Flight of the Imprisoned Eagle: Paradoxes of the National Identity within the Context of the Staging of Janacek Operas in the Czech Republic and Abroad (1990-2011) (1)

By Havlikova, Helena | Czech Music, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Flight of the Imprisoned Eagle: Paradoxes of the National Identity within the Context of the Staging of Janacek Operas in the Czech Republic and Abroad (1990-2011) (1)


Havlikova, Helena, Czech Music


National identity is easier to define negatively. We can fell it positively when, for instance, the Czech national anthem is played at the Olympic Games or a sports championships, with a mixture of emotion and pride at being Czech emerging. What are the mysterious bonds so connecting a group of people that they consider themselves a "nation"? The mother tongue, the land and traditions, linkage to the generations of ancestors who inhabited the given space. Memories of childhood, hearth and home. First love. Scents, food, humour, weather, The shared experience. And melodies of folk songs. Why is it that we recognise them after a few bars?

Janacek on the wings and in the cage of Czech national identity

To reflect on the national identity, we have not chosen from among the creators-composers who could help us to elucidate the formation of the term "Czech national opera" such clear-cut personalities as the "founding fathers" of the Romantic period Bedrich Smetana, who intentionally decided to subordinate his work to creating the ideal of building up Czech national opera, and Antonin Dvorak, who felt this task instinctively. Instead, we have chosen Leos Janacek, whose operas arc deeply rooted in Czech/Moravian language and music yet have experienced a chronic discrepancy between their enthusiastic reception around the world and the reserved, constrained, even cold reception at home. In light of their experience, directors of Czech theatres vigilantly see to it that the low audience numbers for a Janacek work are offset by a Verdi opera or another title guaranteed to put "bums on scats". The marked discrepancy between the enthusiastic embracement of Janacek abroad and the much more distant reception on the part of Czech audiences has also been confirmed by Czech artists who have participated in productions of Janacek operas worldwide.

Leos Janacek was a one-off owing both to his impulsively sensuous personality and his inimitable musical style, closely linked with Moravian folk sons; and local speech. In addition to folk songs, Janacek collected "tunelets" (melodies) of speech, as he termed situational onomatopoeic moments of speech. Furthermore, he noted down birdsong, as well as various sounds and noises that intrigued him. Janacek also considered speech tunelets to bear within them the psychological characteristics of a person, and they in turn became a significant aspect of his singular operatic style. He was among the first to compose to the natural flow and rhythm of unrestrained spoken language. First in fenufa and then, following his bad experience with librettists, from Katya Kabanova on he created all the librettos to his operas himself and thanks to his keen sense of the dramatic was able to shape his operas into flowing, compendious and concise musical dramas.

Numerous renowned foreign artists have remarked on their first encounter with Janacek's music as being an epiphany that exerted a lifelong influence. And their statements highlight Janacek's very rooting in the national identity and operatic tradition. Sir Charles Mackorfas: "The main reason for Jandcek's popularity is the drama of his operas and the intensity with which he peers within human beings, women in particular. The remarkable colourfulness of his music is linked to Jandcek's affinity to nature. This attracts the audience. And the system of repeating rhythmic phrases, tunelets, helps the listener to orientate himself in the music. Janacek actually invented minimalism long before the Americans did. At the same time, he is a great romantic - what could be more romantic than Katya of Jenufa?" Jan Latham-Koenig: "He showed how emotions, nationality and originality can be interconnected in an absolutely unique way - everything springs from the depths of his soul." Christopher Alden: "Janacek links up to why opera was created in the first place, and returns it to its roots."

It is said that no one is a prophet at home, yet the "mystery" of the Moravian Maestro's being received with "perplexity" at home and enjoying great popularity worldwide is very densely connected with the topic of national identity. …

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