (or at least providing yourself with a sympathetic backstory through character work), there is a sadness to him.
The fact that he never learned what good enough was in those around him and in himself, Onegin’s was a sad tale before we ever meet him on the stage.
He never learned about love since he never experienced it as a child. He even hated being around his uncle when he died. He’s been given everything but also nothing.
He’s jaded, hurt, and sad. His walls are up and when the opportunity for a life-long love comes to his door, he can’t recognize it. Having never experienced it before as a youth, how could he?
Whether or not Onegin knows it, his motivation is to find love. He has everything at his disposal, but what he can’t buy is love.
I like that Onegin is a well-educated, dapper, elegant man. I equate him to the Count from Le Nozze di Figaro in the way that he was brought up by caretakers around him and didn’t spend much time experiencing love from his parents.
That’s the way it used to be for these people. Receiving very limited or no physical and emotional love. Then he grows up and inherits his family’s wealth without knowing how to cope with or understand his emotions.
I see these inadequacies and mysteries about him, and they help me immensely because I can’t go around just being an asshole on stage. I try my best as Onegin to be charming, kind, and loved.
For instance, during the first aria, Onegin’s lesson to Tatyana may come across as harsh but he honestly thinks he’s doing her a favor. Imagine if they had this conversation in public, at a social event, only after Onegin had told all of his friends about it?
He presents himself as the more mature of the two but because of the love Tatyana grew up with, she is the only one of them that understands what love is. He’s socially inept.
Until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, don’t throw any stones.
Switching gears here, let’s talk about singing in Russian.
Everyone who attempts to sing in Russian has their own challenges. For me, that’s the soft and hard consonants, specifically getting them straight and not overdoing them.
Onegin was the first Russian opera I performed. Since then, I’ve done lots of art songs and added a few more roles. Nevertheless, the Russian language is always a work in progress for me.
Like most things, however, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Is it difficult? Certainly, but it is no more so than any other language though. It takes diligence, practice, a lot of repetition, knowing your translation well, and a good Russian coach is a necessity.
The other beast is the ballroom dancing! Get your waltzing shoes on, and be ready to get Russian jiggy with it.
Take a movement class, learn the ways to fake it, work with the choreographer, and know the basics cold. Practice, practice, practice, and stretch! Keep your arms outstretched and level, and always turn your head in the direction you’re going.
Onegin is a slow vocal boil. Act 1 audiences probably wonder why this opera is named Onegin (ha! I get it.)
Act 2 … okay, lots of dancing. Ah, but Act 3–it belongs to Onegin.
It’s time for his downfall and biggest singing of the night.
The warm-up for this role is crucial. I warm-up for Onegin in the same manner I would for an art song recital.
The role starts with a low quartet followed by a mid-range aria, so one can’t risk warming up too much, or else you may not have enough voice left for the High G in the final duet!
Tchaikovsky wrote a fluid and steady pace for the role by allowing time off-stage to rest between big singing sections. Some directors stage Onegin to remain on stage for those sections, so hilariously, I don’t get my secret backstage drink of water like Tchaikovsky intended for me.
When It’s Time
I would suggest this role to be first sung by young baritones around 26, not only because of the vocal challenges but it takes a certain emotional maturity to carry such a show on your shoulders.
When I first sang Onegin, I sang it scene to scene. It was not until the second time I performed it that I began to grasp the dramatic progression of the character.
The arrogance with room for sympathy, his worldliness, and his defeat are all things that take time to develop.
Though it’s not quite so easy to produce excerpts from it, the Act 3 aria works wonderfully for auditions because it has great high notes and you can show off your Russian (disclaimer: give your pianist a heads up because it’s a tricky reduction).
„О жалкий, жребий мой!”
I know I fail at Onegin when the audience leaves thinking, “He got what he deserved.”
The key to succeeding at Onegin lies in inspiring sympathy. I hope this blog post helped to show that Onegin is a lovely but damaged man who has a change of heart and realizes he missed out on the love of his life.
If only someone had shown him what love felt like, he would have recognized his love from Tatyana was the truest thing he could have ever experienced. And that is the real tragedy.