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.

  • Den, Petr. “Notes on Czechoslovakia’s Young Theater of the Absurd.” Books Abroad 41, no. 2 (Spring 1967): 157–63.
  • Durkheim, E. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: Free Press, 1930.
  • Ellis, H. Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters. London: Walter Scott, 1914.
  • Gates, B. T. Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Johnson, R. A. Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
  • Marsh, Cynthia. “Ostrovky’s play The Thunderstorm.” In Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, ed. John Tyrrell. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 38–47.
  • Marx, K. Marx on Suicide. Ed. Eric C. Plaut and Kevin Anderson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
  • Strahan, S. A. K. Suicide and Insanity: Psychological and Sociological Study. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Kátya Kabanová: The Woman Behind the Story

"Kamila Stösslová in 1917" by Unknown
Drlíková, Eva: Leoš Janáček, p. 84

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

The character of Kátya Kabanová was modeled on Kamila Stösslová (1892–1935), whom Janáček met in 1917 at a spa. Married to an antique dealer, Kamila was very beautiful, a mother, and 38 years younger than Janáček. Most of Janáček’s major works were inspired and often dedicated to her. They include Zápisník zmizelého [The diary of one who vanished], Véc Makropulos [The Makropulos Case], Příhody lišky Bystroušky [The cunning little vixen], String Quartet no. 2, and of course, Kátya Kabanová. It appears that Kamila never reciprocated his devotion. They met infrequently, and their relationship was mostly based on letters, hundreds of which survive. In one of them, Janáček wrote:

And do you know what else makes me glad? That once again I saw your raven-black hair, all loose, your bare foot: and you are beautiful, wonderfully beautiful … And your eye has a strange depth, it’s so deep that it doesn’t shine. But it’s more attractive: as if it wanted to embrace … Kamila if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t want to live. It’s just an alliance of our souls which binds us.

While he was writing Kátya Kabanová, Janáček kept Kamila informed about his progress:

During the writing of the opera I needed to know a great measureless love. In those beautiful days in Luhacovice tears ran down your cheeks when you remembered your husband. It touched me. And it was your image I always placed on Kátya Kabanová when I was writing the opera. Her love went a different way, but nevertheless it was a great, beautiful love!

And it happened. I have known no greater love than in her [Kamila Stösslová]. I dedicated the work to her. Flowers, bow down to her; birds, never cease your song of eternal love!

In another letter to Kamila, Janáček described Kátya’s character to her:

The chief character in it is a woman, gentle by nature. She shrinks at the mere thought [of hurting, of evil]; a breeze would carry her away—let alone the storm that gathers over her.

I tell myself all the time that the main character, a young woman, is of such a soft nature that I’m frightened that if the sun shone fully on her, she would melt, yes even dissolve. You know, such a soft, good nature.
Janáček not only modeled and dedicated the opera to Kamila, he also bequeathed the royalties from Kátya Kabanová (as well as The Diary of the One Who Vanished, From the House of Dead, and String Quartet no. 2) to her. Stösslová remained indifferent to Janáček’s advances, though the story goes that in 1927, she relented and signed one of her letters “Tvá Kamila” (Your Kamila). The letter was found by Janáček’s wife, Zdenka, who threatened to leave him. In 1928, shortly before his death, Janáček was ready to make his feelings for Kamila public, but his friend Max Brod persuaded him not to.

Janáček and Kamila met for the last time in 1928 when she, her husband, and their sons came to visit Janáček in Hukvaldy. The story goes that one of the boys, Otto, wandered off into the nearby forest and that Janáček, by then 74, volunteered to search for him. The boy was found but Janáček caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia. He died on August 12, 1928, in Ostrava and was buried in the Field of Honour at the Central Cemetery in Brno. The scholar John Simon commented on the story of Janáček’s death as the result of Kamila’s wandering son: “Thus did the Muse become the Angel of Death.”

  • Janáček, Leoš. Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová. Ed. and trans John Tyrrell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Janáček, Leoš. Kat’a Kabanová: Translations and Pronunciation. Vol. 2 of The Janáček Opera Libretti: Translations and Pronunciation. Trans. Timothy Cheek. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2014.
  • Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, ed. John Tyrrell. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Přibáňová, Svatava. Thema con variazioni. Leoš Janáček, korespondence s manželkou Zdeňkou a dcerou Olgou (in Czech). Prague: Editio Bärenreiter, 2007.
  • Simon, John. “Love Writes an Opera.” New Leader, May 4, 1998, pp. 18–19.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: Opera, by any and all means

Sung  by an orange...

