Lady Macbeth had been premiered to great popular and critical acclaim in 1934. In Leningrad and Moscow, the opera had received around 200 performances, pretty good for a new opera. It was playing outside of the USSR to acclaim as well. Then, one night in late January 1936, Stalin attended a performance of this opera in Moscow. By all accounts, he was not amused, and walked out before it was over. A very short time after that, that Pravda editorial appeared, under the title, in various translations, "Chaos Instead of Music" (or "Muddle..." or "Confusion..."). One translation of the editorial into English is here. One sentence captures the threat behind the words, their version of "watch what you say": "It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."
It did. Within a very short time, the opera was yanked from all Soviet stages. Artistic friends and colleagues around him "disappeared", among them the great theatre director Meyerhold. DSCH himself put the opera away from public view for about 25 years. He never wrote another original opera, so his proposed tetralogy came to nothing. About 10 years after the death of Stalin, DSCH revised / watered down Lady Macbeth into a milder version, titled Katerina Ismailova. This version was recorded and even made into a film, which I saw several years ago.
This story holds the painfully obvious moral about how vicious oppression of artistic expression and freedom can be, so obvious that it seems to barely need repeating. However, as Kossacks know, we have our own highly puritanical cultural commissars, maybe not in the realm of "high culture" like opera, but more in popular culture like TV and movies. You know the targets, like Sponge Bob Squarepants, the lesbian couple briefly shown on PBS' Arthur, etc., etc.. In the US, opera and the "high cultural" performing arts do not command the mass influence where a situation like this one back in the old USSR could happen, or where the homegrown right-wingnut noise machine can exert its vicious pull in such a highly visible way. That would be applied more to art like wide-relase movies, such as Brokeback Mountain, maybe Syriana if it had quite the same level of publicity.
This isn't to say that opera hasn't had its share of recent controversies. The British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's recent opera The Silver Tassie, set during World War I and depicting the waste of that conflict in the story of one soldier who was paralyzed at the front, was originally scheduled for a US production in Dallas in 2003. But after 9/11, that fell through. Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking, about Sister Helen Prejean and her work with death row inmates, does attract attention over issues of capital punishment (link to a PBS documentary about it here, although if memory serves, some PBS stations wimped out and didn't carry the telecast from San Francisco Opera). Probably the single most politically controversial opera of recent times, is John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, because of its treatment of the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985 and handling of the various characters, both the hijackers and the victims. An attempt to perform choral excerpts at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2001 was cancelled, in the context of the fact that a member of the chorus scheduled for that performance lost her husband in one of the 9/11 planes that were hijacked into the World Trade Center.
In of itself, being morally offended at Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, or another work of art, is not the worst aspect of this historical incident. It is OK to dislike a work of art, to be offended at it, even to hate it. That shows that you're thinking about the work of art and reacting to it, in other words, taking it seriously, as opposed to just treating it as fluffy mindless "entertainment". What is not acceptable is to translate this dislike into preventing others from seeing the work for themselves to be able to make their own judgments. Moreover, it is unacceptable to harass and threaten artists with physical harm, or even loss of life, because of the artwork. It is, perhaps, a backhanded tribute to the power of art and such artists that it can elicit such strong reactions, which means that the art is taken really seriously as something that can affect how people think. Cold comfort if you're the one being threatened, of course.
The cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, a great friend and champion of DSCH and his music, conducted the first commercial recording of the original version soon after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, in the late 1970's, for the EMI Classics label. The other commercial recording that I am aware of is the one conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, on Deutsche Grammophon. I think some DVDs are out as well. If you have about 2.5 hours of free time to take a break from saving the world, and your local library has a copy of either version, borrow it and give it a listen.
If you're planning to be in Amsterdam in June or early July, The Netherlands Opera is doing a production, with no less than the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor Mariss Jansons in the pit (part of the calendar does overlap with Yearly Kos, I know). There was just a production by Austin Lyric Opera (!!), reviewed here and here. There is going to be a production of Katerina Ismailova at the Zurich Opera House this summer, but I'm not sure if it's the original or the revised version, given the title (one hopes it's the original). The Canadian Opera Company will do their production in early 2007.