At Seattle Opera February 2017
Music & Libretto by Leoš Janáček
Adapted from Vincenc Červinka’s translation of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm
Long Story Short
Trapped between human longing and a restrictive traditional society, a fragile young woman implodes.
Katya Kabanova (KAH-tyah KAH-bah-noh-vah) is a beautiful, gentle, frustrated young woman full of passionate spirituality.
Tichon (TEEK-ckhon), her husband, drinks away his misery. His name means “silent.”
Kabanicha (KAH-bahn-eek-ckhah), his overbearing mother, is a great believer in propriety and the rules of traditional behavior. Her name means “fat, ugly, mean, wild sow” in Russian.
Varvara (VAHR-vahr-ah), Kabanicha’s foster-daughter, knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go and take it. Her name is a variant of “Barbara.”
Vanya Kudrjas (KOOD-ryash), her lover, is a young science teacher. His name implies a cute boy with curly hair.
Dikoj (DEE-koy), Kudrjas’s boss, is a wealthy old merchant, a bully, and an oaf. He likes it when Kabanicha is harsh with him. His name means “wild savage.”
Boris (BOH-rees), Dikoj’s nephew, a handsome, well-educated urbanite, is out of place in this opera’s rustic setting.
Leoš Janáček (LAY-ohsh YA-nah-check) composed this opera.
Where & When?
Originally, Kalinov, Russia, a village on the Volga; the 1860s. Seattle Opera’s production sets the opera in 1950s US.
What's Going On?
Two wealthy families dominate a small Russian village on the banks of the Volga. The older generation, set in their traditional, autocratic ways, makes life a living hell for the young people, who yearn to escape. Old Kabanicha sends her pushover son Tichon off on a business trip. While he’s out of town, his wife, Katya, has a passionate affair with Boris, an educated young man trapped in the village because his unpleasant uncle controls the family’s money. Varvara and Kudrjas, carefree young lovers, run away together to Moscow. But Katya, overwhelmed by guilt, confesses her adultery. Boris is sent to Siberia, and Katya, unable to live with herself, jumps into a river and drowns.
About the Composer
Leoš Janáček was one of a kind. This composer’s utterly individual sound, once heard, is never forgotten. Some fall in love at first hearing; others find Janáček’s music quirky, irregular, an acquired taste. He was humble, honest, spiritual, not to mention uncompromising, irascible, stubborn, and difficult to live with. He would have lived his entire life in provincial obscurity had his genius not suddenly flowered in old age, inspired by his passionate platonic love for a young married woman. This unexpected love affair freed his spirit, and old Janáček composed a series of brilliantly original operas that have traveled from his small Eastern European village to every corner of the world.
When Janáček was born in 1854, Czech music was coming out of the long shadow cast by the powerful musical tradition in nearby Austria and Germany. In operas such as Smetana’s Bartered Bride (1866) and Dvořák’s Rusalka (1901), Czech composers finally began creating operas with a distinctly Czech sound which could thrill audiences at any theater in the world. These appealing, tuneful works rely on folk culture and draw on the spirit of Czech folk music.
But Janáček wanted to go beyond a vague Romantic ideal of nationalistic folk culture. He considered himself not Czech, but specifically Moravian, and spent much of his adult musical life (when he wasn’t playing the organ or teaching music in Brno) researching and transcribing traditional Moravian music. His own distinctive sound developed from what he learned—not from German teachers in Leipzig and Vienna, where he wasted several years as an unteachably anti-authoritarian student—but from his findings in the Moravian countryside. Western classical music was dominated by major and minor, two of seven possible modes available to Western instruments. Janáček was uninterested in limiting himself to major and minor, and also uninterested in atonality, an alternative that started to become fashionable in the 1910s and ’20s. Instead, he appreciated the beauty of the many musical modes available in Slavic folk music and became obsessed with how words naturally transform into music in folk song. He developed an extremely personal way of setting text to music, which you’ll hear in his operas.
Janáček’s family life was troubled. A bit of a workaholic, he married a young piano student; but they were never particularly happy together, and after both their children died, their relationship disintegrated. (Janáček’s powerful opera Jenůfa, written in 1903 as his 20-year-old daughter was dying, explores the catastrophic loss of a child; but it wasn’t performed at the important theater in Prague for a dozen years because Janáček had managed to insult the theater director.) The composer and his wife discussed divorce but chose instead to live separate lives in the same house. When he was 63, Janáček fell madly in love with Kamila Stösslová, a 25-year-old married woman with two sons. Although she never requited his obsessive passion, they became close friends, much to the annoyance of Janáček’s wife (Kamila’s husband didn’t mind). Janáček’s love for Kamila inspired three remarkable characters in his late operas: Katya Kabanova, in an opera also inspired by his love for all things Russian; the Vixen, in The Cunning Little Vixen, also inspired by his deeply spiritual love of nature; and Emilia Marty, in The Makropulos Case. He died in 1928, Kamila by his side, of pneumonia which developed from a chill he caught looking for Kamila’s son in the forests near his village of Hukvaldy.
