They will perform excerpts from ‘Yeltsin in Texas’ at the supermarket site that the Russian leader visited while in the U.S. in 1989.
Shoppers at the Food Town at Highway 3 and El Dorado Boulevard in Clear Lake are about to be treated to a little historical deja vu.
In keeping with Opera in the Heights’ world premiere of “Yeltsin In Texas,” part of this month’s New Works Festival, at 2 p.m. Friday cast members will stage a sort of impromptu performance at the supermarket site that indirectly ushered in the fall of the Soviet Union.
“It’s kind of saying, ‘In case you don’t know, some major history happened in this exact grocery store right here,” says Opera in the Heights executive director Paige Myrick. “And it wasn’t that long ago — we’re only looking at 20-plus years ago.”
In September 1989, Yeltsin was a recently elected member of the Supreme Soviet, the communist nation’s highest legislative body. On a trip to America that also included stops at the Statue of Liberty and Trump Tower, the Russian politician stopped off at a Randall’s — which switched chains to Food Town some years later — after visiting nearby Johnson Space Center.
There he marveled at the abundance and variety of merchandise, but privately lamented how poorly the market reflected on his own country.
As quoted in Leon Aron’s 2000 biography “Yeltsin, a Revolutionary Life,” Yeltsin told an aide not long after, “I think we have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans.”
However, “Yeltsin in Texas” plays this little-known historical episode mostly for laughs. Myrick describes Nate Mattingly’s performance as Yeltsin as “quietly intimidating and yet this big goofball.”
“If you didn’t know anything about Boris Yeltsin before this production, you’d say yeah, he was kind of an intimidating leader of the Communist Party, but he has this curiosity that I don’t think the public eye got to see because the public eye was never really looking at him in the grocery store,” she says. “I think it’s interesting how a setting like a grocery store can spark curiosity in even the most seemingly close-minded people.”
According to Myrick, what makes “Yeltsin in Texas” click is the budding relationship between the title character and the store’s staff, who are hardly expecting a future world leader to pop in and start admiring the Jell-O pudding pops. But they begin bonding in unexpected ways, both with their guest and each other.
Myrick likens the cast’s interaction to the classic sitcom “The Office.”
“They’re just funny to watch,” she says. “And what’s really cool is they’re impacted by that experience. The way that Evan wrote the opera is the employees are impacted by the experience in such a positive way. It is life-changing for these characters.”
The plan Friday afternoon is for Mattingly to greet customers in costume as Yeltsin while he and fellow cast member Tom Gunther, who plays a clerk, perform selections from the opera. Composer Evan Mack will join them at the keyboard as Myrick and another Opera in the Heights staffer pass out flyers for the show, which opens at Lambert Hall Saturday night and repeats Feb. 23 and March 1.
“We’ll see if that works,” Myrick says. “The singing is so amazing. I think opera singers have this ability to make everyone stop and listen, so I certainly hope that no one’s scared by it.
“I also think that 2 p.m. on a Friday is a relatively quiet time at a grocery store.”