Madame Theremin spans three worlds: the real, the unreal, and the surreal. First, the real: Leon Theremin, the Russian inventor of an electronic musical instrument played without touching it, lived in New York for a decade and married Lavinia Williams, an African American dancer. He was ordered back to Russia and then sent to the gulag, while Lavinia went on to open a school of dance in Haiti. The opera takes place on the night of Leon's arrest in 1938. The unreal is Lavinia’s imagined journey that night, from a near lynching to an underground sanctuary of ancient African music, art, and religion. Here we encounter the surreal: a vodou priestess descended from personages invented by the artist Frohawk Two Feathers (Umar Rashid), whose critically acclaimed practice depicts an alternate history of colonialism. Powerful forces set Lavinia on a new path, but she is unable to save her husband, a victim of “progress”. Through a real and imagined past, this work is a dramatic commentary on our present.
Umar Rashid, The Palace of the Quilombos, 2015
Acrylic and ink on canvas, 72 x 84 inches, Detail.
Pioneering figure in Afro-Caribbean dance. Married to Leon Theremin.
Russian inventor of the theremin, the electronic instrument played without touching it.
Lavinia Williams performed throughout the world, but her legacy as a teacher and proponent of Afro-Caribbean dance is her most lasting. She called the Caribbean “the missing link to Africa” and insisted that her students not merely imitate the movements of African dancers, but understand the meaning behind them. After moving to Haiti and opening her school there, she participated in vodou ceremonies, yet saw no conflict with her Christian upbringing. She claimed an affinity for “Holy Rollers and Sanctified people,” and in response to denigrating criticisms of Haitian ritual, she said,
“It’s not shaking that’s important...there is discipline in knowing how to shake; that is important....It is like mathematics. Everything is according to music....you can’t just get up and do anything.”
While she found it professionally expedient to keep her association with vodou largely secret, she did remark on the experience of possession by the lwas(spirits):
“You are at the peak in your mental approach to who you are...and you come to terms with yourself, mentally, physically, everything. It’s like a happy meeting with yourself. But in the U.S. when you get to the height, someone’s going to bring you smelling salts.”
Summing up Lavinia’s career, the scholar Millery Polyné writes: “When she heard the drumbeats of Haiti, what she deemed the ‘heartbeat in the bosom of Mother Africa...that mediates you from the unknown to the known,’ she knew that this was where she belonged.”
—Adapted from “To Carry the Dance of the People Beyond” in From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan-Africanism, 1870-1964 by Millery Polyné, University Press of Florida, 2010.
Without V.I. Lenin the theremin would probably have gone no further than the lab bench of the young engineer Lev Termen, better known in the west as Leon Theremin. Lenin saw in Termen/Theremin the perfect pitchman for his campaign to bring electrification to the Soviet Union. He sent the inventor on a highly successful propaganda tour which paved the way for Theremin’s journey to America.
Theremin and his electronic instrument caused a sensation wherever he went. But as the author Sean Michaels has observed, the theremin resembled Google Glass or the Segway: “an impressive invention that caught, and eventually fumbled, the public imagination.” Yet its inventor’s musical legacy lives on in every electronic keyboard and synthesizer.
But Theremin leaves a political legacy as well that is particularly relevant today. He was one of hundreds of thousands of victims of Stalin’s insane conspiracy theory – that the Soviet Union was being sabotaged by a vast international network of “wreckers” and spies. Theremin’s service to the state as a low-level intelligence agent while he was in America (feeding tidbits of industrial espionage) did not help him. “Any Russian who had even passing contact with foreigners was in mortal danger,” writes historian Adam Hochschild. One man with an Italian wife was sent to the gulag for having “close ties to Italians.”
As we have seen in our own time, even the most far-fetched conspiracies are easy to spin by those in power. Like Theremin, those accused of such heinous crimes cannot defend themselves. Both Theremin’s legacies – his genius and his undoing – were crafted from thin air.
Vodou priestess and hotel worker (art by Frohawk Two Feathers).
Singer, actor, activist, international star
Soviet cultural attache and intelligence agent.
In the opera, Lavinia and Noble Washington go to a night club so Leon and Elizaveta can have a private chat. Noble suggests the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which was notoriously whites-only in the 1930s. Mocked, harassed, and threatened by drunken revelers, the pair is hustled away by Mama Augustine, a hotel chambermaid. They descend via the freight elevator to an abandoned underground railroad station beneath the hotel, which serves as a hideaway for the Black hotel staff.