Opera Goes Global
Western opera originated in Italy in the Renaissance and spread to France by the end of the 1600s. These Latinate cultures continued to dominate the art form for centuries. But over the course of the nineteenth century, the nation-state became the basic unit of political organization, with boundaries based on language, ethnicity, and culture. German and Russian opera came onto the scene. In the twentieth century, lively national opera traditions emerged in places such as England, America, and Finland. Janáček, originally a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was a musical hero of Czechoslovakia by the end of his life.
Janáček's Literary Taste
What kinds of stories can opera tell? Although genres such as myth and historical fiction are well-represented in popular opera, there’s really no limit to opera’s possibilities. Composers like Janáček delighted in pushing opera’s boundaries and avoiding predictability. His great operas all concern love, death, and rebirth; but they show a wide-ranging literary taste, plus an imagination that acknowledged no obstacles in terms of what could work on the opera stage:
Janáček’s first undisputed masterpiece, based on a controversial Moravian play, is a work of naturalism—known as verismo in contemporary Italy—without the slightest hint of sentimentality. (Imagine Puccini going out of his way NOT to manipulate our emotions.)
The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (1920)
Janáček went through seven librettists while working on this cheerful satire about a drunken idiot who travels to the moon and then back in time.
Katya Kabanova (1921)
Based on an 1859 play by Alexander Ostrovsky, Russia’s most important realist playwright. (From Ostrovsky’s theater came Stanislavsky, whose revolutionary approach to “natural” acting led to modern TV and film acting.) In Janáček’s operatic setting, Ostrovsky’s realism becomes surreal—more focused, more intense, more powerful.
The Cunning Little Vixen (1924)
Based on a newspaper comic strip; opera’s most environmentally “green” masterpiece so far.
The Makropulos Case (1926)
A legal thriller/sci-fi/mystery about an opera singer who has lived for three centuries, occasionally changing her identity, thanks to a magic potion.
From the House of the Dead (1930)
Based on a novel by Dostoyevsky. A powerfully uplifting piece, even though it has no plot and is set in a Siberian gulag.
Listening to Janáček
The unmistakable, unique sound of Janáček’s operas has an intensely idiosyncratic beauty all its own. It sighs, squeals, yearns, and scurries; it blooms, it rises up into exultation, and it crushes. Janáček’s sound world is quite different from that of much western European opera, and not just because Czech is not a romance language. Several of Janáček’s musical sympathies contribute to the special characteristics of his music:
An Opera in Prose
The librettos of many western operas are written in verse; that’s why most opera characters sound much more eloquent than real-life people (and also why they keep singing long after they’ve made their point). But Janáček was fascinated by the sounds of real everyday speech, not formal utterance. His characters say lines, not speeches; he writes them notes, not tunes. The resulting drama is far more realistic than even verismo opera. And its extreme concision increases the searing power of a tragedy such as Katya Kabanova.
Eastern Folk Flavor
But there are a couple of pleasant tunes in Katya Kabanova, chiefly for the easy, superficial love affair of Kudrjas and Varvara, who seem to be quoting folk songs when they meet at night in the garden. Such melodies are easy on the ear; but still you won’t be able to categorize them as either major or minor. Janáček’s years of studying Moravian folk music gave him a love for rich modal harmonies, which form the core of his harmonic language.
Officially, Janáček despised Wagner, who developed a system of recurring motifs so his orchestra could tell an opera’s story musically. But Janáček likewise builds his symphonic fabric out of the repetition of small musical fragments—only in his case they’re not motifs symbolizing elements of the story in an obvious way. Instead, Janáček uses musical cells, little patterns which give shape and unity to the feel of a scene while the singers imitate the chaos of speech in their vocal lines. Some of Janáček’s musical cells carry emotional significance—in Katya, one of them sighs with frustrated longing; another lurches up with guilt; and the most important one, heard on the timpani in the first minute of the opera, is a terrifying musical trap: the dire “No exit” destiny of Janáček’s heroine.
Music for the Volga River
Russia’s answer to the Mississippi, the Volga runs some 2,300 miles from the lakes northwest of Moscow to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. And just as we might sing “Roll on, Columbia” or “Ol’ Man River,” so the Volga has inspired song, since the days when it was the Vikings’ trade route to the Islamic world. The traditional “Song of the Volga Boatmen” became a huge worldwide hit in the twentieth century. At the same time, Janáček, a noted Russophile, wrote Katya Kabanova, an opera that opens with the dazzling vista of the river and closes with the chorus singing as the voice of the Volga—into whose all-embracing flood Janáček’s heroine finally throws herself.
Janáček at Seattle Opera
Seattle Opera has twice presented Janáček operas sung in English translation: Jenůfa in 1985 (featuring local debuts of company stalwarts Stephen Wadsworth and Peter Kazaras) and The Cunning Little Vixen in 1994, in a production designed by Maurice Sendak and conducted by Gerard Schwarz. With its 2017 production of Katya Kabanova, Seattle Opera presents Janáček in the original Czech for the first time.