Sung at IKEA...

Sung by a drill....

Sung by a parrot...

Sung by a nine-year-old kid...

Sung by a guy and his dog.

This last video represents to me the eternal, essential heart and soul of the operatic experience (for both man and beast).

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Intimate Eloquence: Kátya Kabanová

"Leos Janacek relief" by Michal Maňas - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Stuart Leeks
Courtesy of Opera North

In a profession that is apt to get a touch over-excited about the phenomenon of the young prodigy, Janáček stands out at the opposite extreme, being one of music’s most remarkable late developers. Of his five operas that now have a place in the repertoire, four were written after he had turned 65. What explains this extraordinary burst of late-flowering creativity?

Janáček was born in 1854 and early in life seemed destined to be a schoolmaster-musician as his father and grandfather had been. Indeed, up until 1904, when he retired early to devote himself fully to composition, that’s what he was. But even during this period he was something more: a vigorous, energizing presence in the musical and cultural life of Brno, the Moravian capital where he taught. He organized and conducted concerts, he founded an organ school, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the small Provisional Theatre in Brno when it opened in 1884 to stage plays and operas in Czech. His reviews of performances there were published in a musical journal he founded, and it was around this time that he began to think of composing opera himself. He was well read and developed a taste for Russian literature that manifested itself much later in his life in two operas based on Russian texts: Ostrovsky’s play The Storm (Kátya Kabanová) and Dostoevsky’s prison journal, From the House of the Dead. He even formed a Russian club in Brno after visiting that country in 1896.

Janáček began to compose his first opera in 1887, but for years struggled to find his dramatic voice. His difficulties in his early operas can be only partly attributed to his diverse and sometimes unlikely choice of subjects, since the subjects of his mature operas are just as diverse and unlikely. Part of his problem was Smetana. A Czech composer who didn’t follow the operatic pattern set by his venerable countryman was deemed worthy of little consideration, so it is unsurprising that Janáček’s first opera, Šárka, has much in common with Smetana’s “serious” style and little evidence of his own highly distinctive voice.

His next attempt, The Beginning of a Romance (1891), was poles apart from the grandiosity of Šárka, composed as it was under the influence of Smetana in “village comedy” mode and, more importantly, the Moravian folk songs Janáček had collected on field trips to his native region in the late 1880s. It points the way to his first great opera, Jenůfa, but suffers from a lack of real dramatic interest. Neither the semi-autobiographical Osud (composed 1903-07) nor the satirical opera The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (which was begun in 1908 but which wasn’t to find its final form for another ten years) was successful. Even Jenůfa had taken Janáček a decade to knock into its final shape. It premiered in Brno in 1904 but was turned down by the Chief Conductor of the National Theatre in Prague, thus denying Janáček a foothold on the international stage.

So what changed? What, after more than twenty years of struggle with this seemingly intractable artform, enabled Janáček to pour forth in the remaining eight years of his life four of the most original, diverse, and theatrically effective operas to find a place in the repertoire?

There were two major factors. One was the confidence bred of success. In 1916 a remarkably tenacious campaign by some of Janáček’s supporters succeeded in securing Jenůfa a Prague premiere, where it was readily embraced by an enthusiastic public. Now the influential Viennese music publisher Universal Edition took an interest and secured the foreign language rights to Janáček’s operas, and thus they began to be performed at houses throughout Europe.

The other factor was personal. Janáček’s marriage to Zdenka Schulzová, his former piano pupil, was not happy. The early deaths of both their children (their son at age two, their daughter at twenty), couldn’t have helped. In 1917 he met Kamila Stösslová, thirty-eight years his junior and married with two young children, at a Moravian spa town. He fell deeply in love with her, or at least with an idea of her, for their ensuing largely one-sided relationship was conducted mainly through correspondence. She became his muse, and the female leads in his next three operas all owe something to her. The Janáček scholar John Tyrrell has written: “All three reflected the changing aspects of his love for Kamila Stösslová, from wishful thinking in Kátya (the married woman who has an affair in her husband’s absence) or The Cunning Little Vixen (portrayed as a contented, resourceful, and ultimately self-sacrificing wife and mother) to resignation in the The Makropulos Affair, in which the central character is a glamorous 300-year-old woman who captivates all about her but who is herself ‘as cold as ice’.” Janáček’s passion for Kamila remained undimmed until his death in 1928 although she seemed content to keep him at a safe distance.

