"Nagano" Opera premieres at Prague's Estates Theatre

Opera Nagano

Thursday saw the premier of one of the National Theatre's most unique productions - the opera Nagano, featuring the Czech ice-hockey team's victory at the winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

The music was composed by the renowned Czech musician Martin Smolka, whose works have been performed at music festivals all around the world. The libretto was written by Czech actor and dramatist Jaroslav Dusek:

"Martin Smolka and I first met at an opera. We'd both been looking for a theme for an opera since 1995. Finally, the idea to try and work the Nagano experience into an opera came to us. At the beginning, we both thought the other was just joking, simply going along with the idea. But then, we gradually found links between ice-hockey and opera, especially when it came to the habit of rituals. Hockey players are obsessed with rituals. Everything is pre-planned before a game and they even get on the ice in a precise order. When they get on the bus, they have a seating arrangement, which - god forbid - cannot be changed when they are on a lucky streak and are winning.

Opera Nagano,  photo: CTK
"The individual players have their rituals too. In their hotel rooms, objects have to be standing on a certain spot on their nightstands. We were very impressed with all of this and realised that this ritual side to ice-hockey has a lot in common with theatre and opera. So, we made an opera with three basic rituals. The first third is the ritual of preparation, the second is the ritual of the actual game, and the last is the ritual of the ceremony, when the medals are presented.

"We were also impressed by all the energy that's present in the ice-hockey arena during a game and we thought it would be interesting to transfer this energy into the opera, where singers, similarly to the players are forced to give their physical best. So, we started seeing all these parallels and, suddenly, it seemed logical to have an opera on the Nagano victory. I also thought it would be a good challenge for Martin Smolka - he had to process in musical terms all these various levels of energy that fell into each other, and create a piece of music that makes sense in artistic terms."

Opera Nagano,  photo: CTK
"Nagano" is directed by Ondrej Havelka - a man who has made many a hearts skip a beat with his performances of 1920s and 30s jazz, swing, and other popular music. Although he had never before directed an opera, Mr Havelka was not challenged by the Nagano project:

"I graduated from the post-graduate study of opera direction in the 1980s, so I think I have a lot of experience. I have been working in the theatre as an actor and a director and I have a lot of experience with music. I have also produced a couple of musicals. This is my opera debut but I think that it's not as difficult for me as it appears to be."

Opera Nagano,  photo: CTK
Before the premiere, National Theatre Director Daniel Dvorak told a group of journalists that he was pleased to see that opera has finally taken over the spotlight from sports events. And Mr Dvorak was extremely proud to present the theatre's version of the Olympic victory as a solid and respectable piece of work that will not disappoint the opera- going society. Young sportsmen who can also sing take on the role of Czech ice-hockey stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek and Milan Hnilicka. The authors of the opera have found unique ways to highlight the important roles of each of these heroes. Composer Martin Smolka:

"The ice-hockey fans were shouting 'Hasek the goalkeeper is not a human being, he is God'. So, we decided to have the counter-tenor sing in Latin to evoke this situation of God. The other reason is that the ice-hockey offensive, the forwards, are the heroes of our time and so they are tenors in the opera. But with the goalkeeper Hasek, it's a special situation - he was even more important in that Nagano victory of the Czech ice-hockey team, so he had to be more than a tenor, a counter-tenor."

Despite Milan Hnilicka being a superb goalkeeper who has guaranteed the Czech ice-hockey team numerous victories, he never made it to the ice at Nagano and to make matters worse was overlooked during the presentation of the gold medals. This dramatic fate is given much attention in the opera. Hnilicka leads the audience through the Nagano experience. Opera Director Ondrej Havelka explains:

"Hnilicka was a third goal keeper at Nagano and this is a special role because he never changed into the hockey things and this is the special role in the theme. During the winning ceremony, he did not get a gold medal because he wasn't dressed like a hockey player and was wearing regular sports wear, with the flag in his hands, so Samaranch [Antonio Samaranch, former International Olympic Committee president] did not give him the gold medal. So, this is quite a funny fate and for the authors, it was an inspiration to make a special anti-hero."

And "Nagano" even features Czech heroes, who in reality had very little to do with the Olympic games. Personalities such as Vaclav Havel, who was Czech president at the time of the victory, but also writer Jaroslav Hasek and his fictional character - the Good Soldier Svejk - make an appearance. I asked Martin Smolka, why Svejk?

"To have fun and to have a grotesque situation! For the other reason, I would have to tell you half of the story... one ice-hockey player has a dream in which the goal keeper goes to Prague Castle because the fans kept shouting 'Hasek to the Castle, Hasek for President'. So, he really goes there. President Vaclav Havel is waiting for him to give him the King's Crown. In that moment, the other Hasek, the writer, appears and shouts that he is the right Hasek for President. And Svejk is there to explain briefly which Hasek he is - the author of Svejk."