Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A View from the Rehearsal Room with Sandra Piques Eddy!

Sandra Piques Eddy is an acclaimed mezzo-soprano and a Boston native. She is singing the role of Varvara in the upcoming BLO production of Kátya Kabanová, and we caught up with her this week to get her perspective on the rehearsal process, coming home to Boston, and more!

We are in full swing with Kátya Kabanová rehearsals at Boston Lyric Opera. We had our "Stagger-Through" yesterday (basically same as a "Run-Through," but it sounds less daunting for all of us who are jumping into the Janáček pool for the first time!), and I daresay we are ready for our "Final Room Run" tonight. I'm excited to hear the chorus this week, the orchestra tomorrow, and see lots of familiar faces. As a native Bostonian, I'm always thrilled to sing at home among friends on stage, in the pit, in the wings, behind the scenes, and for friends and family in the audience. There's nothing else like it!

Here I am, "stuck" at my last gig with Portland Opera,
working on
Kátya. My flight to Boston was canceled, so I
missed the first couple days of our rehearsal process!
Another great aspect of coming back home is knowing what is expected of us even before rehearsals begin. I've been so fortunate to work with the wonderful Maestro David Angus on many concerts and four operas now. Our last opera together was here in Boston, the recent Così Fan Tutte at BLO, in English. I've also been so fortunate to work with our fantastic director, Tim Albery, a few times, most recently last fall at Opera North (UK) in his and Maestro Laurence Cummings' own translation of The Coronation of Poppea. We even opted out of supertitles for that production! Brave, huh? And it worked!! I knew coming into this rehearsal process for Kátya that diction and clearly communicating our story were paramount! We are singing this beautiful opera in English, and we all feel strongly about telling this story as clearly as possible. 

Wishful thinking at Endicott station,
commuting into Boston for
Kátya rehearsal!
Ok. Now, I have a confession. Ready? It was only just recently, as I started to explain this plot to my mom (a big supporter of me, but not an operagoer unless I'm in a production), that I realized that Kátya is a fantastic introduction to opera. I was struck by how QUICKLY the opera flies by when we were in the middle of the Stagger-Through yesterday. The drama is swiftly executed, and there are moments of levity among the tragedy. The music is rip-your-heart-out-gorgeous. I have been haunted by these gorgeous melodies while trying to stay positive over the last few weeks, commuting in on the unreliable MBTA! I feel so lucky to be right in the middle of this and with such a ridiculously talented team working together. It should always be this good...Am I right?

So, I am here to encourage you to introduce a friend to opera with this moving production of Kátya Kabanová. When your friend asks about the plot, simply tell him or her that it is a story of forbidden love and the worst mother-in-law imaginable. Oh and bring tissues! No spoilers but... Wow... That last scene!!!

Fun with hats and coats and bags in rehearsal with Elaine Alvarez,
who is singing the role of Kátya in our production!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Drowned Woman: The Cult of L'Inconnue

A note before we begin... What is a death mask?
A death mask  is a wax or plaster cast made of a deceased person's face. While certainly unusual today, death masks were a common and important method of commemorating the deaths of important figures throughout history. For instance, you can see the death mask of Beethoven on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston, or meet Napoleon Bonaparte face-to-face by viewing his death mask on display at London's British Museum.

Death masks have caught the imaginations of writers and thinkers for generations, even through the present day. For example, in the recent novel Inferno, the theft of Dante's death mask sets off an exciting chain of events that sends Dan Brown's familiar hero, Robert Langdon, running for his life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, death masks were also used to record the faces of unidentified bodies. In this blog post, Magda Romanska explores the fascinating intersection of this cultural practice and the art it inspired.

* * * * *

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

Kátya Kabanová’s death, by drowning, was a typical suicidal ending for many literary and dramatic heroines of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. The craze around drowned women that eventually came to dominate the European aesthetics of the era is illustrated by the popularity of L’Inconnue de la Seine, an unknown young woman fished out of the Seine near the Louvre in the early 1880s (Vautrain 550). The combination of her beauty and anonymity unleashed endless speculations about her life and death. Her body was reportedly taken to the Paris Morgue and displayed for identification. It was customary at that time to exhibit unidentified bodies in public in an attempt to identify them.

