The case of
the WNBA player on trial in Russia for drug possession, resonates with me. I was about Ms. Griner’s age when I worked in the Soviet Union.
From 1990 to 1994, I composed and conducted in three musical theaters for four-month stretches, moving through central Siberia, the Ural region and the Far East. The best theater was in Yekaterinburg, then known as Sverdlovsk. I conducted Russian orchestras in my own musical—a lavish adaptation of
“The Three Musketeers”—and in the well-known American musicals “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Sugar,” the 1972 musical adapted from the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.” The Russian title of that last show translates as “Only Girls in the Jazz Band.”
In 2012 I returned to Yekaterinburg—now boasting its pre-Soviet name—to conduct a production of Hungarian composer
“The Duchess of Chicago.” The Sverdlovsk Theater of Musical Comedy’s production marked the first Russian performance of the 1928 operetta since its Soviet premiere in Leningrad in the 1960s.
While perhaps not as frigid as they are now after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S.-Russia relations were hardly friendly in November 1990, the twilight of the Soviet Union. Like Ms. Griner, I was a stranger in a strange land. A summer crash course in Russian had taught me the Cyrillic alphabet but little else. On our first trip to the Siberian city of Omsk, the production team consisted of seven Americans. Our Russian colleagues jokingly warned of KGB microphones hidden in our hotel rooms. But as a Russian saying puts it, “In every joke there’s a grain of truth.” Because of its military factories, Omsk was a zakritiy gorod, or “closed city.” Getting visas to enter the country was no small feat, although the Omsk Musical Theater’s executive producer,
knew how to work the system. We were eventually admitted on a cultural-exchange visa.
During our artistic jaunts in Russia, my American colleagues and I were always on our best behavior and adhered to the laws of our host country. Growing up during the Cold War, we had read
“One Day in the Life of
” and gulag was one of the few Russian words we all knew. The idea of casually sampling a contraband narcotic—in other words, sharing a joint with an actor—was terrifying to us. The thought of carrying drugs into the country was insane. Not having Ms. Griner’s celebrity, and the sense of invulnerability fame so often confers, was a blessing for us simple theater folk. When we were tempted to stray—as some of us inevitably were—fear kept everyone on the straight and narrow.
While Ms. Griner by her own admission broke the law, I hope she doesn’t receive the disproportionate 10-year sentence she faces. A milder punishment seems fitting for her unfortunate error of judgment. Why demonstrate such mercy? Because Ms. Griner’s situation evokes in me a “There but for the grace of God go I” sense of relief. She plays for the basketball team in Yekaterinburg, a wonderful city where I had the great fortune to work. Thirty years ago, one dumb mistake and that would have been me.
Mr. Opelka is a musical-theater composer-lyricist.
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Appeared in the July 27, 2022, print edition.