At 4 a.m. on October 1, 1962, four Soviet submarines slipped silently from the base at Sayda Bay. Their covert destination: Cuba. But these aging Soviet vessels were subpar, to say the least; getting to their destination undetected would be virtually impossible. To make matters worse, each submarine was equipped with a deadly cargo—a 10-kiloton nuclear-tipped torpedo. If fired, this “special weapon” was capable of igniting a full-fledged nuclear war.
ARKHIPOV chronicles the journey of B-59, the vessel at the center of the opera, and the events leading up to the fulcrum of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fleet chief of staff Vasili Arkhipov was aboard B-59. For a brief, pivotal moment, Arkhipov’s presence of mind was all that would stand between humanity’s existence and its annihilation. ARKHIPOV conjures a moving portrait of the remarkable man responsible for defusing the conflict, a man whose heroism would subsequently be kept under wraps for 40 years.
After a month at sea, the Soviet vessel was detected by a US anti-submarine hunter-killer group of 14 ships and forced to make an emergency dive, despite dangerously low power and debilitating conditions. Signaling B-59 to surface, the Americans “passively tortured” B-59 with a sonic barrage, misinterpreted by the sub’s beleaguered captain, Vitali Savitsky as WW III. In response, Savitsky commanded his men to launch the nuclear torpedo. Arkhipov, haunted by the recent deaths of his own men on a previous voyage as a result of a near nuclear meltdown at sea, had no choice but to draw on deep reserves of psychic strength in order to stop the Captain from decimating not just the men of B-59 but planet earth as well.
ARKHIPOV renders this narrowly avoided catastrophe via an arc of relentlessly mounting tension. Taking a close look at Arkhipov the man, the opera explores the choices we make under extraordinary pressure, juxtaposing the phenomenology of the submarine’s extremely close quarters with the expansiveness of sea and sky as well as the intensity of the cat-and-mouse hunt. ARKHIPOV investigates the physical and psychic claustrophobia of the underwater vessel; and the longings, the dreams, and desires of its crew. The Special Weapons Officer (a countertenor), who watches over the torpedo, manifests the almost supernatural specter of destruction hanging over the men, whose home lives are embodied in the character of Olga, Arkhipov’s wife, who, under interrogation 40 years later, serves as the opera’s frame.
Lyrical and austere, visceral and at moments surreal and cataclysmic, the music manifests the apocalyptic nature of the subject matter with an orchestral intensity, evoking the harsh, metallic world of the submarine and the mysterious depths it traverses. The low voices of the singers and ensemble evoke the attenuation of high frequencies underwater and color the work with darker hues, while the earthy mezzo-soprano and the otherworldly countertenor provide tonal contrast. Music and text merge to create a powerfully dramatic work that resonates profoundly with our day—from the recent Korean missile crisis to the perilous state of leadership around the world. Looking head-on at the fallibility of communications and the fragility of our existence in the face of weapons of devastating destruction, ARKHIPOV embraces our dire need for modern-day heroes.