Chicago opera company takes on Janáček’s Jenůfa

One of the greatest Czech operas, Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček, is currently being staged at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Jakub Hrůša conducts the orchestra and the international cast features one Czech singer. The piece premiered on Sunday and will only have only four more performances.

Jakub Hrůša | Photo: Veronika Paroulková,  Czech Radio

Singers from the United States, Norway, Sweden, Colombia, Japan and Czechia met on the stage of the acclaimed Chicago Opera House to perform Janáček’s Jenůfa, a grim story of infanticide, domestic violence and redemption set in a Moravian village at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The opera, based on the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová, premiered in Brno in 1904. It was this piece that first drew serious attention to Janáček as a composer and established his international reputation.

Janůfa is one of the first operas written in prose. Janáček wanted to keep the language natural and only made slight changes to the original play, deliberately choosing natural speech patterns rather than verse.

It was the Czech language, or more specifically, Moravian dialect, that presented the biggest challenge for the international cast, led by sopranos Lise Davidsen in the role of Jenůfa and Nina Stemme as her mother-in-law, Kostelnička.

Pavel Černoch as Laca and Lise Davidsen as Jenůfa | Photo: Michael Brosilow,  Lyric Opera of Chicago

William Clay Thompson, who features in the role of the Mayor, says that after hours of studying the text, he can not only pronounce the words, but he also understands what they mean:

“After a lot of repetition and study it now all make sense. I personally had coachings with Klára every day or every other day, just to be able to get the right sounds in the mouth and to keep that piece of the art form pure so that everybody who may be Czech or understand Czech would understand what is being said. The first challenge I had were the words ‘přijdu’ and ‘dobře’. Outside of that it was fairly easy to pick up but that was a new sound for me.”

The person who made sure that all the singers pronounced Czech correctly was Klára Moldová, a teacher and vice-president at the T. G. Masaryk Czech School in Chicago. She says she started to meet with the singers already a month before the rehearsals to get them familiar with the rules of the Czech language:

“Of course the consonants, especially those with the Czech diacritics, were the biggest challenge for everybody, and the worst was the letter ‘ř’. But since they are professionals and they used to singing in different languages, we used the international phonetic alphabet, which everyone can read and which can describe any sound in any language.”

Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa first premiered in the United States in 1924 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The current production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, directed by Claus Guth, is accompanied by an exhibition in the foyer of the theatre presenting the life and work of the great Czech composer.