Somewhere in the muddle of No Man, a new opera commissioned by the National Theater, is a compelling story of artistic tragedy told to great music. Finding it can be a challenge, especially for viewers unfamiliar with Czech language, history and philosophy. But itʼs worth the effort.

<i>No Man</i> © Patrik Borecký
No Man
© Patrik Borecký

The story, in a nutshell: In 1949, a year after the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, a design competition was announced for a monument to Joseph Stalin in Prague. The winner was Otakar Švec, a noted Czech sculptor who proposed a mammoth edifice depicting Stalin leading a group of eight workers and soldiers. Made of granite and perched on a plain overlooking the city, it took six years to build, stood 30 meters high and weighed 25,000 tons. By the time it was unveiled on May Day in 1955, Stalin was dead and both Švec and his wife had committed suicide. After Stalin was denounced by Soviet leadership the following year, the monument was slated for demolition, an enormous undertaking finally completed in 1962.

Conceptually, telling this story requires a reordering of local history, since the monument was always presented as a triumph of Czech ingenuity and communist ideology. The production immediately establishes a new perspective by putting the audience onstage facing the regular seats, where a large veiled object towers over an extended apron that wraps around a small pit. The five singers start where the audience would normally sit, then move around the extended stage and aisles throughout the 90-minute performance. In the background, on a large fabric stretched across the lower seats, historical footage shows Stalin in his prime and the monument being built.

Eliška Gattringerová © Patrik Borecký
Eliška Gattringerová
© Patrik Borecký

The pit is occupied by the composer, Jiří Kadeřábek, who conducts an invisible orchestra for most of the evening. The singers are live but the music is prerecorded, partly by necessity – the score calls for an orchestra, mixed chorus and childrenʼs chorus, far more performers than the space can accommodate. This approach also reinforces the theme of the “present absence” of the monument, which still looms large in local lore and memory. 

The score is brilliant, a bracing mix of percussion-driven modern music, electronics and soaring chorales. Pumped through a five-channel surround-sound system that includes a deep bass situated beneath the audience, the shifting, often jarring tones and textures sweep blithely through a range of genres, spanning classical to jazz. The singers, all miked, do an outstanding job of keeping in tune and on track through an energetic performance that culminates in the object – a giant Stalin head – being unveiled and exploded.

The libretto is unfortunately a mess, with musings about philosophical concepts and a profusion of dates, times and other technical data cluttering what is mostly a recitation of communist propaganda. An occasional line resonates: The refrain “The future is not what it once was” finally becomes “The past has crushed the statue.” Otherwise, it offers very little in the way of a comprehensible plot or characterization, which is a shame. Švec is presented as an unwilling victim forced to subsume his art to ideology, and his wife as naively ambitious. But instead of developing into tragic figures driven to despair, they remain bloodless cogs in a giant machine. 

Sylva Čmugrová © Patrik Borecký
Sylva Čmugrová
© Patrik Borecký

Worse, the opera is divided into three parts: the monument narrative, a brief but powerful explosion, and a dystopian post-mortem written by a different librettist. For that the singers reappear in primitive animal skins and sit around the pit, now filled with a handful of live players, offering a dismal view of mankind to largely improvised music. The scene deliberately invokes the original Planet of the Apes film, though to what end remains inscrutable. Itʼs as if the explosion destroyed civilization rather than an artistic abomination. But without any clear connections drawn between the first and second halves, itʼs a baffling coda.

For all its flaws, No Man offers an innovative and often mesmerizing evening of music theater in its depiction of the crushing forces of history. And this is a story that deserves to be told, even in disjointed fashion. Questions about art and its proper relationship to ideology are timeless, and for a nation still coming to terms with its recent past, this particular subject has never been more timely.