Leoš Janáček's operas, we are told, equate to box office death. You wouldn’t know it listening to three singers enthuse about taking on the title role in Katya Kabanova, each for the first time. In a classic case of London bus syndrome, not one, but three productions open within the next few weeks. Ahead of new stagings at the Royal Opera (Richard Jones) and Scottish Opera (Stephen Lawless) and a revival at Opera North (Tim Albery), I spoke to a trio of sopranos. Laura Wilde has the most experience in Janáček, having sung the title role in Jenůfa for English National Opera. Stephanie Corley (Opera North) sang a minor role in The Makropulos Case, while for Amanda Majeski (Royal Opera), this is her very first foray into Janáček's world.

Stephanie Corley in Opera North's <i>Katya Kabanova</i> © Guy Farrow
Stephanie Corley in Opera North's Katya Kabanova
© Guy Farrow

Russian literature was a frequent source of inspiration for the Czech composer, from Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata (the First String Quartet) to Gogol (Taras Bulba) and Dostoyevsky, basis for From the House of the Dead. Katya Kabanova is based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm, a harsh critique of “respectable” middle class society. Katya is unhappily married to Tichon, who is completely under the thumb of Kabanicha, his harridan mother. She longs for freedom and gives in to temptation by way of a brief fling with Boris, son of the boorish Dikoj. A vicious storm rages, after which Katya confesses her adultery to her husband before throwing herself into the Volga.

Katya Kabanova is a very strange love gift from a composer to his reluctant muse.” Dennis Marks, in his booklet note for Chandos' English recording, hits the nail on the head. The inspiration to write Katya was borne out of his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, who was much younger than Janáček. And married. How far does he project his unrequited love for Kamila onto the opera?

“Janáček is very cruel to Katya,” reflects Majeski. “I wonder if he wrote it as a way of censoring himself.” It's a fascinating idea that the composer was playing out what could have happened if he and Kamila had embarked upon an affair. In a letter to Kamila, Janáček wrote: “When I became acquainted with you... and saw for the first time how a woman can love her husband... that was the reason why I turned to Katya Kabanova.”

“I’m sure he thought of himself as Boris,” agrees Wilde. “The idea of her being trapped but also showing this beautiful, youthful picture of who she was before she was trapped.”

Laura Wilde © Kelly Kruse
Laura Wilde
© Kelly Kruse

“Janáček must have been incredibly frustrated!” suggests Corley. “Perhaps he saw parallels in the Ostrovsky play to their real-life situation. Obviously he was in love with her and she was his muse and inspiration. I suppose he’s channelling a woman through Katya and imagining that Kamila would have had these feelings.”

“Katya is unique,” says Majeski. “the most vulnerable character I’ve ever played. She vibrates on another frequency to everybody else in the opera.”

“She’s beautiful, a dream character,” Corley enthuses. “The way she looks at life, her naivety, her sense of truth, there’s real strength there in a world that is corrupt and hypocritical. She holds on to her integrity and is honest to her own feelings. You can find parallels in yourself, in people you know. Everything she goes through is very familiar to an audience, be it teenage feelings, going through separations, falling in love with the wrong person, having affairs. I think she would have been happiest joining a convent! Women like Katya either ended up in asylums or convents! Nowadays, she'd be on antidepressants.”

Stephanie Corley (Katya) © Jane Hobson
Stephanie Corley (Katya)
© Jane Hobson

Marks wrote that Katya is a “still presence at the centre of a dysfunctional world”. I ask each singer how accurately this describes her character.

“I don’t know if I would describe her as 'still',” Majeski counters, “because I think her mind is going so intensely that I don’t think anyone else understands her. She has this innate sensuality but people can’t quite break through to her, so they isolate her. So much passion burns within her, but she doesn’t know what it is. Richard's production is set in 1970s Russia. Katya is in an arranged marriage and she doesn’t feel that passion towards her husband. He drinks. He’s impotent because he drinks. She has all of this pent-up passion that she doesn’t understand. The only thing she can connect it to is church, so those moments of intense ecstasy she links to religious visions of lofty, golden cathedrals. But she also senses that this passion is bad, so she assumes it must be the devil and she hates herself for it. All of this shame comes flooding in. During the very last scene, her admission just completely takes her out. Over the edge. Literally.”

Emily Edmonds and Amanda Majeski in rehearsal © ROH | Clive Barda
Emily Edmonds and Amanda Majeski in rehearsal
© ROH | Clive Barda

Wilde confesses to “being a nerd for psychology” when it comes to the characters she plays. “I’m an actress who needs to connect the dots of the character, their motivation and why they make those choices. Katya starts out on the edge of sanity and unravels from there. I’m trying to figure out why she makes these decisions and why she makes them so quickly; why – the first night when Tichon leaves – she gives in to this thing she’s just sworn against. Katya is driven by duty and by black-and-white right-and-wrong, but she’s also a human being crushed under the weight of the situation. It’s the perfect storm – no pun intended – of all of these factors that make her snap.”

