Leoš Janáček
Leoš Janáček
Leoš Janáček’s career as an opera composer was an unusual one. Unlike Verdi, who wrote successful operas throughout his life, and unlike Rossini, who retired from operatic composition in his late 30s, Janáček only came into his own as a composer of operas after the age of 50, writing most of his best operas between the ages of 62 and 74. Janáček was born in Hukvaldy, Moravia in 1854, the son of a schoolteacher. Moravia, sandwiched between Bohemia and Slovakia, was part of the Austrian empire, only achieving independence as part of Czechoslovakia in 1917. Janáček dedicated much of his life to the cause of Czech national identity, and he was also drawn to pan-Slavism, the uniting of all the Slavic peoples, as a worthy ideal. Janáček’s early work as an organist, music teacher and composer included collecting Moravian folk melodies. He used musical notation to record the rhythms and pitches of spoken Czech, and drew upon this throughout his life for musical inspiration.

Writing operas to Czech librettos confined his operas at first to his local theatre in Brno, and later, thanks to the help of his friend Max Brod, to Prague. It was only after Brod had translated Janáček’s first important opera, Jenůfa, into German, that Janáček’s reputation began to spread outside the Czech lands.  Janáček wrote Jenůfa in 1904, giving it the title Její pastorkyňa, or Her Stepdaughter. It tells the grim story of a young woman, Jenůfa and her stepmother, the religiously-bigoted Kostelnička, sacristan to the local church, who drowns drowns Jenůfa’s illegitimate baby in a millstream to save the family from shame.

<i>Jenůfa</i> © Bavarian State Opera | Wilfried Hösl
© Bavarian State Opera | Wilfried Hösl

In order to make Janáček’s score more palatable, the Czech conductor Karel Kovařovic revised it in 1916, and it was in this revised version that the opera became well known in both Prague and Vienna, eventually bringing Janáček a wide reputation.

Janáček’s emotional life was punctuated by a series of one-sided love affairs with much younger women. His wife reacted to these affairs with anger and despair (including a suicide attempt), while Janáček seemed as indifferent to the suffering he caused her as the young women remained towards his own passion. The woman who gave Janáček the greatest inspiration was a Moravian, Kamila Stösslová, whom he met in 1917. Nearly forty years younger than the composer, she was married to an army provisioner, David Stössel, who appears to have been unaware of Janáček’s unrequited love for his wife.

Inspired by Kamila, Janáček wrote several operas in which he portrayed her as his central character. Janáček himself claimed that she was Káťa in Káťa Kabanová, the Vixen in The Cunning Little Vixen, and Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case.

<i>The Makropulos Case</i> © Opéra de Paris | Mirco Magliocca
The Makropulos Case
© Opéra de Paris | Mirco Magliocca

The Makropulos Case was based on a novel by Karel Čapek, the Czech writer who invented the word ‘robot’ in his other well-known novel Rossum’s Universal Robots. Čapek, who was sceptical about the new science-based optimism of writers such as H.G. Wells, wrote these two novels as satires on the theme of artificially created or prolonged life. The heroine of The Makropulos Case, Emilia Marty, appears to be a young woman like any other in Prague in 1922, but she is actually the Bohemian singer Elena Makropulos, the daughter of Emperor Rudolf II’s court alchemist Hieronymus Makropulos, who has given her an elixir of life, now stored in a bottle in the safe of Dr Kolenatý, a Prague lawyer of the present era.

During the course of the opera Emilia reveals that she has rejuvenated herself several times over the centuries, changing her name on each occasion but always retaining her initials E.M. One of her lovers from a previous incarnation, Count Hauk-Šendorf, recognises her and attempts to elope with her, although ultimately in vain. Emilia, who realises that the potion is wearing off once more, faces the dilemma whether or not to continue enduring further fruitless years of existence. She burns the formula for the potion in a candle flame and instead dies.

Musically, The Makropulos Case is one of Janáček’s most distinctive works: motoric rhythms establish the modern era of Prague with its motor cars and trams, while hollow brass chords set the atmosphere of Rudolph II’s 16th century court. The central role of Emilia is taxing in its length and weight, not least because Janáček never really mastered the balance between orchestral and vocal volume. The opera’s tragic conclusion, as in so many of his other operas, brings both transcendency and hope to its theme of death and dissolution.

<i>From the House of the Dead</i> © Opera North | Alastair Muir
From the House of the Dead
© Opera North | Alastair Muir

Janáček’s final opera, From the House of the Dead, written in 1927, was also adapted from a novel, this time a semi-autobiographical work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, drawing on his own experiences as a political prisoner under the Tsarist regime. In a Siberian prison camp, a motley collection of prisoners recall their past lives and the events that brought them to exile and jail. The cast (except for the boy, Aljeja, and a prostitute, both sung by mezzo sopranos) is all male. The atmosphere is relentless in its depiction of the loss of liberty and the wearing-away of hope and optimism. Bunches of chains are rattled as percussion instruments to symbolise the fetters which the prisoners wear. However, each prisoner reveals a core of humanity in his understanding of his crimes or actions, and at the end there is an unexpected tranquility that comes in the midst of suffering and grief. The prisoners keep an eagle as a pet, and at the end of the opera the bird is released to fly away into the sky, yet another of Janáček’s symbols of hope and transcendence.

<i>From the House of the Dead</i> © Metropolitan Opera | Ken Howard
From the House of the Dead
© Metropolitan Opera | Ken Howard


Forthcoming performances of Jenůfa take place at Staatsoper Hamburg and Staatstheater Stuttgart. 

From the House of the Dead is being staged by the Staatsoper Berlin, while The Makropulos Case appears in the Bavarian State Opera's new season.