The Paris Morgue was a popular visiting place, and thousands of people passed by each day to see the displayed corpses. In the case of L’Inconnue, as Vanessa Schwartz noted, “the allegedly serious business of identifying anonymous corpses [became] a spectacle … —in the French double sense of theatre and grand display” (47, 59). It was also an erotic spectacle, in which L’Inconnue’s body fuelled the “fantasy of the exquisite corpse,” to use a phrase from Torok (107). A medical assistant, touched by L’Inconnue’s vulnerability, took her death mask; commercially copied, it quickly became a cult object.

In France, the white cast of the death mask, with its “smile of sublime satisfaction” (Phillips 321), was soon sold on Paris streets as a souvenir, “adorning the rooms of countless young women” (Bronfen 206). In 1890, Sarah Bernhardt styled herself, in a bronze bas-relief of Ophelia, as L’Inconnue. In Germany, “every student of sensibility had a plaster-cast of L’Inconnue’s death-mask … and a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her” (Alvarez 156). By the 1920s and 1930s, L’Inconnue’s death mask became “the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s” (Alvarez 156). Hans Hesse suggests that some German actresses, among them Elisabeth Berger, used the death mask of L’Inconnue as the blueprint for their own image, until she “was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo” (Alvarez 156).

The poet Supervielle owned a copy of L’Inconnue’s death mask, as did Blanchot, Céline, and Camus, who reportedly loved to show off to his friends “a cast of the touching face of L’Inconnue de la Seine, with the smile of drowned Mona Lisa” (Boddaert 137). In 1902, Rodin incorporated L’Inconnue’s mask in his sculpture, The Last Vision (also known as The Last Thought), Man Ray attempted a failed photographic reconstruction of her image, and a number of writers used her as a heroine of their novels. The British writer le Gallienne was the first to publish a short story about L’Inconnue. Titled “The Worshipper of the Image,” the story follows the affection of young Antony, who marvels at the image of her face: “How beautiful! It must be wonderful to die like that” (Phillips 322).

Supervielle’s short story (“L’Inconnue de la Seine,” 1931) is written from the point of view of the dead girl; the narrator of Rilke’s autobiography (The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Bridge) passes the mask of L’Inconnue, smiling enigmatically “as if she knew,” every day displayed in the window of the milliner’s shop. Goll and Anaïs Nin included the death mask in their stories as well. The most successful of these literary attempts, Muschler’s The Unknown, a fictional account of the tragic love that caused her to drown herself, became an international bestseller (Phillips 324). Johnson suggests that the novel was an inspiration for Nabokov’s poem “L’Inconnue de la Seine,” written in 1934, two months after the publication of Muschler’s book (232).

The fascination with L’Inconnue continued throughout the 1930s and extended into the 1940s, finally becoming the image of “the absolute” in Aragon’s 1947 novel, Aurélien. As a model for all of the other drowned girls, L’Inconnue was a symbol of the turn of the century, an epoch’s “psychogram,” in which the reality of her corpse, art, and literature converged, creating an archetypical image of fatal femininity. In a sense, in the popular and literary imagination of the time, L’Inconnue became the embodied aftertaste of the 19th-century cult of Ophelia, a corpus delicti of Ophelia’s tragic death, washed ashore as the last word of Shakespeare’s most famous story.

  • Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: Norton, 1990.
  • Boddaert, F. Petites Portes d’éternité: La mort, la gloire et les littérateurs. Paris: Hatier, 1993.
  • Bronfen, E. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Johnson, D. B. “L’Inconnue de la Seine and Nabokov’s Naiades.” Comparative Literature 44, no. 3 (1992): 225–48.
  • Phillips, D. “In Search of an Unknown Woman: L’Inconnue de la Seine.” Neophilologus 66, no. 3 (July 1982): 321–27.
  • Schwartz, V. R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Torok, M. “The Illness of Mourning and the Fantasy of the Exquisite Corpse.” In The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, vol. 1, by N. Abraham and M. Torok; ed., trans., and introd. N. T. Rand. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. 107–24.
  • Vautrain, R. “L’Inconnue de la Seine.” L’intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux 195 (June 1967): 548–50.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Aleksandr Ostrovsky's Groza

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

"Alexander Ostrovsky" by Vasily Perov
Leoš Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová is based on an 1859 Russian play by Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, titled Groza (The Storm, also known as The Thunderstorm). Often considered a precursor of Anton Chekhov, Ostrovsky wrote 48 original plays and “almost single-handedly created a Russian national repertoire.”

Considered Ostrovsky’s masterpiece and a classic of Russian theatre, The Storm depicts the lives of Russian peasants and the middle-class merchant class who live on the banks of the Volga River. The expansive and austere beauty of the Volga’s landscape provides a backdrop for the “dark kingdom” where tradition and false piety compound a stifling and hermetic world in which even a slight moral transgression is harshly punished.

The tragedy of The Storm derives from the idiosyncratic value system of the society it portrays. That value system, symbolized and upheld by the old generation, Katerina’s* unopposable mother-in-law, Kabanicha, and her male counterpart, Dikoy, is internalized by everyone, including Katerina herself, who escapes neither the physical nor the psychological bonds of her social milieu, and who accepts her own demise with fatalistic resignation. Katerina’s fear of the thunderstorm is irrational, but it also symbolizes what critic R. A. Peace (1989) called, “the fear of her own conscience, a terror that she should die not in a state of grace.” Olga Muratova (2009) notes that Katerina“feels compelled to expiate her sin, confess it, and repent in front of everybody, including her mother-in-law as her Nemesis, her debilitated husband, and all the people in town. Her guilt, which comes from her devotion to Christian teachings, wins over her temporary slip that allowed her life to be regulated by external and not internal sanctions.” Although she was able to break a taboo, Katerina is unable to live with the guilt, having internalized the religious precepts that continue to hold her in the grip of self-policing.

In her introduction to the first English translation of the play, in 1898, Constance Garnett poignantly notes the insular character of the town of Kalinov and its:

atmosphere of the little Russian town, with its primitive inhabitants, merchants, and workpeople, an atmosphere untouched, unadulterated by the ideas of any outside European influence. It is the Russia of Peter the Great and Catherine’s time, the Russian patriarchal family life that has existed for hundreds of years through all the towns and villages of Great Russia, that lingers indeed to‐day in out‐of‐the‐way corners of the Empire, though now invaded and much broken up by modern influences.

The historical context of the play is connected to the brewing rebellion of the peasants, who were emancipated only two years after the play’s premiere, and to the consequence of Russia’s recent defeat in the Crimean War. In the 1850s, the Russian progressive critic Nikolay Alexandrovich Dobrolyubov, in his famous essay “A Ray of Light in a Dark Kingdom,” pointed out that the society of Kalinov can be viewed as “a microcosm of the Russian state itself.” The title, The Storm, thus refers to both the weather and the brewing social upheaval. Katerina’s longing for freedom from the bondage of a loveless marriage and the oppressive claustrophobia of the Kabanov household symbolizes the peasants’ longing for their own freedom from serfdom.

The play also represents the contrast between the two crashing centuries: the backward Russia of Peter the Great and the coming age of Romanticism. As R. A. Peace put it: “The values of the older generation seem still rooted in the seventeenth century, whereas the attitudes of the younger generation are much closer to the nineteenth: they display their emotions far more openly; they are spontaneous, even impulsive—they are, in both senses of the word, ‘romantic.’ It is a dark kingdom where elements of Russian culture of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries seem to exist, almost unresolved, side by side.”