Janáček certainly puts his sopranos through a tough time, but in his other operas – Jenůfa, Vixen, The Makropulos Case – there is always some sense of hope or redemption or life coming full circle. But in Katya, it's bleak.

Wilde believes that, by the end of the opera, as twisted as the state of her mind is, Katya does finally acquire freedom. “For the first time, she has the freedom to choose what she wants. I love the bird imagery. She feels hope at the end, but it’s a deranged, broken hope.”

Laura Wilde and Stephen Lawless in rehearsals © Julie Howden
Laura Wilde and Stephen Lawless in rehearsals
© Julie Howden

Dikoj considers storms “a punishment from God”, so does Katya inflict her own punishment upon herself? “I’m in that storm scene,” Majeski explains. “Katya’s not normally on stage for that moment, but I hear that line and it resonates in me intensely, so I think it’s part of the build-up to her self-sabotage.”

“I think you have to look at her underlying motivation,” Wilde continues. “Katya is driven by this religious duty, which is unfortunate because the way she describes her faith, prior to arriving in the town, it was beautiful and almost free of duty. But this joy was sucked out of her and morphed into this righteous, religious duty. As soon as the storm happens – and this whole culture would have assumed this was God’s wrath – I think that’s where she just fully snaps. Everything Jenůfa does is driven by love and when that is the driving force, redemption really is possible. But when duty is crushing you, it’s really hard to find hope in the midst of that.”

Stephanie Corley
Stephanie Corley

“Katya is the only honest being on stage,” Corley believes. “She is by no means the only victim, but everyone else is concerned with living their lives within this repressive society of religion and class. I don’t think she’s capable of going back to life with Tichon now she’s experienced and expressed her pent up passions. She does talk about sinning so to a certain extent – the storm is a metaphor – she thinks that God is punishing her. But it’s the biggest sin to kill yourself. God probably represents different things to her. She has her own spirituality and faith which is not completely the same as imposed religion.”

Both Scottish and Royal are performing the opera in its original Czech, a language which Majeski confesses is very difficult to learn, although she's previously sung Rusalka. “Janáček’s vocal writing is much more speech-like than Dvořák’s, which is more folk-influenced,” she explains. “I wouldn’t call it recitative, but in some places it has to flow like a recit would flow. Janáček writes beautifully for the voice though. Everything he does in relation to the text is very natural.”

“As I was learning it,” she continues, “the hardest part was Act 1, when Katya sings about how it would be nice to be free like a bird ('Tell me this, why can’t we fly away, just spread our wings and fly as birds do?'). It’s very 'talky' and then you have to suddenly sing these long, soaring lines. Czech has so many consonants but you can’t let the consonants get in the way of the trajectory, so that has been one of the greatest challenges.”

“It’s complicated, rhythmic language. Tongue-twister Czech!” laughs Wilde, who is old friends with Majeski. The two have been comparing notes as they learn the role. “Of all the languages I sing,” she continues, “Czech is the one I’m least familiar with, spoken and grammatically, but it fits my voice and it's much more enjoyable to sing it in Czech than in English. Certain languages and certain composers can just fit a voice and release something that other things don’t as much.”

Amanda Majeski © Fay Fox
Amanda Majeski
© Fay Fox

Opera North's revival is sung in English, which presents its own difficulties to singers. “Janáček writes in speech rhythms all the time, listening to how people spoke and trying to notate it,” Corley expounds. “Taking a step back from that and translating it, you do lose something, but on the other hand you gain immediacy for an English-speaking audience, which is a big part of Opera North’s ethic to encourage new audiences and making it accessible.”

From her experiences singing Jenůfa with ENO, Wilde agrees. “Janáček is capable of getting some incredible melodies in there on top of it being speak-singing but there isn’t really anything lost in translation.”

Interestingly, singing the role in English, Corley still consulted a Czech specialist. “I found that if I have a difficulty with a phrase, I sing it in Czech and those difficulties just disappear!” The most common changes she has made to the translation have not just been word changes, but rhythm changes. “Janáček was writing rhythmically to mirror the spoken language and inflexions and patter of Czech. Because we’re not representing that any more in translation, we have sometimes simplified it and taken away a few demisemiquavers – putting comprehension ahead of being a slave to what’s written on the page.”

Amanda Majeski (Katya) © ROH | Clive Barda
Amanda Majeski (Katya)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Whether in Czech or English, Janáček doesn't get performed much, either in the UK or America. Majeski suggests that productions in the States tend to be put on because a particular soprano wants to make a case for it. Wilde admits that companies need to be brave to get patrons excited about unfamiliar works. “It breaks my heart because I really think these are some of the best operas ever written. They’re great first operas – not that long, accessible. They're so real and honest and Janáček explores feelings that everyone is going to be able to connect with. It’s theatre!”

Corley agrees. “It’s proper theatre without the artifice of grand opera. It’s heightened theatre at its rawest and if that turns you on – and it should – then you should go to see a Katya somewhere around the UK soon!” There couldn't be a more persuasive pitch.


Click through for production details and dates: Opera North, Royal Opera, Scottish Opera