Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. Katya Kabanova, the 1921 masterpiece by Leoš Janáček, comes to Seattle for the first time this February (seven performances through March 11). Aidan explains his enthusiasm for the works of this great Czech composer, the themes of Katya Kabanova, and creative process behind our new production.
Hello, everyone, this is Aidan Lang, speaking to you now about Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanova.
I’ve often said that Janáček is a wonderful opera composer for first-time opera-goers, and people look at me as if I’m slightly mad on that. The traditional way of thinking is you take a newcomer to Bohème or to Butterfly.
Now, those two are great masterpieces, and are performed all around the world frequently. But for people who are opera-wary, or haven’t experienced an opera, they are likely to come to the theater more informed by the way they digest entertainment through film, through television. And the great advantage of the works of Janáček is they have the sort of directness and the emotional punch that you see today on long-narrative TV and in cinema. A first-timer will find a far more immediate bond with a work like Katya than they would with a more romantically-weighted work like La bohème.
It’s the immediacy of Janáček’s writing that I think is its great strength. He gives no time for sentiment. He allows the speech of the character to really push and propel the narrative of the story. This is not opera where you sit back and relax. You really feel you are present at a play which happens to be sung, a play of great intensity, rather than an opera. It’s opera which keeps you at the edge of your seat the entire time. You want to know what on earth is going to happen next, and how the characters are going to get out of the dilemmas they find themselves in.
One feature of most if not all of Janáček’s operas is the way the characters are in quite harsh living conditions or living environments. He’s unapologetic about the harshness of living. And at the end I find that the characters emerge from their trials and tribulations with an extraordinary dignity, accepting responsibility for their actions. Katya, in the great confession scene, admits to having committed adultery, because she knows, in her mind, this is a sin. She owns up to her actions. She doesn’t go off, like the foster-child Varvara and Kudrjas, she doesn’t get out of the society and run off to Moscow. She accepts that she behaved wrongly and pays a price.
One phrase which always gets used in describing especially dramatic presentations is “the willing suspension of disbelief.” People hold of opera, you’ve got to do a lot of suspending, if only because a lot of the action is sung rather than spoken. I think what strikes one about seeing the operas of Janáček is how little you need to suspend that disbelief. He puts onstage life in all its gritty reality, and what’s fascinating is he’s pretty much a direct contemporary of Puccini, hence my original comparison. And yet these operas are worlds apart in what they really depict. The word verismo is used for the Italian school of opera at this time; yet Janáček’s operas are far, far more realistic than the constructs of Puccini’s works. You really do feel you are eavesdropping on a piece of real life. The sung text moves pretty well at spoken speed; there are no moments where lines get repeated, there’s no resort whatsoever to operatic forms, even though some of the characters might have a monologue. We just feel we’re present in that character’s mind at that moment. They’re not long operas, there’s no act that lasts more than about 40 minutes. Janáček knew what he was doing, he took source material and really pared it down to its bare bones in order to get to the heart of the story. Anything which is peripheral he cuts. So it’s the speed, the directness which I think is the real appeal of these operas.
How should you the audience prepare for an opera which you may not know, or indeed a composer whose music you may not know? I think the best prep would be to listen to some Janáček so that the musical idiom is not alien. His music is almost impossible to describe with reference to another composer. But as soon as you know Janáček, you can hear five bars and you know it’s Janáček, even though you don’t know the piece. He is so individual in his composing style, his use of speech rhythms, the lack of form; and yet it doesn’t feel sprawling, you feel there’s a tight cogency to a structure, even though he doesn’t write in clear musical numbers, if you like. It’s a flowing narrative, but one which feels it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Listen to some of it and let its immense power come to you. You could certainly listen to the Sinfonietta or the Glagolitic Mass, those would give you the sense of what he is about musically, some of the orchestral music, or Taras Bulba, would give you a sense of the rawness, the visceral excitement of his music.
