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Chapter Fourteen— The  Janácek* Boom
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Chapter Fourteen—
The  Janácek[*] Boom

"I compose and compose as though something were urging me on. I no longer saw any worth in my work, and scarcely believed what I said. I had become convinced that no one would ever notice anything of mine."

In 1916, when he wrote these lines,  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] had good reason to feel neglected. He was already sixty-two. He had been composing assiduously, in his own quirky way, since he was eighteen. And he was unknown outside of the provincial capital of Brno (population about 200,000) where he had spent almost his entire life. There, in the capital of Moravia (now central Czechoslovakia) he taught school, conducted choirs, wrote operas and textbooks, collected more than two thousand local folk songs, and minutely recorded the noises made by people, dogs, chickens, and insects, which he developed into an elaborate theory of "natural" composition.

In 1904 he finished his third opera, Její pastorkyna , which we now know as Jenufa[*] . When it was rejected by Karel  Kovarovic[*] , director of the Prague National Theatre,  Janácek[*] offered it to the Brno Theatre, where all but one of his nine operas were to have their premières. They played it a few times in 1904, 1905, and 1906; a few more times in 1910. And that was it.

Eventually, the determined intercession of friends won over the difficult  Kovarovic[*] . (In 1877,  Janácek[*] had panned one of  Kovarovic[*] 's own operas, and biographers attribute the director's long resistance to Jenufa[*] to a twenty-nine-year grudge.) But  Janácek[*] 's friends managed to get the two men to embrace during an opera intermission, persuaded  Janácek[*] to accept all of the revisions  Kovarovic[*] demanded in the score, and personally guaranteed the first six performances against financial loss. With its title changed from Her Foster-Daughter to Jenufa[ *] , his opera got its first big-city performance on May 26, 1916.

Sixty-four years later, this same opera is scheduled for performance in a dozen


cities around the world. The other four  Janácek[*] operas that appear regularly in the repertory, all written after his sixty-sixth year—Kátya Kabanová (1921), The Cunning Little Vixen (1923), The Makropoulos Case (1923), and From the House of the Dead (1928, first performed posthumously in 1930)—were seen in at least eleven cities outside of Czechoslovakia in 1980.

Berg and Stravinsky may get more attention from the musicologists, and Benjamin Britten's operas may be more accessible to English-speaking fans. Occasionally a new production (of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron , say, or Aribert Reimann's Lear ) will focus public attention momentarily to another twentieth-century composer. But the operas of  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] have been performed more frequently and more regularly around the world than those of any other modern composer during the last thirty years.

In addition to keeping most of his operas in the regular repertory somewhere all of the time, the Czechs have staged a  Janácek[*] Festival at Brno or Prague every ten years since 1948, to celebrate the decades since his death. In 1948, they did all five of the operas just mentioned, plus The Excursions of Mr.  Broucek[*] (1920), a surrealistic satire in two disconnected parts. "I doubt if Mr.  Broucek[*] will ever penetrate outside Czechoslovakia," wrote Desmond Shawe-Taylor after seeing it at the 1958 festival. Since he wrote that, the opera has been done at Munich, Münster, Florence, West Berlin, the Holland and Edinburgh Festivals, Vienna, Düsseldorf, and London.

For the 1958 festival, the Brnovians also unearthed three of  Janácek[*] 's early flops, Sárka (1888), The Beginning of a Novel (1894), and Osud (1906), all of which then lapsed back into obscurity. In 1965, they opened a new, modern, 1,400-seat opera house in Brno, and called it the  Janácek[*] Theatre. The 1968 festival was held there, a few weeks before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. (A fall conference on the composer had to be called off.) In 1978, seven of his operas were performed in the new theatre and two in other halls in one long eleven-day  Janácek[*] glut. Making amends for their decades of neglect, the Czechs now export productions to other countries, and have dutifully been putting  Janácek[*] 's collected works onto records.