Vodou entails the living presence of the departed, some of whom have become spirits called loa -- messengers to a supreme God who are sometimes compared to Christian saints. Vodou cosmology also envisions a crossroads, the vertical ascending to heaven (or descending to the abyss), and the horizontal representing earth and humanity. The similarity to the vertical and horizontal antennae of the theremin (one controlling pitch and the other volume) fascinates Lavinia, and with the guidance of Mama Augustine she attempts to find her muse through vodou ritual -- and to reconnect with her ancestors and African heritage.
Dance is central to vodou ceremonies, and the traditional drums of Africa are central to the dancing. In her memoir of Haiti, "Island Possessed," Katherine Dunham describes her experience of a vodou ceremony: "The joy of dancing overwhelmed me...gasping, tumbling, teetering on the verge of rhythm- and fasting-induced hypnosis, returning to the sheer joy of harmony with self and others and with all friends past, present, and future, with the wonders of the Haitian countryside and with whatever god whose name we were venerating, because by then a number had been honored and I had lost track. It was so good in every sense of the word to dance to the drums of the gods...and this feeling of the rightness of these cult dances has never left me."
The character of Noble Washington is inspired by the incomparable Paul Robeson. He is an international star of film, stage, concerts, and recordings, at the height of his career. He is also an uncompromising advocate for human rights, and like many Black artists and intellectuals of the time (Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright) he is sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
Like Robeson, Washington is a force of nature. He does not doubt for a minute the rightness of his actions or beliefs, or the wrongness of those who would oppose him. Lavinia finds his presence overwhelming, but she cannot break free of his gravitational pull.
The real Robeson had an interesting connection to Theremin. Before Lavinia, Leon proposed marriage to his protégé Clara Rockmore, née Reisenberg, who turned him down. Clara was also a Russian who was forced to abandon her career as a concert violinist due to an injury. She took up the theremin and became the world's leading virtuoso, whose name is still legendary. Her husband, Bob Rockmore, was Robeson's friend and business manager. Clara and Robeson toured together in 1940s to great success. Clara quashed rumors of romance between the two, saying, "We have been friends a long time, but now we are just friends."
The notion of notorious female Soviet spies may seem like a tired cliche, but Elizaveta is modeled on an actual person. Elizaveta Mukasei was a Soviet agent based in Los Angeles from the 1940s through the 1970s. She masqueraded as an ordinary housewife (her husband was also an agent) and befriended Americans sympathetic to the Soviet cause, especially in the movie industry. Charles Chaplin was said to be a good friend and it's quite possible she and Robeson crossed paths. In the opera Elizaveta is a cultural attache to the consulate in New York.
If Theremin himself was involved in espionage, why did he end up under arrest? In consolidating power, Stalin replaced (more likely executed) the "Old Bolsheviks" with his own hand-picked loyalists. Theremin was a leftover from Lenin's time, and therefore untrustworthy in Stalin's view. In the opera Elizaveta hurls outrageous insults at Theremin, but these are wholly inspired by the infamous Show Trials of the 1930s. A sample, from the trial of Grigory Zinoviev in 1936: "Liars and buffoons, contemptible pygmies, pug dogs and puppies attempting to mount an elephant...utterly base scoundrels...vile creatures (etc. etc.)"
Afrofuturism lives beneath the Waldorf.
Inspired by the alternate history and artistic vision of Frohawk Two Feathers
Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers), Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la gouverneurs. Or, Borough Check. The old money don’t want a new world so the Revolution had to get sabotaged somehow. Murder was the case. And Horus wept. 1793., 2016, Acrylic, ink, and mica flake on canvas, 44 x 66 x 2 inches [detail]
Afrofuturism has been described as the intersection of the African diaspora with technology. Even before the term was coined, Sun Ra and George Clinton were paving the way with jazz and funk pushed through an array of electrified devices. And before them...Leon, Lavinia and the theremin?
But Afrofuturism is also about alternative histories that set the stage for an alternative future for the diaspora. "Nouveau Port-Salut," the fantastical settlement beneath the Waldorf Astoria where Mama Augustine reigns, is inspired by the alternative colonial histories created by Frohawk Two Feathers in his paintings, sculpture and writings. Once a waypoint to smuggle fugitive slaves to freedom in Haiti, Nouveau Port-Salut survives as an outpost of defiance and hope.
Frohawk's alternative history resonates in the present. As he described his work to art historian Ellen C. Caldwell: "In terms of Afrofuturism, there's the sampling element and the inclusion of technology, astronomy, and ancient technologies that become augmented as the story goes on. There's sampling from Black Power movement, cosmology, Voodoo, hairstyles, clothing, and languages -- these are all different modes of thinking with roots in the past but futurist in creating a new worldview based on the ancient and colonial world."