Life, Death and Leos Janacek

Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 03:04 PM

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.

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Comments [7]

Phyllis Sharpe

To Stephen from NYC
Is "The Nose" from Gogol"?
from Phyllis TNJ

Jun. 27 2011 06:43 PM

Yes Fred, who else would care about the Badger...I believe I was at UW- Madison at the same time you were there, and also listened to the opera broadcasts from Lincoln Center on Saturdays- only then I would have had bratwursts and beer after the opera, instead of cookies and milk.-M

Jun. 25 2011 04:52 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To MAK: By any chance, are you from Wisconsin or did you study at the U of W? In that case, you are a badger of a different stripe, as I am

Jun. 25 2011 02:45 AM
Frank Feldman

It's the Lion King with much better music.

Jun. 24 2011 10:50 PM
Stephen from NYC

I agree with your assessment, Fred, that From the House of the Dead, Satyagraha and The Nose, are the high points of the Peter Gelb era. (Don't get me started on the low points...ahem, Sonnambula.) One of the most rapturous ovations I have seen at the Met occurred when the curtain fell on opening night of FTHOTD after nearly 2 hours of silence. It was an astonishing evening of music.

Jun. 24 2011 04:50 PM
meche from MIMA

Thank you Fred. I always learn so much from your columns. I will be seeing "Vixen" Friday night and feel in a position to appreciate it more than I did when I saw it at NYCO.

Jun. 24 2011 01:54 AM

Thank you, Fred for the reminder about this broadcast and for sharing your knowledge of it. I found it interesting to discover that Janacek requested that the last scene of this opera be performed at his own funeral. It seems perhaps, in this request, that his message is that the work is the ultimate survivor in life's cycle... A masterfully simple, delightful allegory in every way. You really do hear the sounds and life of the forest in the voices and orchestration--and--it makes me smile to see that an opera has a role for a Badger.

Jun. 24 2011 12:26 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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