Sergei Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Op. 33a

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

In the spring of 1918, following the October Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev took the Pacific route from Russia to the United States. He rode the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, then traveled to Tokyo where he played a few concerts to pad his wallet, and finally sailed for San Francisco by way of Honolulu. In San Francisco, he was detained by immigration authorities who closely questioned whether he was a Bolshevik. “No,” he said, “because they took my money.” “Have you ever been in jail?” the officer asked. “Yeah, in yours,” he supposedly retorted.

At some point during the passage, he wrote the libretto for The Love for Three Oranges, an opera based on a Russian comedy that in turn was based on an 18th-century Italian commedia dell’arte play. The story is too silly to dwell on. But in short: the witch Fata Morgana curses a prince to fall in love with three oranges (yes, the citrus fruit). He travels to a faraway land to find them, and each orange contains a princess when peeled: the first two die of thirst, but the third he marries. The drama is populated by a surreal cast: the King of Clubs; Prime Minister; Jester; Magician; Cook; “ten ridiculous people”; Advocates of Tragedy, Farce, and Drama; monsters, drunkards, gluttons, guards, servants, soldiers, etc. Scholars have described the opera’s style as “anti-realist,” which is an understatement.

Prokofiev sold the concept to the Chicago Opera Association in 1919, and was commissioned to write the music. He conducted the premiere there in 1921 and arranged some of the most striking numbers into an orchestral suite in 1924. Prokofiev said he had “chosen a simpler musical language” to appeal to Americans. He succeeded—the March became a frequent cue in gumshoe radio dramas, and NBC’s Dragnet used a rip-off as its theme in the 1950s and ’60s.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.