One of the great pleasure to bring Katya to the stage is of course the fact that it has not yet been seen by Seattle audiences. Now, the list of repertoire which the company has done over its 50+ years is unbelievably extensive, so it becomes harder and harder to find works which haven’t bene performed at some point. But Katya is one of them. And I think one of the things I’ve been really pleased about, in the short time I’ve been here, is in the past three years alone we’ve presented Semele, Nabucco, Maria Stuarda, Count Ory, and now Katya Kabanova, all works which had not been seen before, and it’s really pleased me the way our audiences have been fascinated to see things they haven’t seen, to think about them, and to realize there’s a whole wealth of repertoire outside the standard works which is worth exploring. I think our aim, as always, is to strike a balance between what is known, and things which are known exceedingly well, to give them a deep dive and try and find productions which reveal something further than what people may have ever seen before. But in the case of a new work, of course we want to make sure people can approach it and get to its essence as deftly as possible.
So that leads to the question, what is the essence of Katya Kabanova? In a way it’s not dissimilar, at its heart, to the real core of La traviata. Both operas have a strong female character and are a look at a perceived sin. I see resonances between Violetta and Katya, both individuals who are constrained and repressed by moral and social codes, who in their different ways both break out from that as well.
So Katya lives in a small town; we’re not in a city, we’re in a bit of a back-water, where social codes become the important arbiter of people’s behavior and indeed their existence. We’re in a society where a young married woman finds that as soon as she’s entered into marriage, all her freedom, her ability to think and feel as an individual, have been almost shut off by the contract of marriage. She's an individual who is dying to break out, but can find no way to do so. She encounters a young man who’s come to this small town purely in order to fulfill requirements for him to gain his inheritance; he doesn’t want to be there, he’s come from Moscow. And a strange bond has been formed between these two characters who, in their different ways, both would rather be somewhere else. An inevitable affair takes place; Katya is forced to confront the full weight of her actions, and she takes responsibility for that, and as Boris, the lover, rather cravenly is forced to go off elsewhere, to leave the town, she finds no other possibility than to take her own life, which of course is a mortal sin within the moral framework which Katya has. So she makes a terrible decision. This isn’t a sort of, dare one say, romanticized suicide, or suicide for a frisson, like Tosca jumping off Castel Sant’Angelo. This is a terrifying decision, to take her own life, by Katya, because within her own moral framework it leads to hell and damnation. It’s an appalling decision she makes. But she finds there is no other solution.
The action of Act One revolves around Katya’s husband, Tichon, who needs to go away on business. That is the close of Act One, as we see him depart. Dramaturgically what that action does is lay open the possibility for Katya to explore her feelings with Boris. The act of leaving opens the gate for the next significant act, which is the meeting, which comes at the end of Act Two. The first act has a consequence; and we see the consequence in the action in Act Two, which otherwise would not have happened. And then of course the same thing happens from Act Two to Act Three; we see the love duet; that will lead to a full-blown affair; the action of Act Three is the consequence of that action at the end of Act Two. So we have a very clear structure of events leading to a climax and then the following act being only possible because of the events of the previous act. It’s a very clear three-act structure. And yet, that structure underpins a narrative which seems free-flowing. It’s a very clever use, on Janáček’s part, of an underlying rigid structure, which is artless. Had I not pointed that out, probably people at first view wouldn’t have spotted that, but it’s there. This is very much a well-made play, and the nature of Janáček’s music, gives one the sense this action is very free-flowing, and yet it has a discipline to it, in terms of the way it’s put together.
Love is an important aspect of this opera. Katya is the only one of Janáček’s operas where we have love music. In the duet between Boris and Katya we have a love duet. Yes, there’s a duet between the Fox and the Vixen, in The Cunning Little Vixen, but that’s really a ‘mating’ duet, rather than a love duet per se. It’s as if we see human relationships in three different aspects, actually in three couples: we see Katya and Boris, they are contrasted to a much freer moral attitude of the foster-child who lives in the house, Varvara, and her lover Kudrjas. The true freedom of a couple unfettered by wedlock, contrasted with the difficulty for a married woman (who is in a loveless marriage) to have any emotional freedom other than through an illicit affair. And then a perverse couple, which is the terrifying mother-in-law, Kabanicha, and the uncle of Boris, Dikoj. It’s a truly perverse little scene, and it seems to me it exists, just before we see the love duet and the meeting of Varvara and Kudrjas, it’s there to show a flip side to true love, I’m sure that’s what it’s purpose is, to show two characters who don’t seem to be married, but are pillars of the society. Somehow they can’t seem to find anything pure and natural, and their relationship is governed by strange codes and rather warped mentality. And I’m sure it’s there to contrast with the purity of the quartet we see in the next scene.