Kabanicha, whose name in Russian means, “an old and mean wild sow,” is an unusual villain: an elderly woman, seemingly pious and universally respected by townspeople. In the history of European drama, perhaps she can only be compared to Bernarda Alba, the tyrannical and destructive matriarch of Federico García Lorca’s anti-fascist play The House of Bernarda Alba. Written in 1936, on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, the play symbolizes the Fascist mentality overtaking Europe at that time, with Bernarda’s heartless treatment of her daughters epitomizing the psychology of the despot. Scholar Cynthia Marsh (1982) notes that, “Ostrovsky’s work dwells on the grimmer aspect of Russian national life. He emphasizes its tyranny and oppression. He depicts a society motivated by acquisitiveness and by a concern to preserve, at all costs, its rites and customs.” In that sense, The Storm seems prescient.

Dobrolyubov “described Ostrovsky’s world as a ‘realm of darkness.’ It was ruled by tyrants who through their corruption or intimidation of the younger generation prevented any challenge to their own position.” For Ostrovsky, however, the natural order of things must eventually win, and the young must take over. Although Katerina self-destructs, Varvara, “a ray of light in the realm of darkness,” does manage to escape. Dobrolyubov argues that Katerina’s suicide can also be interpreted as “an act of protest against injustice.” If the young are destroyed, who is to inherit the world? Such is “the impasse which tyranny has produced.”

When The Storm first opened at Moscow’s Teatr Maly in 1859, it caused instant controversy. First, by dramatizing the plight of the peasants, it pointed out the obvious need for change in Russian society. As Marsh notes: “It was widely recognized that the abolition of serfdom would introduce a new era, in which the traditional Russian life-style would be under pressure.” Intergenerational tension was at the heart of Ostrovsky’s play, which made a clear statement about the “evident dissatisfaction with the tradition-bound and autocratic ways of the older generation.”

The second controversy was related to the tragic situation of young, married women, who were expected to be subservient to their mothers-in-law. Katerina became a symbol of all women, and her willingness to follow her sexual longings ruffled the strict, conservative patriarchal status quo. One Russian critic, Nikolai Filippov, described the play as an “example of vulgar primitivism,” calling Katerina “shameless” and the love “scabrous.” Mikhail Shchepkin also criticized “those two episodes that take place behind the bushes.” Stepan Shevyryov suggested that The Storm was proof of the moral decline of Russian drama, which “is sliding down the ranking stairs.”

Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová is not the only operatic version of Ostrovsky’s drama: The Storm has enjoyed many musical adaptations. Tchaikovsky composed the first overture in 1864 (although it wasn’t performed until 1896). The first performance of the opera based on a libretto written by Ostrovsky himself was composed by Vladimir Nikitich Kashperov in 1867 (and performed the same year). Others who composed operas based on the play include Asafyer (1940), Dzerzhinsky (1940), Trambitsky (1941), Rocca (1952), and Pushkov (1962).

From Constance Garnett’s November 1898 introduction to A. Ostrovsky’s The Storm:

The special triumph of The Storm is that although it is a realistic picture of old‐fashioned Russian patriarchal life, it is one of the deepest and simplest psychological analyses of the Russian soul ever made. It is a very deep though a very narrow analysis. Katerina, the heroine, to the English will seem weak, and crushed through her weakness; but to a Russian she typifies revolt, freedom, a refusal to be bound by the cruelty of life. And her attitude, despairing though it seems to us, is indeed the revolt of the spirit in a land where Tolstoi’s doctrine of non‐resistance is the logical outcome of centuries of serfdom in a people’s history. The merchant Dikoy, the bully, the soft characterless lover Boris, the idealistic religious Katerina, Kuligin the artisan, and Madame Kabanová, the tyrannical mother, all these are true national types, true Russians of the changing ages, and the counterparts of these people may be met to‐day, if the reader takes up Tehehov’s tales. But the English reader’s very difficulty in this respect should give him a clue to much that has puzzled Europeans, should help him to penetrate into the strangeness of Russian political life, the strangeness of her love of despotism. Only in the country that produces such types of weakness and tyranny is possible the fettering of freedom of thought and act that we have in Russia to‐day. Ostrovsky’s striking analysis of this fatalism in the Russian soul will help the reader to understand the unending struggle in Russia between the enlightened Europeanised intelligence of the few, and the apathy of the vast majority of Russians who are disinclined to rebel against the crystallised conditions of their lives.

