The Peabody Opera Theatre presents

The Adventures of
Sharp-Ears the Vixen

music and text by Leos Janacek

after the story by Rudolf Tesnohlidek

Hajime Teri Murai, music director

Roger Brunyate, stage director

Misha Kachman, set designer

Kristina Lucka, costume designer

Douglas Nelson, lighting designer

Peabody Symphony Orchestra

Members of the Peabody Preparatory Dance Department
Carol A. Bartlett, choreographer
Members of the Peabody Children’s Chorus
Doreen Falby, director
Thursday–Saturday, November 20–22, 2008 at 7:30 PM
Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 3:00 PM
Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall
Peabody Conservatory of Music
1 East Mt. Vernon Place
Baltimore, Maryland
Admission $25 / Seniors $15 / Students with ID $10
Box Office: 410/659-8100 x2, or book online
Photographs by Cory Weaver       Peabody Opera home

Leos Janacek  
Leos Janacek
Leos Janacek (1854–1928) is now generally acknowledged as one of the great writers of opera in the twentieth century, although it took a while for his reputation to spread outside his native Czechoslovakia. Indeed, it took a while for him to grow into opera himself. He did not complete his first mature opera, Jenufa, until his fiftieth year, and he wrote his last stage work, From the House of the Dead, when he was well into his seventies. Most of his operas are dramas: powerful and even grim. But The Adventures of Sharp-Ears the Vixen is an exception: charming and wise, funny but with an undertone of sadness. Janacek was 69 when he completed it, and one is reminded of another comedy written by a composer at the end of his career, Verdi’s Falstaff. For in exploring the natural world of Sharp-Ears the Vixen, the composer experienced a resurgence of the life force. This opera is a miracle, both springtime and autumn at once. For all its immersion in the joys of youth, it is a piece written in mature reflection, looking back.

Rudolf Tesnohlidek The
Rudolf Tesnohlidek and the Tesnohlidek workshop

The story of Sharp-Ears (“Bystrouska” in Czech) was the work of a writer called Rudolf Tesnohlidek (1882–1928). The son of a village knacker, he would run from the sounds of the slaughterhouse and hide in the garden. Shy and depressed (he eventually took his own life), he had more than enough tragedy to deal with; his best friend drowned while he helplessly looked on; his first wife, dying of tuberculosis, shot herself in front of him; his second wife left him. One of his frequent subjects as a writer was a series of underground caverns that had just been discovered in Slovakia. Yet in the midst of all this gloom, Tesnohlidek managed to hit on a story full of life and light, one that would focus as much on animals as human beings — animals, moreover, in their natural forest surroundings rather than ending their lives in a knacker's yard.

Stanislav Lolek memorial One of Lolek's original drawings
Stanislav Lolek memorial, and one of his drawings

The Adventures of Sharp-Ears the Vixen came out in 1920 as an illustrated weekly serial in the Brno daily paper, Lidove noviny. The original idea was not Tesnohlidek’s, but that of the illustrator Stanislav Lolek (1873–1936). Lolek, a successful painter of landscapes and rural themes, had been a forester’s assistant in his youth, and loved the Bohemian countryside. As a young man, he heard an old gamekeeper tell stories about a group of friends who used to meet of an evening in the tavern, and about their various encounters with a vixen. The young artist made some sketches based on these tales, and then forgot about them until an editor at the Lidove noviny approached him about contributing to the Saturday edition, bought the rights to the old artwork, and then tried to get Tesnohlidek to provide a text. Although resistant at first, the author was eventually seduced by the charm of the little drawings, and not only provided the weekly episodes but developed them into a much-beloved book that has never gone out of print in his native country.

Set model by Misha Kachman Set model by Misha Kachman
Two views of the set model by Misha Kachman

Lolek’s line-drawings are not typical either of his mature style or Janacek’s musical interpretation. For although there is plenty of humorous incident in the opera, its main subject is the cycle of nature itself, a profusion of detail on an endless scale. Janacek’s score is not an opera in the normal sense of the word, but a symphonic poem with voices. The opera begins orchestrally with images of animal life in the forest: a Badger comes out of his sett; dragonflies and other insects fly around; and an old Forester lies asleep. The first creatures to appear in the Forester’s dreams are a Cricket and a Grasshopper who waltz together, a tipsy Mosquito, the young Vixen, and a Frog who, attempting to escape from the Vixen, lands on the Forester’s nose, waking him up. When the Forester takes the Vixen back to his house as a pet, she strikes up an alliance with the family Dog and speculates with him on the mysteries of sex, before dreaming of her own transformation into a beautiful young girl, Terynka. Later, she incites the Hens to rebel against their do-nothing Cock (a delightful parody of a Communist agitator). In the ensuing ruckus, she kills the Cock and escapes.

Costume sketches by Kristina Lucka
Insects: costume sketches by Kristina Lucka

The climactic scene in the second act takes place at the Vixen’s new den (stolen from the Badger), where she is visited by a handsome Fox. Their love scene is the most extended episode in the opera, containing the most lyrical singing. What is remarkable, however, is the way that Janacek encloses the scene in a wordless chorus of forest voices. At the end, when the Fox and Vixen have retired, this chorus swells into a symphony of sound, and eventually turns into a vigorous dance for the forest creatures. It is a magnificent evocation of proliferating life, involving not only the Vixen and her mate but seemingly all of creation. (It is remarkably close in spirit to the mood of the garden scene with which Ravel closes his L'enfant et les sortilèges, written only two years later, but Janacek seems the wilder, more primal, of the two composers).

Costume sketches by Kristina Lucka
Terynka, Vixen, Fox: costume sketches by Kristina Lucka

And yet it can be argued that the central figure in the opera is not the title role but the old Forester. It is in his dreams that the animals are first heard to speak. It is he who provides the link with the other human characters, his drinking companions at the inn — the lovesick Schoolmaster and the portly Priest — and he is the touchstone against which their futility may be judged. It is he who, at the end of the opera, after the Vixen has been accidentally shot by a poacher, falls asleep once more and dreams that he sees another cub just like her — the Vixen’s daughter. It is through the Forester that Janacek seems to confront his own old age and eventual death, and accept them as part of the cycle of life. Janacek asked that, when he died, the Forester’s last soliloquy be the music played at his funeral; his wish was granted.

Costume sketches by Kristina Lucka
The Forester’s Family: costume sketches by Kristina Lucka

Principal Singers

Singers listed first appear in the Thursday and Saturday performances.
Passing the cursor over singer’s names will show any previous roles.
Forester   Nathan Wyatt
Andrew Sauvageau
Forester’s Wife   Amber Schwarzrock
Schoolmaster   Curtis Bannister
Benjamin Shaver
Priest   Peter Tomaszewski
Jeffrey Williams
Harasta   Benjamin Moore
Hirotaka Kato
Sharp-Ears, the Vixen   Jessica Thompson
Kathryn Guthrie
Golden-Mane, the Fox   Lindsay Thompson
Brittany Hogan
Crested Fowl   Elizabeth Cooper
Dog   Lauren Maxwell
Rooster & Jay   Britt Olsen-Ecker
Badger   Peter Tomaszewski
Jeffrey Williams