The libretto was written by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Alexander Osipovich Starchakov. Since Orango is the protagonist of the opera, half-ape and half-man, one of the sources of inspiration for the libretto was the work of Russian biologist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov who attempted hybridization of humans and other primates. According to McBurney, the word suggests orangutan. Shostakovich had visited Ivanov's primate research station in Sukhumi and "recommended it as a sight worth seeing."
The Prologue was first performed in an orchestration by Gerard McBurney on 2 December 2011 in Los Angeles, California by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) and staged by Peter Sellars (director).
The Bolshoi Theatre commissioned the opera in 1932 intending it as a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov were engaged as librettists to work with Shostakovich and given the broad theme "'human growth during revolution and socialist construction.' Ultimately, the collaborators conceived their opera as 'a political lampoon against the bourgeois press,' adapting the plot from one of Starchakov's stories concerning a human-ape hybrid conceived in a medical experiment."
When the librettists failed to deliver on schedule, Shostakovich, who was busy in the midst of composing Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deferred then abandoned the project, discarding his draft. Starchakov was arrested in 1936 and shot in 1937.
Russian musicologist Olga Digonskaya was working with Irina Shostakovich, the composer's third wife and widow, on Shostakovich's catalogue. In December 2004, at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture, Moscow, Digonskaya discovered a cardboard file containing some "300 pages of musical sketches, pieces and scores" by the hand of Shostakovich. "A composer friend bribed Shostakovich's housemaid to regularly deliver the contents of Shostakovich's office waste bin to him, instead of taking it to the garbage. Some of those cast-offs eventually found their way into the Glinka. ... The Glinka archive 'contained a huge number of pieces and compositions which were completely unknown or could be traced quite indirectly,' Digonskaya said."
Among the discoveries were seven sheets, six written on both sides, which comprise the thirteen pages of "Orango" to survive: the Prologue, amounting to about forty minutes of music scored for piano with the vocal parts written above. The piano score was published in Moscow in 2010 with a scholarly introduction by Digonskaya.
More pieces by Shostakovich
- Festive Overture
- Symphony No. 8