*The names “Kátya” and “Katerina” are interchangeable in Russian; in The Storm, Ostrovsky calls his central character “Katerina,” while Janacek prefers “Kátya” for his opera.

  • Marsh, Cynthia. “Ostrovsky’s Play The Storm.” In Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, ed. John Tyrrell. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 38–47.
  • Muratova, Olga. “Religiously Based Morality in the Theatre of Alexander Ostrovsky.” PhD diss., City University of New York.
  • Ostrovsky, Aleksandr Nicolaevich. The Storm. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1898; Project Gutenberg, 2013. Available at
  • Peace, R. A. “A. N. Ostrovsky’s The Thunderstorm: The Dramatization of Conceptual Ambivalence.” Modern Language Review 84, no. 1 (1989): 99–110.
  • Ritschel, Nelson O. Ceallaigh. “In the Shadow of the Glen: Synge, Ostrovsky, and Marital Separation.” New Hibernia Review 7, no. 4 (2003): 85–102.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: Another candidate for the most beautiful song ever written

While searching out a video of Ezio Pinza for the Crossover post, I came across  a version of the aria "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's XERXES, sung by that great bass (a perhaps unexpected item in our era  of "authentic" Handel). Since we were already thinking about extraordinarily beautiful "songs" ("Summertime", "Some other time") I thought, here's another prime example...simple, elegant, elegiac, unforgettable.

This is perhaps Handel's most famous work (after the Hallelujah Chorus, I suppose). In only three minutes or so, he creates a completely contained world full of wonder and mysterious feeling. And, lest we forget, the ostensible subject of the outpouring of restrained but obviously heartfelt love is...a tree. It has been recorded by almost every opera singer you can think of (check the almost-endless postings on YouTube). Here are only a few for your contemplation.

First, two contemporary ("authentic"?) offerings from two of my favorite artists:

Then the Pinza version:

Following that, a group of performances from seemingly highly unlikely sources. What do you make of this group?

And, of course, I must include some more outré examples, pulled from my delighted wanderings through the internet byways:

But I end with the real discovery of the whole expedition. I have always been a huge fan of Jussi Bjorling, but I had never come across this. Have you ever heard such a beautiful legato, control of breath, such an effortless stream of silver sound, and such eloquent, but tellingly restrained, passion?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Kátya Kabanová: Political and Cultural Context

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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: BLO's upcoming Opera Night at the BPL, February 24

I see that BLO, in association with the Boston Public Library, is presenting a program on February 24 at 6:00 p.m. titled "Musical Nationalism and Folklore in Opera." Learn more about it here:

It should be a fine introduction to the dramatic opera Kátya Kabanová (one of my favorites by that extraordinary genius Leoš Janáček) that BLO is presenting March 13-22...and the event at the library is free.

Janáček was fascinated with the folk roots of his culture; he employed significant folk elements and references in his operas and (along with, among others, his fellow composers Bartók and Percy Grainger) was a noted and painstakingly diligent researcher and collector of ethnographic material all his life. In 1879, he was one of the first to systematically transcribe speech patterns and intonations. He was a pioneer in the photographic recording of the folk traditions of Moravia and Silesia. In 1909, he obtained an Edison phonograph, and much of the data he collected—on wax cylinders—is still studied today.

Here's a delightful photo from this article—I'm not sure if this is actually the young Janáček, as claimed, but as an image of modern technology confronting and absorbing folk culture, it could hardly be bettered:

A clip from a recent  production his opera Jenůfa in Brussels, which obviously draws heavily on visual references to Czech folk culture:

Bedřich Smetana, in his opera The Bartered Bride (1866), presents perhaps the most familiar examples of Czech folkloric influence in the irresistible tunes and dance rhythms in such pieces as the "Polka," which ends Act I:

Two examples of Czech (more or less) folk music:

And to conclude... Not precisely Czech but, at its heart, folkloric (and it's being performed in Prague):

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Love, Death, and Marriage

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

So often I imagine I’m a bird
And can spread my wings and fly.
I used to be so free and happy,
But since I came here to live that’s all changed.