The four operas of Janáček’s final years, beginning with Kátya Kabanová in 1921, demonstrate the particular nature of his operatic achievement. His musical language is appealingly modern and not alienating. It is basically tonal (although dissonance has its place), rhythmically robust, and capable of a glowing lyricism – especially notable in Kátya. However this lyricism is usually to be found in the orchestra rather than with the singers, for the vocal line is the preserve of what Janáček termed “speech melody,” his project to render in music the “melodic curves and contours of human speech.” Desmond Shawe-Taylor, reviewing the British premiere of Kátya at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1951, wrote of, “a kind of intimate eloquence which is the opposite of rhetoric: Janáček is like those rare people whose unselfconscious honesty of mind makes us ashamed of exaggeration or pretence. The most striking thing about Kátya is not the unusual technique, but the undiluted strength and purity of its human feeling.”

Janáček’s unconventional choice of dramatic material is the product of an inquisitive mind, and his somewhat terse, gruff personality seems to find expression in a dramaturgy that is distinguished by its concision. He followed his instincts, constructing his own libretti from the source material for all of the final four operas, and his instincts were sure. It is not perhaps surprising that each of these four, composed by a man in his sixties and seventies, confronts the fact of mortality. What is remarkable is the courage, the compassion, the absence of sentimentality, and the profound wisdom with which they do so.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Get to Know Kátya Kabanová

Janáček with his wife Zdenka, in 1881
Background information on Kátya Kabanová by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor


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

•    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

Visit the BLO page to learn more about the upcoming production, find recommendations for books and recordings, and purchase tickets!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Contest Results: Favorite seasonally-inspired pieces of music from the BLO community

Recently on the blog, we offered the chance to win free tickets to the upcoming Ian Bostridge event with Harvard Book Store to our community members—all they had to do was send us an answer to the question, “What’s your favorite piece of classical music that celebrates a season and why?

We received over 30 fantastic responses from BLO fans eager to share their favorites. Here are just a few, along with links to check them out on YouTube, for your listening enjoyment.

The most popular responses were Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Catherine J. wrote to us in reply, “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons [is my favorite] because it’s like New England giving us the beauty and uniqueness of four separate works of art.” How true! We’re happy to be New Englanders, even during Winter Storms Juno and Linus.

Other answers were more adventurous. Ha N. told us, “One of my favorite winter songs is Ilya Alexkseevich Shatrov's ‘On the Hills of Manchuria.’ I heard it for the first time on a winter night in the UK while watching the movie Onegin (1999, Liv Tyler and Ralph Fiennes). I [had] been searching for the song for a while until I [found] the original piece. The melody makes me think of snowflakes twirl[ing] in the wind, and provokes in me the dream of traveling to Manchuria and the surrounding areas. Sounds beautiful, Ha!

Ashley C. fondly brought up a special memory for her. “My favorite piece of classical music that celebrates a season is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, specifically the ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy.’ I remember hearing this piece for the first time as a young child. The music was magical. I love the season of Christmas, and this piece always brings back memories of this special time of year.”

Not everyone thought of winter-related songs. Scott M. told us, “Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue always makes me think of a rainy, cold, fall day sitting with a latte, looking at the rivulets on the panes of glass.”

Don R., from Cambridge, looked forward to warmer days! “Berlioz’s ‘Nuits dété’ (Summer Nights) -- because it’s such a beautiful song cycle!”

And, of course, looking forward to Ian Bostridge’s reading, several writers spoke of Schubert’s famous song cycle. Mary Jane G. told us, Winterreise is my favorite piece for winter. It doesn't really ‘celebrate’ the season, but the poem captures the essence and the emotions of winter for me. Schubert creates the music to express these emotions musically in a wonderful and poignant way.”

Thank you to all our participants—we love sharing this great music with you!