Anna Fishzon

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[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Pretty much everyone understands what is called the “Cult of Celebrity,” particularly as it manifests itself in the arts. It’s a mentality that privileges the actor over the act, the singer over the song, the painter over the painting, and so on. The Cult of Celebrity’s essence is a fanatical and even irrational devotion to individuals who have, so it seems, some magical, charismatic quality. It’s all around us today. But it wasn’t always so.

In her fascinating new book Fandom, Authenticity, and Opera: Mad Acts and Letter Scenes in Fin-de-Siècle Russia (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013), Anna Fishzon explores the development of the Cult of Celebrity in  late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian opera. In many ways, fin-de-siécle Russia was out-of-step with the West: it was ruled by an autocrat, dominated by a mass of poor peasants, and struggling to find its way to economic and political modernity. But, as Anna points out, the Russians–or at least those in places where Western culture was on display–embraced the burgeoning Cult of Celebrity. They made and worshiped stars, tried to look and act like them, and went to great lengths to be in their presence and communicate with them. Russian opera fans believed that their idols were transparent souls. They transcended art; they were truly authentic. You could, in their performances, see who they really were. And, as Anna notes, this devotion to “authenticity” did not die with the Imperial Regime in 1917. The Bolsheviks believed in it as well, and they searched mightily for authenticity in their subjects. Who, they asked, was a real communist and who was an  ”enemy of the people?” The performance–at show trials, for example–would tell.

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