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Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Kátya Kabanová: A Conversation with Michael Beckerman, Professor of Music at New York University

Mar 17, 2015 3:13:00 PM
By BLO Staff

Prof. Michael Beckerman

Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, talks to Prof. Michael Beckerman, a world-renowned musicologist, specializing in Czech and Eastern European music and the works of Janáček, Dvořák, and Martinu. Prof. Beckerman is a recipient of the Janáček Medal from the Czech Republic and a Laureate of the Czech Music Council. He is the author of  New Worlds of Dvořák (2004), Janáček and His World (2003), Janáček and Czech Music (1995), and Janáček As Theorist (1994). He recently received an honorary doctorate from Palacky University in the Czech Republic.

MR: What is the place of Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová in the repertoire of world opera?  In the repertoire of Central and Eastern European opera? 
MB: Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová is without doubt one of the world’s great operas. But to honestly answer your question, we have to acknowledge that over half the operas produced in the last five years were by only four composers: Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, and Wagner, in that order.* So Janáček never has been, and never will be, in that company in popularity or number of productions. But when we consider Kátya alongside other comparable 20th-century operas, such as those by Britten, Strauss, Shostakovich, Berg, and Schoenberg, it has a firm and important place in the repertoire. While Jenůfa continues to be Janáček’s most often-performed opera, almost every season sees a new production of Kátya, and audiences and critics are almost always stunned by its power. The end of Act 2, which juxtaposes pairs of lovers, is one of the most brilliant moments in any opera, and Kátya’s final aria combines the lyricism of Butterfly and the passion of Elektra with the breathtakingly “lost” quality of Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

MR: Janáček and his collaborator František Bartoš collected a large number of Moravian folk songs, and even edited a volume of the music they collected together.  What folk music can we detect in Kátya Kabanová
MB: Kátya uses Janáček’s experience with folk music in at least four different ways. The first is the most general and most widely known. Based on his ethnographic studies, Janáček developed a set of ideas—known widely as the “speech melody theory”—that concerned the relationship between the intonational patterns of human speech and the inner life of the speaker. Although there is no evidence that he actually incorporated snippets of “authentic” human speech into his operas, he often tried to craft musical lines that, in their free rhythms and pitch arrangements, alluded to this idea. Of course, like most composers, he adjusted the vocal lines in a way not bound by any theory in order to make them more effective. The second relationship is also somewhat general, and this involves the way the composer used the components of Moravian folk music—everything from rhythmic and scale patterns, to harmonic details and sonorities. The opera is filled with moments that recall Moravian song: we can hear local scales in Kátya’s opening aria about the birds, and also in the off-stage chorus which Janáček called, “the waves of the Volga.” A third way folk song appears is more literally in the onstage folk songs played by Vanya Kudrjasch with and without the balalaika [a Russian stringed musical instrument with three strings and a triangular body] at the end of Act 2. Finally, folk music has a potent symbolic function in the opera. While the lovers Kátya and Boris sing Tristanesque passages—the most erotic ones are sung off-stage—Varvara and Kudrjasch declare their love on stage in folk intonations. Janáček’s power rests, at least in part, on the fact that he never favors one duo or the other; the “healthy/uncomplicated” and the “doomed/complex” exist in a kind of tenuous but arresting balance. Although you asked about Moravian folk music, there is one more comment to be made. It does seem that in the overture, Janáček offers a stylized interpretation of Russian music, in the theme with the sleigh bells.

MR: Janáček’s instrumentation in Kátya Kabanová involves the viola d’amore, “viola of love,” an obscure instrument that dates back to 1600 and which was a metaphor for love. Can you tell us a little bit more about instrumentation? Anything else that’s unique or unusual in Janáček’s style, to which we should pay close attention, while listening to the opera?
MB: Janáček’s use of the viola d’amore is eccentric, artistically powerful, and endlessly fascinating. He probably encountered the instrument several times before he started using it, in his studies and later through his encounters with Rudolf Reissig, a highly-regarded violin teacher in Brno who made a specialty of the instrument. He may also either have heard, or known about, the instrument from its use in Charpentier’s Louise. His first intended use of the instrument was in association with his opera Fate in 1903, though he changed the final version to “normal” violas. Then he used it extensively in Kátya. Many questions about his use of the instrument remain. Was it really meant to be audible, or, as John Tyrrell suggests, something more symbolic? Did he ever really intend for the instrument to be used? Was it meant to suggest something erotic, especially his relationship to Kamila Stösslová, who served as something like a model for Kátya? Or did its mysterious, archaic sound, with its eerie sympathetic strings, “resonate” for him in ways that we still do not understand? For those with an interest in Janáček and the viola d’amore, I would recommend John Tyrrell’s essay, “Janáček and the viola d’amore” in the Cambridge Opera Handbook for the opera, and a listen to the opening of Janáček’s second quartet with the viola d’amore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDQBXIXJkGw.

MR: What is the production history of this opera? What were some of the most memorable stagings of the opera?
MB: The opera was first performed in Brno on November 23, 1921 with František Neumann conducting and Marie Vesela singing Kátya. The first Prague performance was a year later, and the first international performance was in 1922 when Otto Klemperer conducted the opera in Cologne with Rose Pauly in the title role. Performances in Berlin (1926) and Aachen took place before the war, and it was only after the war that the opera was once again performed internationally. A notable performance took place on April 10, 1951, when Charles Mackerras conducted with Amy Shuard singing Kátya. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Mackerras and Kátya. He conducted dozens of performances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, English National Opera, and throughout the world, and was perhaps its leading interpreter. The first American performance took place in Cleveland in 1957, but information about it is scarce. The Juilliard Opera presented it on May 1, 1964 with Frederic Waldman conducting, Lorna Haywood in the title role, and designs by Ming Cho Lee and Patton Campbell. The opera was not premiered at the Met until 1991, when a wonderful production with Charles Mackerras conducting and Gabriela Beňačková singing Kátya was directed by Jonathan Miller. The upcoming performance with the Boston Lyric Opera is the first staged Boston production of the opera. 

MR: The story is based on Ostrovsky’s 1859 play, The Storm. What are some of the major differences between Janáček’s and Ostrovsky’s stories?
MB: In almost all cases, opera libretti are condensations of the original source (even the libretto Ostrovsky wrote for his own opera telescoped the play). Janáček’s libretto is no exception, and he does two major things. First, he eliminates several characters and some scenes designed to give a sense of the local color of 19th-century Russian life. But the real difference is Janáček’s focus, his tight and ongoing focus, on classic confrontations. By this time in his creative life, Janáček is the author of his own libretti, and he knows what he wants. Whether in his adaptation of Karel Čapek’s Věc Makropulos, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, or Ostrovsky’s The Storm, Janáček drastically pares things down to a series of dramatic confrontations that animate the story and create dramatic frisson. Whether it is the antagonism between Kátya and her horrible mother-in-law, her deteriorating relationship with her husband, or her agonizing decision to give in to her feelings for Boris, Janáček is always searching for the tightest shot, to put it in film terms, the most compressed possible version of the conflict. We find this also in the heartbreaking conclusion of the opera as well. Janáček’s focus is on creating a set of extraordinary moments, not so much on limning the nature of local conditions and making social commentary, as in the play. 

*According to Operabase, the four most popular opera composers worldwide for the five seasons 2009/10 to 2013/14 were Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, and Wagner (in that order). Learn more at the Operabase Statistics Page. http://operabase.com/visual.cgi?lang=en&splash=t

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