Janáček’s operas really came to prominence in Europe in the 1950s. They were performed in Germany, but outside his native Czechoslovakia and Germany they were unknown until some pioneering work done by the great conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. So gradually through the ‘60s and ‘70s more and more landmark productions took place, and I think his full genius became recognized. It probably has taken longer to cross the Atlantic. There are many productions, certainly at the Met and San Francisco in the past couple of years have done Jenůfa and The Makropulos Case. Nonetheless, the productions are fairly few and far between, and this seems to me a huge shame, because Janáček is one of the most important composers of opera of the twentieth century. They’re not easy. Simply to disentangle what’s on the score takes a lot of preparation. They are challenging to sing. They are difficult orchestrally; the best orchestras in the world will struggle with these scores at early readings, because the way Janáček wrote them down was so chaotic, they’re difficult to read. They do represent a challenge for any company. It’s easier for a company with a larger repertoire per year to program them, because we don’t expect the same audience attendence at a Janáček as we would for a Puccini. The more operas you perform, the more you can buffer yourself against a smaller attendence for a piece.
It may also be that they are deeply Slavic, and we’re used to opera being Italianate, or German or French. Other than Eugene Onegin and perhaps Queen of Spades, we don’t have so many Slavic operas being performed regularly here in the States. How do we bridge that, and how do we make a production of Katya immediately appealing to an audience here in Seattle? Well, the path taken by the creative team is to relocate the action to a 1950s America. Why, I hear you ask. Well, let’s consider what was going on in that immediate post-war period. We come to that age where the beautiful family becomes an important part of small-town America, and with that the stay-at-home wife; women who had found employment during wartime years suddenly find themselves, almost by default, expected to be the mother, bring up a family, with no real possibility to find fulfillment on their own. A character in a film who occurs to me as a dead parallel for this is, in that marvelous film The Hours, which –those of you who’ve seen it will know—is a three-pronged look at Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway—seen through three different concurrent narratives. And one of those characters is a wife in the 1950s, played by Julianne Moore, who feels completely constrained by the marriage she is in, and is reading Virginia Woolf and finds herself, in her imagination, breaking out of that. I find a direct parallel with that character to what the creative team are suggesting with this production, that there are really clear links between the social constraints in small-town American in the ‘50s, and the social constraints in Russia in the 1860s. And I guess I ask the question: if we put 1860s Russia onstage, no matter how beautiful and pretty it might look, would we understand those characters are well as we understand people living in ‘50s US? I suggest the answer is probably, ‘No.’ And our job as an opera company, especially in dealing with a piece which is new to people, is to enable them to get to the heart of that piece as deftly as possible. So I was really pleased when the team came up with this as a concept, because it immediately spoke to me as a way we can deliver this piece and make people understand, without having to go to history books or other references, exactly who these people are, what sort of constraints they’re under, exactly what sort of world must Katya be living, why she feels she needs to break out.
So the creative team are newcomers to Seattle Opera. We felt we were singing in Czech, it was important to have a conductor who is completely conversant with both the language and the musical idiom. So it’s my great pleasure to introduce Oliver von Dohnányi, to make his debut here. He’s Slovak, actually, but as someone who’s a native Czech speaker, it’s really helpful—we’ve seen this in rehearsals already—so much of the rhythmic pulse of this opera is dictated by the natural speech-rhythms of the Czech language. If you open a score, you’ll often see five quarter-notes with a ‘5’ bracketed over them. Now, Janáček didn’t intend a mathematical 5-against-4; simply what’s happening is, the word has five syllables, and he wants it on one beat, so he just wants you to say the single word. So I think it’s essential, if we’re singing in Czech, that we get the Czech idiom and pronunciation and rhythm right, because that is completely baked in to Janáček’s music.
We have a creative team who’ve actually come from Australia. The director Patrick Nolan had actually worked on this piece before; and Patrick’s work is really defined by a realistic kind of acting, he’s not one to abstract things. His work really is about detailed observation of character, within a wider picture as well. His scenic partner is Genevieve Blanchett, who again I’ve worked with before, who has brought a real beauty to this production. I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re very much aware of nature, and the landscape, which is crucial to an understanding both of the events of the opera and to Katya’s character. There’s a side to her which feels at one with nature, so that element of landscape has played a very, very important part of these strikingly beautiful designs. The other component is video. Our lighting designer, Mark Howett, is also responsible for video work. We’re in a huge projected panorama, which are in fact long-take video clips rather than still projected images. So if you’re aware of clouds moving, or birds flying past, that’s because they really did, while they were taking these twenty-five minute takes. And I think that’s great, because one of the dangers of still projection is, it becomes lifeless. It’s one of the problems with putting nature onstage, bringing trees onstage is they don’t move around in the wind! So this is a way of rather deftly getting around that; that we’re seeing real nature projected, so we get a sense of immense landscape, on three large projection screens wrapping around the acting space, and I think that will very deftly give a sense of the realistic environment in which this action takes place.
