For a moment on October 27, 1962 the world came close to nuclear annihilation. It was the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the world stood at the precipice of disaster. The Soviet submarine B-59 in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean was cut off from Moscow and its commander wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at nearby American ships. Another officer on the sub, Vasily Arkhipov, stopped him. He’s a hero who narrowly avoided nuclear war. Now his time on the submarine and that fateful decision has been commemorated as an opera.
Set to run October 21 and 22 at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles, Arkhipov is a small-scale opera performed by 10 singers and 18 instruments. It’s two acts long and will run approximately two hours, according to a description on its website.
Arkhipov is, appropriately, the show’s hero. An interrogation of his wife 40 years after the event serves as the framing device but the bulk of the action will take place in the submarine itself. “Via arias that plumb the sailors’ interior lives,the opera investigates the physical and psychic claustrophobia of the underwater vessel and the ways its crew escapes the purgatory of the failing submarine—their belongings, their dreams and desires,” the description explained.
Nuclear war and opera is a surreal mix. “What happens if we find ourselves caught in the crosshairs of calamity,” Ed Parks, playing Arkhipov, sings a resonant baritone in a trailer for the show. “Chaos catapulting us from one moment to the next.”
“My torpedo tipped with 10 kilotons of nuclear warheads,” vibrates countertenor Daniel Moody. It’s eerie and a little silly. A slightly ridiculous medium to talk about something so terrifying. It’s a juxtaposition often found in art about nuclear war.
Arkhipov was already a Soviet hero before he set foot on B-59. In 1961, he was assigned to K-19, one of Russia’s first nuclear powered submarines. While conducting exercises near Greenland, one of the subs reactor coolant systems began to leak. To avoid a nuclear meltdown, engineers crawled into the reactor and conducted makeshift repairs. Everyone on board the sub was irradiated but the crew avoided a meltdown and brought the sub home. Many would die from radiation poisoning in the weeks and months to come.
Arkhipov survived and was assigned to B-59. It was 1962 and the Soviets were deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba. It was a move that put the United States into a panic. The nukes would be well within reach of the U.S. The announcement came after the Bay of Pigs Invasion and was meant to deter further provocation from America. Kennedy called for a “quarantine” of the island and negotiations began. For 13 days that October, it looked like a nuclear war might begin at any moment.
B-59 and Arkhipov silently cruised into the waters around Cuba amid the tension. The diesel powered sub was there to provide support and, if needed, to launch an attack. But the B-59 was not exactly silent and the American ships nearby noticed it and began to drop “practice” depth charges to signal the submarine to surface.
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Aboard a sub, it’s hard to tell the difference between a depth charge that’s meant to kill and one that’s meant to intimidate. Sub captain Vitali Savitsky was convinced World War III had begun and that the Americans were trying to destroy B-59. He wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo to wipe out the aggressors. Thankfully, a nuclear launch required the authorization of three officers. Another agreed with Savitsky, but Arkhipov refused to co-sign the launch. He talked the other two down, convinced them the depth charges were meant as a warning and not an attack, and narrowly avoided the first use of a nuclear weapon since World War II.
Arkhipov the opera seeks to tell that story by “creating an opera that renders this narrowly avoided slow-motion train wreck via an arc of relentlessly mounting tension—from the initial excitement and camaraderie of the submariners through their increasing deprivation,to a tortured state in which a decision to destroy the world seems almost logical.”
Musicals and operas are a bizarre genre. There are some emotions and moments so big, so grand, and so horrific that conveying them through song lends them a gravitas that’s hard to convey in a typical stage play or film. The story of Arkhipov, a man who helped the world turn away from nuclear destruction is perhaps one of those stories.