Life, Death and Leos Janacek

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When I wrote my book, Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, I stated with confidence that the two most important opera composers of the early 20th century were Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini. I felt that Alban Berg had created two masterpieces (Wozzeck and Lulu) but this was not enough to rank with the other two composers. In recent years, when people ask me if I would make any changes to the book, I respond by saying that there were, in fact, three towering opera composers a century ago. I had left out Leos Janacek (1854-1928) because I had not yet understood his greatness.

If you are asked to name a Janacek opera, most likely you would reply Jenufa (1903), the third of his nine operas. It is a tale that includes seduction, abandonment, jealousy, infanticide, shame before a judgmental community and an awkward form of redemption. Everything you need for an opera plot. Plus music that is by turns exquisitely lyrical and roof-rattling. It provides an amazing singing and acting opportunity for a soprano such as Gabriela Benackova or Karita Mattila, who is now working her way through many of the most important Janacek roles. She will star in The Makropulos Case at the Met next season and it is at the top of my not-to-miss list along with Anna Bolena, Ernani, Khovanschina, and seeing Stephanie Blythe as Amneris in Aïda.

Jenufa also has several plum roles for other singers, so it is not strictly a diva vehicle. Above all there is Jenufa’s stepmother, the Kostelnicka, a tour-de-force of singing and acting has provided outstanding late-career opportunities for Leonie Rysanek, Anja Silja and Deborah Polaski.

Another Janacek opera that audiences might know is Kat’a Kabanová (1921) and lucky people in New York and Vienna may have seen the amazing Patrice Chereau production of Janacek’s last opera, From the House of the Dead (1928). This staging, along with Satyagraha and The Nose, are the high points of the Peter Gelb era at the Met. From the House of the Dead is being performed in these days as part of the Zurich Festival and readers who will be nearby should be sure to attend.

Janacek was the tenth of fourteen children in Moravia. At ten, in part because of family poverty, he was sent to live in a monastery in Brno, where he sang in the chorus. It happened that he learned music from Pavel Krizkovsky, Moravia’s leading composer. When his father died in 1886, the family was minimally supported by an uncle, who was a priest. He studied music in Vienna and, for decades, struggled in relative obscurity. He married quite young and he and his wife Zdenka had two children. Both would die in the 1890s while he was working on Jenufa. This opera would be his first success when he was nearly fifty years old.  But he would not have any more success until he was sixty, yet he kept working on his scores and teaching violin and organ.

We always ask the “what if” question about composers such as Schubert, Bellini and Mozart, who died young. What works would they have written had they had a fuller lifespan? Another important “what if” to ask is whether someone such as Janacek or Brahms might have stopped composing because they did not score successes as young men. We would not have the amazing flowering that Janacek experienced in the last twelve years of his life.

His big breakthrough came in 1916, when the National Theater in Prague finally agreed to present Jenufa, which turned out to be a bigger hit than anyone anticipated and attracted attention to the composer. The shocking story of the murder of a baby was dramatically effective and also affected the many audience members whose children had died, including Janacek. In the summer of 1917, he met Kamila Stôsslovà, who was thirty-eight years his junior and married. He fell deeply in love with her (though he and his wife remained married) and she became his muse. Janacek wrote a passionate song cycle, The Diary of One Who Vanished, about a man who abandons his family to run off with a gypsy woman.

Janacek then produced a lot of fantastic music, including the rhapsody Taras Bulba, the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass. The operas of his last period include Kat’a Kabanová, The Makropulos Case (about a woman who lives 473 years and is indifferent to the value of life and time), From the House of the Dead, and The Cunning Little Vixen (1923), ostensibly a charming story set in the animal kingdom, but really a reflection on life, death, fate and survival. The fact that it can enchant while dealing with such serious issues is part of its brilliance. The opera includes a vixen, a mosquito, cricket, dog, owl and many other beings.

In the summer of 1928, Kamila, her husband and eleven-year-old son visited Janacek. On August 6, the boy wandered into the forest and vanished. The composer took part in the vain search for the child, caught a cold that became pneumonia, and he died.

Why am I bringing Janacek (right) to your attention right now? When Alan Gilbert became music director of the New York Philharmonic, he decided to conclude each season with a semi-staged opera in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. This practice is done in cities such as Cleveland, which does not have the busiest opera season so their chief, Franz Wälser-Most, decided to do a major opera-in-concert to end the season. Last June the New York Philharmonic  scored a great triumph with Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre which, sadly, I did not get to attend. For his second season finale, Maestro Gilbert chose Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and great effort has been made to cast, rehearse and stage this opera that has not been done in New York for quite a number of years, since it was staged by the New York City Opera.

Tonight’s (June 23) performance will be broadcast live on WQXR at 7:30 pm and I encourage you to listen, learn and enjoy on the radio or computer. Afterwards, please post comments on this page about what you think of this unusual work.