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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Get to Know Kátya Kabanová

Feb 5, 2015 10:57:00 AM
By BLO Staff

Janáček with his wife Zdenka, in 1881

Background information on Kátya Kabanová by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

WHO, WHERE, WHAT, WHEN

Leoš Janáček, who, for all his outward appearance in photographs, seems a rather conventional 19th-century figure (perhaps a provincial professor?), led a fascinatingly complicated and often dark life, and he wrote music that deeply reflects his intense passions, sorrows, ecstasies, and energies. He was virtually unknown outside his native Moravia until his early sixties, when the triumphant premiere of Jenůfa brought him international fame. His creative life blossomed, nurtured by that success, a patriotic pride in the newly independent Czechoslovakia, and, perhaps most of all, by his relationship with Kamila Stösslová. But his emotional and psychological state, even before he met Kamila, was full of drama and turmoil. He pursued his future wife, Zdenka Schulzová, with obsessive ardor, and the subsequent marriage was tempestuous, to say the least, filled with extramarital love affairs and infatuations and strained by the tragic deaths of his two children.

It All Started with Jenůfa
The ecstatically-received Prague production of Jenůfa in 1916 transformed Janáček, at the age of 62, from a little-known provincial composer into an international celebrity overnight. It was performed in over 70 theaters over the next 10 years and launched an astonishing burst of his creative energy during that time that produced the four masterpieces that have secured his place as one of the century’s most important operatic composers: Kátya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Affair, and From the House of the Dead.

The Source
For Kátya, Janáček fashioned his own libretto, with a very skillful dramaturgical hand, from the play, The Storm (the original Russian title also means ”terror” or “disaster”), by the leading Russian realist playwright Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886). Still performed occasionally abroad, it was enormously popular in Russia and was produced there over 4,000 times through 1917. It concerned itself, in part, with a detailed documentation of the life of the merchant class and the way in which its autocratic behavior reflected the oppressive hierarchical organization of the whole of Russian society.

Kamila Stösslová with her son Otto in 1917

The Inspiration
Janáček met Kamila Stösslová during WWI and fell in love with her—a love which endured up to his death in 1928. Both were married, and the relationship was maintained “…at a decorous distance,” mostly through an exchange of letters. She had two children, was 38 years his junior, was separated from him by a hundred miles, didn't much care for music, scarcely comprehended his stature as a musician, and responded to him with little warmth or understanding. On the other hand, Janáček's letters to her (there are over 700) burn with an almost obsessive intimacy, and all his later operas contain passionately intense portraits of her. His last chamber work, written a few months before his death, was originally to be titled Love Letters—to Kamila.

Poster for the premiere of Káťa Kabanová in Brno

The Premiere
Like most of his operas, Kátya was first produced in Brno in 1921; the first Prague performance followed a year later. After its publication by Universal Edition, the opera traveled widely in Germany and Austria. The first performance in Germany was conducted by Klemperer in Cologne in 1922, a few days after the Prague premiere. Kátya was the first of his operas to be performed in London but not until 1951, 23 years after the composer’s death.

Kátya in America
The performance history of Kátya in the United States reflects the growing interest in Janáček after a long period of almost total neglect. The official debut of Kátya was in 1957 at the Karamu House, a social and cultural community center in Cleveland, Ohio, performed by a small troupe. This presentation received so little attention that its next appearance is often cited as the first. It was a professional production, performed in English, mounted at the Empire State Music Festival in 1960 and given in a tent in Harriman State Park. Kátya arrived in New York City in 1964 at the Juilliard School. Interest in Janáček was growing in the educational field—Mannes College The New School for Music in NYC staged the U.S. premiere of The Cunning Little Vixen the following week. In 1977, Kátya was performed by San Francisco Opera, conducted by Rafael Kubelik. But the Metropolitan Opera  waited until 1951 to present Kátya, in a well-received production conducted by Charles Mackerras, staged by Jonathan Miller, and featuring Gabriela Beňačková and Leonie Rysanek.

The Cultural Context: A Brief Timeline
1921

•    The premiere of Kátya
•    Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence is published
•    Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill premieres on Broadway
•    6 Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello premieres in Italy
•    The world mourns the deaths of Enrico Caruso, Englebert Humperdinck, and Camille Saint-Saëns
•    The Love for Three Oranges by Prokofiev premieres in Chicago
•    Remodeled La Scala opens in Milan under the leadership of Arturo Toscanini
•    Pablo Picasso completes “Three Musicians”
•    “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” by Igor Stravinsky premieres in London

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