Because much of the power of  Janácek[*] 's music drama depends on Moravian folk song and speech rhythms, it is natural that a great deal of the sales campaign on his behalf has been carried on by compatriots. Max Brod and Maria Jcritza (and the young pianist Rudolf Firkusny) were among those Czechs who helped him during his lifetime. Today, Czech conductors like Rafael Kubelik and Bohumil Gregor, Czech singers like Nadezda Kniplová and Sona Cervena, and Czech producers and designers like Bohumil Herlischka and Josef Svoboda carry on the fight. But international-class producers from other countries—Günther Rennert, Jonathan Miller, Volker Schlöndorff, Walter Felsenstein (and Felsenstein's protégés, Götz Friedrich and Joachim Herz)—have contributed to the  Janácek[*] boom. Incomparable singing/acting roles like that of Emilia Marty in The Makropoulos Case and the


two domineering matriarchs in Jenufa[*] and Kátya Kabanová have attracted some of the world's finest sopranos.

Between 1951 and 1978, the English National Opera (known until 1968 as the Sadler's Wells Opera) mounted six  Janácek[*] operas, persuaded of his importance by conductor Charles Mackerras. (Mackerras has reedited the scores of both Kátya and Makropoulos , and conducted complete recordings of these and other  Janácek[*] operas.) The Deutsche Oper am Rhein repeated this feat between 1971 and 1977, and capped it by staging the first non-Czech cycle of the six operas in Düsseldorf between November 26 and December 4, 1977. In 1980, the combined forces of the Scottish and Welsh National Operas set out on the same project, introducing one  Janácek[*] opera a year in Cardiff, then moving it to Glasgow and on tour the year after. Elisabeth Söderström (who sings these operas in four different languages) has helped make  Janácek[*] a popular hit in Sweden. Argentina saw its first Jenufa[*] in 1950; Australia, in 1976.

The French and Italians, who prefer to hear operas in their own languages, have discovered that  Janácek[*] 's spiky phrases translate badly into Romance tongues. So he has not conquered the same place in the repertoire there he holds today in Germany and Great Britain. But after a few exchange visits from the Czechs, even the French and Italians began to grant him a hearing. Rome saw a native Jenufa[*] in 1952 and 1976; La Scala has done its own The Cunning Little Vixen (1957), From the House of the Dead (1966), and Jenufa[*] (1974). Paris got Kátya Kabanová in 1968, and its first Jenufa[*] in 1980.

The United States follows rather than leads in matters operatic, for a variety of good reasons, mostly financial. Although Maria Jeritza of Brno (who had sting the lead in the Vienna première in 1918) brought Jenufa[*] to the Met in 1924, it was quickly dropped after a few performances. " 'What a crew!' we may say of the people of Jenufa[ *] ," wrote Ernest Newman in a review of that production. "A more complete collection of undesirables and incredibles has never previously appeared in an opera. To the crude story Janacek has written music that is obviously the work of a man who, however many works he may have to his credit, is only a cut above the amateur."

Thanks to the patriotic fervor of Jan Popper, I was able to see a complete Jenufa[*] in May 1957, staged by his Opera Workshop at UCLA, where I was briefly a student. (His graduate teaching assistant at the time was a young Iranian named Lotfallah Mansouri, later to become general director of the opera companies in Toronto and San Francisco.) In his more violent moments, Popper, who was born in  Liberec[*] ccaron;, Czechoslovakia, even looked a bit like his idol.

But no professional American production of a  Janácek[*] opera was given again until 1959, when the Lyric Opera of Chicago borrowed a Covent Garden production of Jenufa[ *] . San Francisco introduced The Makropoulos Case in 1966, also with lead singers imported from London. The Metropolitan only got back on the


bandwagon in 1974, reviving Jenufa[*] after a fifty-year sleep. Kátya Kabanová —to my mind, the best of  Janácek[*] 's operas—received its first regular season U.S. performance in San Francisco (with Kubelik conducting and Söderström as Kátya) in 1977 following a few small school and festival productions. From the House of the Dead was given a powerful NET television production in December 1969, and Colin Graham staged the Santa Fe Opera's The Cunning Little Vixen in the summer of 1975.

I cite all of this to establish that the operas of  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] have, in rather recent years, established themselves in the world repertory at least as strongly as those of any other modern composer. ("Modern," as I'm using it, is not a matter of dates. Der Rosenkavalier and Turandot , which I would not call modern, were written after Jenufa[*] .) The story of how this happened reveals something about the accidents whereby our "taste" is constructed—even after genius has done its part.