The filming took place out in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, actually not far from my home in North Bend! So locals may recognize Mt. Si, and the mountainscape around it, and other areas. We wanted it to feel that it was in this part of the world, not Arizona; because the magnificence of the mountainscape and the skies is part of the underlying feeling to this piece.
There are only two characters in this production who are double cast; they are Katya herself and Boris. It’s my great pleasure to introduce to our audiences the work of Melody Moore, as Katya; Melody has been seen in many wonderful roles around the country, but never out here, so I think her debut was long overdue. And of course our other Katya is Corinne Winters, who, naturally, we just saw as Violetta, just last week. And one of the reasons we decided to split the role of Katya between Melody and Corinne was to suggest that, whereas previously there was, implicitly, a hierarchical structure, by dint of the fact that one singer would have five performances and one would have two. By leveling it up, we’re giving those people who didn’t have a chance to see Corinne as Violetta a chance to see her, and really to say we make no difference between the casts we feature on any particular performance.
It’s quite entertaining to see confused looks on the staff in the rehearsal room because we just saw Joshua Dennis give his Alfredo, and we now have his identical twin brother Joseph playing the part of Boris! Joseph, just like Josh, is a marvelous singing actor, also impeccable Czech, and it’s great to give him his debut so soon after his brother. And we have another debut in Scott Quinn, who is sharing the role of Boris with Joe.
I guess the next important character is Victoria Livengood, who it’s been a long time since she was at Seattle Opera. She’s singing the role of the fearsome Kabanicha, one of the truly extraordinary roles in all of opera. This is a character who is deeply unpleasant. What on earth is going on in her mind I do not know. But she is so governed by her own sense of what is proper, in society, that she allows no place for feeling and thought. She’s a truly strange creation, a terrifying creation and a terrifying presence onstage, and for us it was very important to have a singer who convey that character deftly, and Victoria is an astonishing singing actress, and I know she’s really relishing the task ahead of her.
We have another debutant for Seattle Opera in Stefan Szkafarowsky, playing the bullying merchant Dikoj. Stefan is of Ukrainian extract, although very much an American. And I remember when he auditioned for us a couple of years ago, we virtually stopped him at the door, saying “This role is yours.” We were struck instantly how perfect he would be, both vocally but also as a character actor, to convey this extraordinary role, so it’s great to have Stefan with us.
We have in the younger couple of lovers Josh Kohl, who we saw in Ariadne auf Naxos, coming back to sing Kudrjas, and we welcome back Maya Lahyani, who was Flora in Traviata, to play Varvara, the next couple of lovers. Varvara’s an interesting role because, although it’s a mezzo soprano role, it’s written very high, and Maya was telling me it’s taken her a while to just get her voice up there. But now she’s really sung the role in, and is singing magnificently down below.
Also thrilled to give a Seattle Opera debut to Nicky Spence, an English singer singing the role of Tichon, Katya’s husband. An interesting role, because he’s a weak man, really. He’s not unlikeable. But clearly there has been no real meeting of spirits between him and his wife Katya. Nicky is a remarkable singing actor. He’s done some Janáček before; he was in Jenůfa at English National Opera, and it’s fantastic that we can give him a debut so far from home. I know you’ll really be taken by his performances.
So this is opera is really something very new for most of our audiences. And what I can say is you are in for a treat. It’s different. It’s not Italian opera, it’s very much its own thing. But I think just as Janáček’s works have been discovered in the past 60, 70 years, and people who are passionate about them become passionate about them for life, and that’s due to the incredible intensity, the immediacy, the way we empathize with the pain of the chararacters, all adds up to a truly compelling night of opera, and I know that you’ll come out of the performance hit in the solar plexus. They have great punch, and you will have had a really great experience of opera.