Kátya Kabanová

Marital Woes

Leoš Janáček’s 1921 opera, Kátya Kabanová, is foremost a study of marriage as a social institution and its effects on men and women in a world where divorce is not only frowned upon, but impossible even to imagine. Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, on which Janáček based his opera, premiered in Russia in 1859, and Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, a quintessential tale of the married woman gone astray, was published in full in 1878. Both the play and the novel reflected the values and debates dominating Russian society of that era, including the Emancipation Reform of 1861 (and the events leading up to it), legal reforms, and the “woman question,” which included, among other things, women’s suffrage, property, legal and medical rights, and divorce and marriage laws.

In 1792, France became the first country in Europe to pass laws that made divorce possible by mutual consent. However in 1816, the new Restoration government abolished it completely as a product of the Revolution. The Divorce Act of 1857 legalized divorce in England, but in most countries, divorce remained illegal. In Tsarist, Russian Orthodox society, divorce was prohibited, except among very wealthy aristocrats who were not closely connected with the Tsar.

Both Ostrovsky’s Katerina, as the character was named in the play, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are trapped in unhappy marriages with no way out; both seek solace in doomed love affairs with unworthy men; and both commit suicide as a result, having lost everything: their lovers, their families, and the economic stability and social respectability that came with marriage, however miserable it was. Writing about Ostrovsky’s play, scholar Cynthia Marsh (1982) points out that Katerina’s situation was typical for many women of her era: 

Katerina belongs to a particular class of Russian society which, by the mid-nineteenth century, had a distinctively traditionalist, reactionary and xenophobic character … Katerina’s treatment was typical of that endured by young married women in this society—her humiliation by her mother-in-law, the apparent indifference, even cruelty, of her husband, and her incarceration within the family house. As a result Katerina is haunted by images of freedom, and by a desire to escape.

Both Ostrovsky and Tolstoy provide a social critique of current marriage laws, and both seem to suggest that a loveless marriage is a particularly horrific fate for a woman. The story of Janáček’s Kátya, which, like Ostrovsky’s story, also takes place in 1860s Russia, is no different: she is the prototypical woman of her epoch.

Larry Wolff, a scholar of modern Europe, notes that “alienation and adultery in the provinces was an important theme of modernist literature, dating back to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857).” Flaubert’s Emma, Ostrovsky’s Katerina, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter, 1850), and Chekhov’s Masha (The Three Sisters, 1900) share a similar milieu: a backward, socially and culturally constricting province in which they clearly don’t fit, and whose oppressive values and conventions eventually destroy them. These stories, in which marriage and sexuality are woven into the socio-economic and moral fabric of the bourgeois life, are at once cautionary and empathetic tales.

Until Death

Written in 1921, Kátya Kabanová, however, reflects the world of its heroine as much as that of its writer. During the early 20th century, issues of love, marriage, and divorce continued to dominate public discourse throughout Europe, with sociologists and legal experts arguing about the social and cultural ramifications of the prevailing marriage laws, which in most cases continued to privilege men.

In his monumental 1930 statistical study of suicide in Victorian society, the sociologist Emile Durkheim, for example, noticed that the number of male suicides rose whenever divorce became more easily obtainable. With stricter divorce laws, the number of female suicides rose. Durkheim’s analysis of the relationship between divorce laws and differences in suicides rates between men and women ran counter to the traditional view of marriage: it is women, not men, who feel trapped by it. Durkheim concluded: “We now have the cause of that antagonism of the sexes which prevents marriage favouring them equally: their interests are contrary; one needs restraint and the other liberty.” Durkheim proposed a two-fold solution to this social problem: first, to prevent male suicides, he advocated stricter divorce laws; then, to prevent female suicides, he suggested giving women more freedom and independence outside of marriage. Writing about Durkheim’s study, the scholar Robert Alun Jones (1986) noted that:

...since monogamic matrimony provides no suicidal immunity to the wife, it is a gratuitous form of social discipline which she suffers without the slightest compensatory advantage. The traditional view of marriage—that its purpose is to protect the woman from masculine caprice, and to impose a sacrifice of polygamous instincts upon the man—is thus clearly false; on the contrary, it is the woman who makes the sacrifices, receiving little or nothing in return.