Far away in Brno, chattering in Czech, quarreling with half the people in town (including his wife), and composing according to his private theory of the "musical. curves of speech,"  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] had an uphill climb to establish an international reputation. But he died at least moderately famous in 1928, having made up in his last twelve years for the obscurity of his first sixty-two. His seventieth birthday celebrations in 1924, an invitation to visit England in 1926 (a year that saw many new stagings of Jenufa[*] , particularly in Germany), and the composer's death two years later helped to release a minor flood of honors, testimonial articles, and productions of his operas and other works all over the German- (and Czech-) speaking world. At his death, his Viennese publisher printed a black-bordered advertisement listing the ninety opera houses, from Aachen to Zlen, that had already put on Jenufa[*] .

It is difficult to explain what happened next. A British music critic was astonished a couple of years ago at the prospect of having to review eight new recordings of Richard Strauss operas. He remarked on the typical "period of postmortem disapproval" all composers are supposed to go through, and thought that the thirty years between Strauss's death and transfiguration seemed unnaturally short. Another, more cynical commentator once remarked that "it takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty to elevate it to a masterpiece."

If they are right, then the abrupt decline in  Janácek[*] 's reputation after 1928 may not require any complex explanation. Critical articles continued to be written about his operas throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but the performance record shrank to almost nothing. England and America heard none of the operas at all. The Vienna tally for Jenufa[*] before 1964 was: 1918, ten performances (with Jeritza); 1926, two; 1948, five. The Czechs gave up on all of his operas except Jenufa[*] (which they liked for the "local color"), and finally dropped that from the repertory as


JANÁCEK[*]Jenufa[*] , Anja Silja, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1989.
Photograph by Guy Gravett.


well;  Dvorak[*] and Smetana were so much easier to love. The Makropoulos Case was given only six performances in Prague between 1928 and 1956.

In histories of opera written before 1970,  Janácek[*] is inevitably shoved onto a side track labeled "folk" or "national" opera, along with Albéniz and Vaughan Williams, and there dismissed in a paragraph or less. Very few of the many books published on modern music in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s had anything at all to say about the man who now so dominates the modern opera scene. As Ray Ellsworth wrote in 1965:

The truth is that after  Janácek[*] 's death the world's small interest in his work rapidly declined, and he was regarded as little more than a provincial master for two decades (1928–48). It was not until after the Holland Festival's performance of Jenufa[*] in 1951 that  Janácek[*] 's fortunes picked up beyond Central Europe.

The start of the  Janácek[*] revival, I think, can be traced to 1948. That was the year of the first six-opera cycle in Prague, the year the BBC first broadcast Jenufa[*] , and the year Charles Mackerras came back a convert to London after a year's study in Prague. Mackerras has eloquently described his experience:

In 1947 I sat with my young student wife [Mackerras himself was then twenty-one] in the gallery of the National Theatre in Prague, listening for the first time to a  Janácek[*] opera. It was Kátya Kabanová , conducted by that greatest of Czech conductors, Vaclav Talich,[1] with whom I was studying at the time. . . .

What a revelation that performance was to me! Here was a composer whose name I hardly knew, who had been dead twenty years, writing an opera in an entirely different idiom from anything I had ever known, who used the human voice and the reflections of his strange sounding language in an absolutely original way, and whose instrumentation and harmony produced colors and sounds unlike anything I had heard before . . . .

I took vocal scores of several operas of this virtually unknown composer back to London in 1948, and was fortunate in being able to interest Norman Tucker of Sadler's Wells in  Janácek[*] 's work. Of course, these piano scores gave very little idea of what  Janácek[*] 's orchestration sounded like. . . . I managed to secure a tape of Kátya through the B.B.C., and during a playback gave a sort of running commentary to Norman Tucker and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who had heard a lot about   Janácek[*] , but very little of his actual music! They were as enthusiastic as I had always been, and the first English performance of a  Janácek[*] opera was given on April 10, 1951, at Sadler's Wells.


