A chorus line of dancers dressed in giant noses

Cheat Sheet: The Nose

We’ve sniffed out everything you need to know about the surreal spectacle of The Nose

Who was the composer?

What happens in the story?

What is the music like?

About this production

A little history

Conversation starters

Please, just sum it up for me!

Who was the composer?

Dmitri Shostakovich: a 20th-century Russian wunderkind, pianist and composer.

His prolific pen and daring music, inspired over time by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Mahler, brought the young Shostakovich fame and fortune.  

He joined the Petrograd Conservatory at 13, emerging in 1926 with a much-lauded First Symphony and plenty of mentors willing to promote his work.

Within a couple of years, audiences in Berlin and even the US had heard his work, and Shostakovich embarked on a brilliant career as a composer.

But with the rise of Stalin and the beginning of the Great Terror in Russia, Shostakovich and his music fell out of favour, officially denounced in important state publications.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Shostakovich survived, staying out of trouble by writing film music and sometimes acquiescing to the will of the state by writing ‘Soviet’ music. He never lost his individual flair, composing works sometimes destined to sit in a desk drawer for decades until conditions were more favourable.

Shostakovich died of lung cancer in 1975.

A photograph of a middle-aged Shostakovich

A photograph of Dmitri Shostakovich in 1950. Photo by Roger Rössing, courtesy of Deutch Fotothek.

 What happens in the story?

A lowly civil servant awakes to discover a most unusual problem: his nose has escaped his face! Major Kovalov embarks on a ridiculous nose-hunt, enlisting the help of the chief of police. But even when the nose is discovered, can Kovalov convince it to come home?

What is the music like? 

Eclectic, brilliant, absurd — and unlike anything you might think of when you think ‘opera’. Where other composers might try to create the sound of a storm at sea or falling snow in music, Shostakovich takes great pains to replicate the sound of a belch, fart, even an erotic dream. Listen out for these and many more pedestrian sounds coming from the orchestra.

Shostakovich dips in and out of countless musical styles: you’ll hear folk songs, dance, circus music, atonal sequences, a religious chorus and a tremendous percussion ensemble.

Listen out for the orchestra heckling the singers!

This production is...

... An outrageously inventive romp through a whirlwind of theatrical styles, from the brilliant mind of Australian director Barrie Kosky.

It’s a zany, hyperactive cabaret, set in a surreal fantasy land where everyone wears an exaggerated prosthetic nose. Expect tap-dancing noses, outrageous action and clever choreography.

a group of oddly dressed characters hold a giant nose aloft

A production image from the 2017 Royal Opera House production of The Nose. Photo by Bill Cooper

A little history…

Shostakovich embarked on his first opera at age 20, choosing Gogol’s satirical short story The Nose as his subject. He developed the libretto alongside Evgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin and Alexander Preis, fleshing out the tale with details and dialogue from other stories by Gogol and Dostoevsky.

The young composer was inspired and not yet wary of censure by the cultural police: the frenetic score is original and brilliant. Shostakovich drew on developing film and theatre culture in Russia, influenced heavily by theatre giant Meyerhold, who he hoped would direct the premiere at the famous Bolshoi Theatre.

He finished it within a year.

Bits and pieces were heard in concert before the opera premiered in Leningrad in January 1930 (Meyerhold was too busy to take on the project). By this time, the cultural climate among the Russian intelligentsia had shifted dramatically, and Shostakovich’s frivolous, absurd work was suddenly dangerously innappropriate. Stalinist critics savaged the opera, and despite six months of performances, it wasn’t seen again Russia until 1974. It premiered in the US in 1965.

The opera has enjoyed a revival in recent years.

Conversation starters

  • Shostakovich learned piano from his mother. As a boy, he would surprise her by displaying perfect recall for music he’d seen just once at a previous lesson: playing it as if by heart with no score to read from.
  • Shostakovich was obsessed with cleanliness and obsessive in general. He kept his household clocks perfectly synchronised and posted cards to himself to test the mail service.
  • He wrote his first notable composition at age 12. Foreshadowing what would become a difficult relationship with the Russian State, it was a funeral march for two democrats murdered by the Bolsheviks.



The Nose

New to opera? Read our ultimate guide

In a Nutshell

The composer: Shostakovich. Russian. 20th century.

The music: Eclectic in style, brilliant in character and altogether absurd (listen out for fart sounds, belches and heckling from the orchestra).

The history: Shostakovich wrote the opera at age 20 in a favourable climate, but by the time it was performed, Stalin's influence on Russian culture made it an unpopular work. 

A quirky fact to impress your date: There are more than 70 named roles in the score.


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