In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Kátya Kabanová: Political and Cultural Context

Feb 20, 2015 3:32:00 PM
By BLO Staff

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

The scholar of Central Europe, Larry Wolff (2006) classifies Kátya Kabanová as a modernist opera, arguing that its history “illuminates the development of operatic modernism on the terrain of the late Hapsburg Empire, which was reconceived as the transnational domain of Central Europe after the demise of the Empire at the end of World War I” (683–84). Leoš Janáček’s Kátya (1921), like Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (1910) or Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), illustrates the complex dilemma of Central European artists following almost two centuries of colonization. During the late 18th century, many Central European countries—such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Bohemian Kingdom, which included Janáček’s native Moravia—ceased to exist, partitioned between three hegemonic powers: the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Hapsburg Empire. Until World War I, the majority of the conquered nations struggled for identity that survived solely through language and historical memory, rather than any tangible geographic location or institutional statehood.

Since the 11th century, Moravia had been part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, but following the partitions, it accepted the hereditary right of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Although Moravians shared a language with the Bohemian Slavs and the Czechs, they only sporadically supported Bohemia’s struggle for independence. As a result, Moravians suffered less oppression than the neighboring Bohemians, but they also became more alienated from their former compatriots. Detached from Bohemia, Moravia eventually merged with Austrian Silesia, and following the Revolution of 1848, it became a separate Austrian crown land. Moravia’s history illustrates how difficult it is to delineate clear boundaries for the Central European process of colonization, as overlapping political arrangements created multiple historical and geographic layers of unstable—and conflicting—narratives and power relations.

After World War I, many formerly nonexistent Central European countries gained their independence. Central European culture—including theatre, literature, and opera—of the next twenty years reflected the many intertwining cultural, social, and political tensions that underlined the period of colonization and that inevitably became its legacy. In 1918, Moravia merged with Bohemia to form Czechoslovakia. “It was the era of national reawakening”—as Petr Den (1967) noted—whereas, “the Czech theater was no longer satisfied merely to dramatize life and events. It assumed a leading role in the resurrection of the Czech nation. To understand the magnitude of this role is to understand also why the construction of the National Theater in Prague in the latter half of the nineteenth century marked a decisive political as well as cultural event” (158). Theatre and opera were essential to nation-building because they provided a platform for the evolution of a national discourse while enacting and solidifying a sense of shared national identity. For this very reason, they also became politically contested sites.

Many Central European artists and intellectuals spoke two or three languages and shared two or three ethnic identities. During the years of colonization, Klemens Kaps (2012) notes, these “hybridic authors found themselves in an increasing conflict between the Empire and the Nation [. . .] The choice of language [was] not merely a change of medium” (22). It was often a political choice that delineated one’s sense of belonging and national identity, predicated on complex, multivocal layers of colonial interdependencies. Writing in one’s native language was an act of patriotic duty, but it also nearly assured one’s artistic marginalization and exclusion from the Western canon of modernist literature. Writing in German (as Franz Kafka did, for example, forsaking both Yiddish and Czech, and thus leaving his Czech and Jewish origins purposely oblique) was one way to be included in the ranks of modernist European writers.

Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová reflects the many issues of national identity that plagued Central Europe at that time, while it also stands out as a work that managed to be both an artwork of national importance and an international phenomenon. Wolff notes that almost all “operas by Janáček, originally staged as works of Moravian modernism in Brno, would eventually become international modernist events in Prague, Vienna, Berlin, and even New York” (684). Although Janáček composed his music to the patterns, flow, and rhythm of the Czech language, with his protagonists singing in conversational speech patterns and pitches, his music and the storylines universalized his operas, making them accessible to broader European and international audiences. Kátya Kabanová, in particular, “belonged entirely to the postwar and post-Hapsburg world of Central Europe—performed both in independent Czechoslovakia (Brno in 1921 and Prague in 1922) and in Weimar Germany (Cologne in 1922 and Berlin in 1926, with translations by Brod)” (685). With this opera, by the time of his death in 1928, Janáček managed to be both “a national composer of Czechoslovakia and an international artist of postwar Central Europe” (685).

Based on Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Russian drama The Storm (1860), Kátya Kabanová is also a work that represents the complex, hybrid, multi-ethnic makeup of Central Europe. To quote Larry Wolff again: “The opera’s Moravian speech melody, Czech language, Czechoslovak performances, and Russian setting on the Volga combined to make it a work of Slavic operatic modernism, touching on multiple Slavic contexts and affirming mutual Slavic relations in Eastern Europe” (691–92). As an example of the pan-Slavic movement, Kátya Kabanová is a work that both celebrates Slavic culture and frames it in the context of the international art world.


  • Den, Petr. “Notes on Czechoslovakia’s Young Theater of the Absurd.” Books Abroad 41, no. 2 (Spring 1967): 157–63.
  • Kaps, Klemens, and Jan Surman. “Postcolonial or Post-colonial?  Post(-)colonial Perspectives on Habsburg Galicia.” Historyka: Methodological Studies 42 (2012): 7–35.
  • Wolff, Larry. “Commentary: The Operatic Tragedy of Central Europe.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36, no. 4 (Spring 2006): 683–95.

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