SFOpera - Conductor's Note

Conductor's Note

Audiences and musicians have fond memories of the last time maestro Jiri Bělohlávek appeared with the San Francisco Opera, leading the Company’s triumphant 2010 production of Leoš Janáček’s Makropulos Case. The current music director of the Czech Philharmonic, Bělohlávek has long championed Janáček’s music and has earned acclaim and plaudits around the world for his interpretations and recordings of diverse repertoire.

What makes Janáček’s music so distinctly Czech?

I think we could say that everything is very Czech in Janáček’s music. He was in his early years strongly involved in the research of folk music, Moravian and Slavic music particularly. At the same time he was mesmerized by the fact that spoken language has a melodic line. He had an excellent ear, so he was able to catch very subtle details of the melodic lines of speech. Through the years of observing this phenomenon so closely, he was able to transform it into his own musical language. That’s what makes him absolutely unique, incomparable with anyone else.  His musical vocabulary also incorporates the elements of Czech dances and folk music, yet very seldom does he use actual folk song in his composition. He’s just taking the characteristic features of it and transforms them into his own melodic lines.

But didn’t other Czech composers such as Dvořák and Smetana do something similar with folk music?

Yes, of course, but Dvořák and Smetana were still working in the model of Romanticism. Janáček is ways ahead, completely unlike Romanticism or verismo. His is a very specific style which we still perceive today as very contemporary despite it being a hundred years old. Actually, the good proof of how unique his style was is the fact, that despite Janáček had a composers’ school in his hometown of Brno, and he had a lot of pupils, no one has continued his path. It was impossible.

Jenůfa was Janacek’s third opera and his breakthrough work. What makes this particular opera so different from the ones that came before?

I think in Jenůfa, Janáček was for the first time in full mastery of his own compositional style. The whole dramatic development, especially in the second act, is built on his composing method: melodic lines based on the natural rhythms of the Czech language, as well as his use of sčasovka in the orchestra. Sčasovka was Janáček’s term for repeating rhythmic patterns, quasi ostinatos that create some of the music’s harmonic underpinning. Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček’s great advocate, used to say that Janáček was actually the first minimalist. The root is already there.

Janáček’s librettos are astonishingly different from one another in subject matter and atmosphere. But one common thread (with the exception of From the House of the Dead) are strong women protagonists, such as Jenůfa, Kát’a Kabonová and Emilia Marty.  

Yes. Tortured and suffering women, in particular. When composing Jenůfa, Janáček was strongly influenced by the fatal suffering of his daughter Olga. [She died in 1903 from typhoid complications at age 21.] Her death was for Janáček’s soul a shaking pain. He was devastated. This merciless infliction was a very powerful scar in his life, but at the same time a strong source of inspiration. The suffering of his daughter became Jenůfa's, and Janáček dedicated Jenůfa to her memory.

Do you have any favorite musical moments in Jenůfa?

From the very first note to the end! The whole structure of the opera, the architecture is masterly done. Of course, there are extremely strong individual moments as well. I love the final duet between Jenůfa and Laca very much. It’s a smile over the tears. It’s incredibly, wonderfully simple; the harmonies are not very complicated. It’s really just pure emotion and tenderness.  And, of course, the Kostelnička monologue in the second act is an extremely powerful and dramatic piece of music.

Some have described Janacek’s music as cinematic.

What does “cinematic” mean? Personally, as an aside, I hate the idea of pairing pictures to music.  Half a year ago we gave a concert with the Czech Philharmonic for our sponsor, and we had a special request of using video projections to accompany the music, what was called “video mapping.” Of course, visual artists can create really wonderful, beautiful pictures, but unfortunately those ones have had nothing to do with the music we were playing. It was really distracting.

Nowadays there is a strong tendency to visualize everything. I’m a very strong opponent to all this. I’m concerned by anything that takes people from the listening; people are losing the tender abilities to distinguish subtle details, and I’m convinced that the music has to be listened to—not talked about, and for sure not to be explained through visuals!

What advice would you give opera-goers hearing Jenůfa for the first time?

This is music that speaks directly to the soul—that is Janáček’s genius—and the only condition is to come with open ears and an open heart. My only encouragement is listen, listen, listen.

Three Jenůfas