I have no doubt that much of the rise in  Janácek[*] 's popularity can be attributed to the selling powers of Charles Mackerras, backed by the faith of Norman Tucker and the support of a few critics like Desmond Shawe-Taylor. In 1954, the  Janácek[*] centennial, Rafael Kubelik (then a better-known conductor than Mackerras) took over the Sadler's Wells Kátya , with a considerable rise in its critical and popular success. This led to an invitation for him to conduct a Covent Garden Jenufa[*] in 1956—a production that went on to Chicago. Eventually, these two fervent  Janácek[*] ians were to serve as musical directors at London's two opera houses, positions of considerable power and influence ill the opera world.

Gré Brouwenstijn's Jenufa[*] at the 1951 Holland Festival also attracted important attention. "Festival productions" tend to be visited by foreign opera lovers and critics and written about at length, more than regular season productions; and the Holland Festival is more adventurous than most. The Dutch continued to demonstrate their dedication by introducing two later and more difficult operas, From the House of the Dead (in 1954) and The Makropoulos Case (in 1958). Walter Felsenstein, a legendary man of the theatre, offered The Cunning Little Vixen at the Komische Oper of East Berlin in May 1956, and critics from all over Europe came to see it. (It eventually ran for more than two hundred performances. Thanks to a fellow student from Berkeley who was writing a dissertation on the director, I got to see Felsenstein's Vixen during my first trip to Europe in 1957, just six months after nay first Jenufa[*] at UCLA.)

After that it took only the Prague Music Festival and the International  Janácek[*] Congress of 1958 (with the world première of Osud and resultant world publicity) and then Chicago's Jenufa[*] in 1959 to settle the case: in ten years,  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] had somehow become a "classic of modern music."

I count an average of ten different professional productions of his operas outside Czechoslovakia each year between 1955 and 1960. The Prague National Theatre sent a 299-person contingent to the Edinburgh Festival in 1964, which performed two  Janácek[*] operas in productions considerably more impressive than those Britain had seen heretofore. They returned in 1970 with three more. They went to the Holland Festival with more exports in 1976 and 1977. Munich, Wexford, Glyndebourne, Prague, the Paris Théâtre des Nations: the publicity value of these summer festivals was enormous. Opera house administrators all over the world were getting the word.

At the start of the  Janácek[*] revival, critics were more divided on his merits than they are today. The first British production, in 1951, received so hostile a reception from most of the newspaper critics that some observers expected it to be the last.[2]


Five years later, the Covent Garden Jenufa[*] gained reviews that were "respectable, no more." Claudia Cassidy, then the terror of the Chicago Tribune , called Jenufa[*] "one of the dullest operas I have had the misfortune to see" in 1959.

By the 1960s, a more tolerant (or more open-eared) generation of critics, who were able to see and compare more good productions of his work, began to write of  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] as a more-or-less settled master, and of his operas as among the century's most important. One reviewer of Joachim. Herz's highly stylized 1962 Kátya in Leipzig wondered if it might be the most "beautiful and perfect" thing written since Tristan and Otello . In the 1970s, production after production drew superlatives—"unforgettable," "all but unbearable," "one of the most emotionally shattering evenings I have ever experienced in an opera house." The pinnacle seems to have been reached in Götz Friedrich's 1972–1974 productions of Jenufa[*] , starring (who else?) Elisabeth Söderström.

There are still dissidents. Daily newspaper reviewers in several cities feel free to admit they do not find  Janácek[*] 's music interesting to listen to, and they complain—as his detractors have done all along—of his unsystematic and fragmentary construction. Many professional critics are able to muster more enthusiasm than I can do for The Cunning Little Vixen and the first two acts of The Makropoulos Case . Many musicologists and composers have a hard time taking seriously the work of so freakish and instinctive a musician, one so ignorant (or so defiant) of the Bach-Beethoven-Wagner-Berg tradition of thematic development and symmetrical composition. ("He approaches composition as if music had not been invented before!" complained one scholar.)

If your approach to music is predominantly analytic, this schoolteacher from Brno may drive you berserk. Charles Mackerras once identified forty variant "themes" for Emilia Marty alone; the composer recommended that people not bother looking for "themes" at all. One tendency of scholars of this sort is to lump  Janácek[*] along with Charles Ives as a cranky, irregular regionalist who ignored all serious mainstream developments and pasted together "found sounds" in a way that, for some occult reason, still excites the uneducated listener.

