Smetana's Litomysl Opera Festival calls for reconciliation

Oratorio of Reconciliation, photo:

Every year at the beginning of summer the East-Bohemian town of Litomysl commemorates its famous native, the composer Bedrich Smetana, and in his honour organizes an international opera festival - Smetana's Litomysl. Even though Smetana's family moved out of Litomysl as early as 1831 when he was only seven, Litomysl locals are very proud of their most famous citizen and celebrated him already during his life. Later, after his death, Litomysl always made a point of commemorating the anniversary of his birth. On the occasion of the 125th anniversary in 1949 the Opera Festival was founded.

Jan Pikna
Even though originally the festival featured only opera, today its scope is broader, says the festival director Jan Pikna.

"At the beginning it really was only operas or opera recitals but in the 1990's we extended the festival in length and in the number of programs. It is impossible to play only operas. Every opera is very demanding to prepare and it is obviously also more expensive than a concert. But we still try to prefer the vocal element in the concerts. So, most of the concerts are oratorios, cantatas, singer's recitals...The instrumental programs only complement it."

Each year the festival focuses on a certain theme in music. This year, many events commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Second Word War. As Jan Pikna says, the organizers wanted to make their own contribution to the anniversary and chose the symbolic theme of "Reconciliation".

"When you celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Second World War you can of course make it very festive and celebrate the fact that such a terrible thing is over. But on the other hand, even today, after sixty years, not everything has been solved. There is still a lot of intolerance and wars have not disappeared. The only way to prevent wars is to bury the hatchet and reconcile. That involves reconciliation among nations, among religions as well as between neighbours or in a married couple."

The festival included a great number of different programs. Some of them - in a variety of ways - commemorated the victims of the war: for example the "Leningrad Symphony" by Shostakovich whose subject is the besieged city of Leningrad during the war, other programs picked up the theme of reconciliation from different angles.

Bedrich Smetana's most famous opera the Bartered Bride has featured at the festival no less than 26 times. Even though it is a comic opera with no link to war at all, it also contains an element of reconciliation. In the opera, the young peasant Jenik makes up with his girlfriend after a fall out which had happened due to a funny misunderstanding.

Another concert in the festival series was much more explicitly linked with this year's theme. On Tuesday, the Prague Philharmonia featured "Requiem" by Andrew Lloyd Weber, and in the second part of the concert they premiered the "Oratorio of Reconciliation" by the contemporary Czech composer Jiri Pavlica.

Even though the Oratorio speaks about reconciliation among religions, it celebrates above all the principles of love and tolerance. Jiri Pavlica is very well known as a singer of Moravian folk songs. As well as performing with his folk band Hradistan he also composes classical music and the mutual influence of the two genres in his work is quite apparent. Jiri Pavlica admits it. He believes the theme of reconciliation can also be applied to different genres of music.

"I think if you look for common language you can bring the genres close together. But it is possible only if we look for what unites us, and not what divides us. I don't want to interfere with the preserve of classical music. Classical music, just as folk or jazz, has its specifics which have to be kept. The world is diverse. Different nationalities have their specific qualities.... So let's embrace the variety but also the unity of mankind."

The festival organizers were inspired by the title of Pavlica's Oratorio. Not only did they decide to stage its concert premiere, but they also chose Reconciliation as the general title of this year festival. Tomas Hanus conducted the concert. As he says, they wanted to stress the whole idea by combining Weber's Requiem and Pavlica's Oratorio.

"You know the theme of the whole festival is Reconciliation. And there is this tension between the Requiem and the Reconciliation which is the main theme of Mr. Pavlica's work. The idea is to have Requiem to remember the people who died in wars and than perform the Reconciliation. So musically it doesn't have almost any connection but the idea is very strong, I think."

One thing which is quite special about Smetana's Litomysl Festival is the venue. Most of the concerts take place outdoors in the beautiful Renaissance castle courtyard, some smaller chamber concerts are staged in the unique Castle Theatre. Its room has excellent acoustics and the stage boasts original wooden décor from the 18th century. Some other concerts also take place at Litomysl baroque churches.

The house of Bedrich Smetana in Litomysl, photo: SchiDD, CC BY-SA 4.0 International
A visit of the festival is also a good opportunity to see the beautiful old town and the apartment at the castle brewery where Bedrich Smetana was born.

"Right now we are in the apartment, where the composer Bedrich Smetana was born. Here you see a portrait of his father Frantisek Smetana who worked here as brewer master. And this is his mother Barbora Smetanova. Right there is the piano on which Smetana started to play when he was four. And that is the violin of his father on which Bedrich Smetana reportedly taught himself how to play."

The house of Bedrich Smetana in Litomysl, photo: CzechTourism
Says Bozena Pittnerova, a guide at the house of Bedrich Smetana.

This year's festival is slowly coming to an end with the final concert on Monday June 4th featuring among other works Gustav Mahler's "Song of the Earth". But even if you miss the festival this year, don't worry. It will be back again next June. And the town of Litomysl itself is worth visiting all the year round.