With sadness I report that Dallas Opera has called off its planned 2012 production of Kát’ya Kabanová by Leoš Janáček. Hard to blame them; times are tough, Dallas Opera is still doing a premiere next season (of Peter Maxwell Davies’ To the Lighthouse), and Janáček’s operas are a tough sell even in good times. Still, given how few chances we have to hear Janáček’s music performed live, this is a blow.
Who is Janáček, you may ask? He was a Czech composer who primarily wrote operas. If you’re familiar with other opera, you’ll find Janáček to be an entirely different ballgame. His music differs radically from Italian, German, and French traditions, and even from his fellow Czechs; you won’t mistake a scene from his operas for a scene from Rusalka or The Bartered Bride. Janáček is relatively obscure because he set texts in his native language — had Franz Kafka written his stories and novels in his native Czech instead of German, he probably wouldn’t be as well known today. The character of Janáček’s music was largely dictated by the Czech language, which is full of clusters of consonants (you can actually make whole sentences without vowels) and often has the stress fall on a word’s first syllable. His music is spiky and yet florid. Some people hear in it presages of Bartók, though his frequent interpreter Sir Charles Mackerras saw Janáček’s use of repeated motifs and was moved to call him the first Minimalist composer.
One of the most remarkable things about Janáček’s career is that he started so late. He composed fitfully in his early years, efforts that included an anguished, Rachmaninov-like piano piece called 1. X. 1905, inspired by the death of a metalworker protesting Austrian rule over the Czech people. Still, he didn’t start writing music in earnest until 1916, when a revised version of his 1904 opera Jenůfa became a hit in Prague. At that point, he was 62 years old. Music critic Jim Svejda once mused that had Janáček died at the same age that Beethoven was when he died (57), he would have gone down as a footnote, an organ teacher and folk music collector who occasionally hung out with Dvořák and his buddies. Instead, Janáček packed an entire body of work into the years between 1916 and his death in 1928.
If you’re new to Janáček, you should start with Jenůfa, an early work that hews rather closely to traditional structures of aria, recitative, and ensemble. It also has recognizably traditional elements: a man suffering a moment of madness, a fallen woman, an illegitimate birth, and a murder. The ending is deeply problematic — the heroine ends up with the guy who slashed her face with a knife. However, the music is frequently electrifying, especially in the second act, with the heroine heavily medicated and cooped up with a stepmother who’s more concerned about saving the family honor than anyone’s welfare.
Kát’ya is a more complicated work structurally, but it’s still relatively easy to digest for beginners. A Russophile, Janáček adapted the opera from a play by Alexander Ostrovsky set in Russia. It’s about a married woman who is hounded to suicide by provincial social mores and her guilt over being (emotionally, at least) unfaithful to her husband during his absence. That plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to the turbulent, heaving music that suits an opera that takes place by the Volga River and climaxes during a downpour. The opera was composed after Janáček had had his own extramarital affair, which led to his wife attempting suicide. I mentioned Kafka earlier; his great friend Max Brod saw this opera and was so profoundly affected by the work that he wrote a lengthy essay about it. I’m embedding the Act II finale, staged at Glyndebourne. Sorry for the lack of English subtitles, here and elsewhere in this post.
Opera fans who are in a particularly adventurous mood should seek out his final three works. In contrast with the brutality of Jenůfa and Kát’ya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen is a children’s fable in which most of the characters are animals of the forest. Its comforting style conceals some speculation on the cyclical nature of life and death. Věc Makropulos (the title is variously translated as The Makropulos Affair, The Makropulos Case, and The Makropulos Incident, but it literally means The Makropulos Thing) is about a 300-year-old opera singer who yearns for death. It’s based on a play by Karel Čapek, who’s better known for coining the word “robot” in his play R.U.R. Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is based on a Dostoyevsky novel and has neither a main character nor a story. Yet despite its grim setting (a Siberian gulag), it has moments of radiance and beauty that make the story bearable.
Though he’s best known for opera, Janáček composed a few non-operatic works, too. His Glagolitic Mass is a well-known oratorio. (Weekly editor Gayle Reaves once saw the title Glagolitic Mass in our publication and said it sounded like something you had removed by your doctor.) The music sets a traditional requiem mass with text in Old Church Slavonic, a now-extinct language that was the predecessor for the present-day Slavic languages. Check out this majestic but fear-inspiring performance of “Gospodij pomiluj,” the equivalent of “Kyrie eleison.”
Marvelous as the oratorio is, Janáček was better at using his music to illuminate the personalities of the village types in Jenůfa and the nightmarish mother-in-law in Kát’ya, a portrait etched in acid. Janáček stands with Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and Britten as the best opera composers at drawing character. He also had an unfailing sense of stage fire, remarkable for a musician without any sort of background in theater. In fact, even though Janáček never received the worldwide recognition that he deserved in his own time, he was every bit as much of an operatic genius as his contemporaries Puccini and Richard Strauss, and his voice was very much his own.