Durkheim saw marriage as a social necessity for curtailing men’s sexual—and hence self-destructive—impulses: “By forcing a man to attach himself forever to the same woman,” Durkheim observed, “[marriage] assigns a strictly definite object to the need for love, and closes the horizon,” thus also foreclosing a man’s all-consuming chase for the newest love object. If for Victorian men, marriage provided protection from the dangers of boundless freedom, for Victorian women, Durkheim noted, marriage, with all the legal, social, and emotional constraints it placed on them, was a bad deal.

Drowning in the River

Like Kátya’s affair, her suicide by drowning is also a quintessential ending to female-driven dramas of the period. Within the spheres of art and literature, the figures of Elaine, Crazy Jane, Ida, the Lady of Shalott, and other tragically drowned heroines dominated the turn-of-the-century artistic and literary scene. The emphasis on the way they died (drowning) and the reason (love) was meant to reiterate the gender difference; the images of love-struck and forlorn women emphasized their essential femininity, separate from and other to the masculine, thus brave and heroic, way of dying (such as by shooting or hanging). In her 1988 book Victorian Suicide, the scholar Barbara Gates pointed out that “inherent in these observations is an absurd prejudice in favor of bloodier suicides as being braver and therefore more manly.”

In his 1914 psycho-physical study of gender differences, Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, H. Ellis argued that “men prefer to adopt active methods of suicide, which are at the same time usually more deliberate and more repulsive[;] women prefer more passive methods, which are at the same time usually more decorous and require less resolute preparation.” Choosing a more spectacular and bloody form of suicide, Ellis suggested, was a sign of men’s intrinsic bravery, whereas choosing a less spectacular method, such as drowning, was a sign of women’s intrinsic weakness.

The turn-of-the-century fascination with and proliferation of suicidal women in art and literature, however, did not reflect the statistical reality: 19th-century women were actually four times less likely to commit suicide than men. Gates suggests that the excessive representation of suicidal females during the era was in fact a symptom of the subconscious displacement of men’s own self-destructive impulses onto women.

Ironically, the lower suicide rate among women was often interpreted as a sign of their intrinsic mental and physical weakness. In 1857, writing for the Westminster Review, George Henry Lewes argued that the lower suicide rate among women was due to women’s “greater timidity” and to “their greater power of passive endurance, both of bodily and mental pain.” In his 1893 study Suicide and Insanity: Psychological and Sociological Study, S. A. K. Strahan noted that “self-destruction has been more frequently practiced by the males than by the females.” The higher rate of suicide among men, however, Strahan attributed to men’s greater, and thus more stress-inducing, participation in public life. For Strahan, the lower suicide rate among women was caused by their intrinsic frailty:

Being the weaker physically and mentally, and because of the calls made upon her by her maternal duties, woman has of necessity taken second place in the struggle for existence in every civilization. Now, suicide is one of the results of this struggle, and man bears the burden of the fight, he suffers proportionately heavily from its after effects. As civilization advances the stress becomes greater, and as the stress increases so does self-destruction.

Among Victorian women who did commit suicide, however, most did so because of failed affairs or illicit pregnancies. In his 1846 short study on suicide, Karl Marx described multiple stories of women who had committed suicide out of shame or guilt. Marx argued that 19th-century women who were pregnant, abandoned, trapped in abusive marriages, seduced, or humiliated viewed suicide as a last-resort solution to shame those who humiliated them, abused them, or abandoned them. Like Durkheim, Marx also noted the relationship between female suicides and the sexual and marital politics of his era.

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