Writer Infuses Cabaret With Russian and Humor

For MTPetrushevskaya, also known for her short stories, donning cabaret attire.

“Finally, my dream has come true — performing a real cabaret,” said Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, one of Russia’s most famous contemporary writers, as she walked out on stage and began to sing.

Performing at Masterskaya, a bohemian-style cafe owned by the people behind Jean Jacques and Mayak, Petrushevskaya, 71, was a number of decades older than most of the audience at a recent packed concert.

The cafe, with regular theater, music and poetry performances harks back to the golden age of the Russian cafe at the start of the 20th century, when intelligentsia gathered to drink and enjoy the poetry and music of their talented contemporaries. Petrushevskaya, herself, is trying to revive her own genre.

“Cabaret is a forgotten but essential art form,” she said. “In line with the cabaret traditions, my performances blend literary and musical elements.”

Dressed in a self-designed long, black gown with red elbow-length lace gloves and a large, black hat perched on her head, Petrushevskaya performs famous French, Italian, German and Russian songs.

Born in 1938, Petrushevskaya published her first short story “Through the Fields” in 1972. Her later plays and short stories were banned from being published, or staged, by Soviet censorship, and it was only in 1987 that her first short-story collection appeared.

She is known for her plays such as “Colombina’s Apartment” and her satirical prose, which includes the book “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales.”

Petrushevskaya first performed as a singer in 2003, when she recorded an album with the avant-garde Russian band Inquisitorum, but the cabaret project is fairly new. She hosted her first poetry and music evening in 2007 and will return with more performances this fall.

The intimate cafe arena is essential for the atmosphere, she said.

“People at tables are drinking wine. To me, this is a good sign, it means that my audience is in a good mood,” she said.

In a typical performance, she provides her own distinct Russian translation of the songs that often diverge dramatically from the original version.

“When I first started performing, I sang French hits in their original version. But I wanted my audience to understand the lyrics, and that’s when I started translating,” said Petrushevskaya in a telephone interview. “However, as I discovered, famous foreign songs have a very simple literary message. My translations of their lyrics aren’t literal, as I try to create a literary story from the simplistic original text. In this, I am a follower of the traditional Russian romance where the lyrics always relate a story.”

Known for her dark sense of humor, which didn’t help get her works published in the Soviet Union, Petrushevskaya bluntly brought many of the songs down to earth.

Vincent Fiorino’s song “Blue Canary,” in Petrushevskaya’s interpretation is transformed from a weepy, sentimental story of a grieving bird into a practical lesson for the heartbroken, whom Petrushevskaya advises half mockingly, half sympathetically, “We all here are canaries with experience.”

At the end of the song, Petrushevskaya made a sound like a canary’s shriek as she pulled off an extended high-pitched note.

Even more frank is Petrushevskaya’s version of “Besame Mucho,” which she introduced as a “timeless song,” deceivingly putting the audience into a romantic mood.

“‘Besame Mucho’ is a song about separation. For some odd reason, at all times everyone has to part. That’s why this song is eternal,” said Petrushevskaya before she started singing.

The parting turned out to be far more prosaic than initially expected, as she chanted, “Besame Mucho … Don’t forget your watch and don’t leave without your pants on … I hope I won’t forget you the following day.”

The audience burst out laughing and applauded the delightfully inappropriate phrase from the 71-year-old author.