Uneducated listeners—even those who may love opera—sometimes feel that these great waves of taste wash over their heads without anyone ever asking them.


what they think. The impresarios decide what to produce. The critics tell us what to admire. All we can do is buy it, or not.

Or not. Therein lies, perhaps, one of the most interesting aspects of the " Janácek[*] boom" of the last thirty years. "There is some sort of credibility gap here," wrote the editor of Opera , after raving about Elisabeth Söderström in Jenufa[*] . "Every writer and commentator confirms that  Janácek[*] is one of the greatest opera composers of this or any other century—and yet the public is slow to respond."

Through thirty years of reports on the  Janácek[*] revival, one keeps reading of unsold tickets and half-empty houses, of crowds that bleed out between acts. From everywhere comes the same story: empty seats at Glyndebourne, "pitifully small" audiences in London, entr'acte quitters at San Francisco. The 1956 Jenufa[*] was the worst financial failure at Covent Garden since the war. Twenty-three years after its London première, Mackerras's version of Kátya Kabanová was still drawing only 43 percent capacity houses. Reviewers the world over keep remarking on the composer's lack of public appeal. "Texas, when all is said and done, is still Carmen country." "The Dutch people who are fond of opera clearly love only the most popular pieces." "The Vienna public, like its London counterpart, does not exactly turn out in droves to see this kind of production." "Unless more people attended the second performance than the first [of From the House of the Dead at Sadler's Wells] this is likely to be more in the nature of an obituary notice than a review."

Not until the Düsseldorf cycle of 1977 and the London Mr.  Broucek[*] of 1978 was there any mention of a near-sellout for  Janácek[*] opera. All along, there have been bravos and multiple curtain calls from the fervent few. But only in the 1980s, perhaps, and only in those few cities where  Janácek[*] operas were well and frequently performed, did the general operagoing public begin to agree with the critics. "The Makropoulos Case ," wrote a London critic in 1971, "doesn't pack the house, but neither did Elektra at Covent Garden twelve years ago. Education of the public taste is a slow process."

Many forces have contributed to the resurrection and reestablishment of  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] 's operas in the last 30 years: the power of creative individuals, the strategic guesses of company managers, the divided opinions of critics, the relative inertia of public opinion. What looks like value in the arts is always open to manipulation and revision, is never carved by God in the bedrock of earth. The extreme, I might almost say decadent, argument that artistic preference is nothing more than vogue was put by the editor of Opera News when the Metropolitan Opera decided the time had come round for  Janácek[*] again in 1974:

Fashions in music are an intriguing phenomenon, no less so in the realm of opera, where  Leos[*]   Janácek[*] has now taken his rightful place after a long, fitful existence. Suddenly Jenufa[*] has become a staple in many opera houses, and the Met has done proudly in bringing it back into the fold. Kátya Kabanová crops


up in Berlin, Vienna, London; The Makropoulos Case in New York, San Francisco, London. And so it goes.

He went on to cite similar "vogues" for Cavalli, Monteverdi, Handel, and Berlioz and "the 1950s craze for the Baroque." Now that the Callas-inspired bel canto revival "seems to have peaked," he wrote, "singers, conductors, and directors are scouring other obscure corners for novelty"—Korngold, Massenet, the lesser-known Mozart. What next? he wondered: Spontini? the Russians? a Weber revival? In any case, he concluded, "Now it's  Janácek[*] 's day."

Aware as I am of the forces of fashion, whim, and the marketplace in establishing what passes for taste, I can't be quite as cynical as that. I believe that one could demonstrate why, among  Janácek[*] 's operas, at least Jenufa[ *] and Kátya Kabanová are likely to hold the places they have won as long as opera companies and audiences continue to exist in something like their present state. Except for Britten's Peter Grimes , in fact, I know of no other modern operas that can satisfy at once the critic's demand for original and viable contemporary music, inextricably wedded to a credible and moving text, and the opera audience's desire for real people they can care about, caught up in serious human plots; and all of this expressed in waves and cries of music that cut deep into the heart.



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Chapter Fourteen— The  Janácek* Boom
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