It is startling to realize that Leoš Janáček’s enchanting yet profound opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, had its origin in what was close to being a newspaper cartoon strip.
From April through June, 1920, Brno’s popular liberal daily, Lidové noviny, published the illustrated story of a clever vixen constantly outwitting a forester. The 200 or so sketches had been drawn by the painter Stanislav Lolek (1873 – 1936) who had been apprenticed as a forester before turning to art. One of the paper’s editors saw the sketches and assigned Rudolf Těsnohlídek (1882 – 1928), the Lidové noviny’s law reporter, to come up with some text to accompany the illustrations.
The printer mistook Těsnohlídek’s original title, “Liška Bystronožka” (Vixen Fleetfoot) for “Liška Bystroužka” (Vixen Sharp-Ears”) — and so she has been ever since. Janáček’s title for his opera is Adventures of the Vixen Bystroušky (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky). When Max Brod translated the opera into German, the title became Das schlaue Füchslein or The Cunning Little Vixen—the title by which the opera is known almost everywhere outside of Janáček’s homeland.
The difference in the wording of the title is not mere pedantry. As Michael Ewans has pointed out in Janáček’s Tragic Operas, the German and English translated titles “are sadly symptomatic: the West has shown too little ability to interpret an opera whose vision is as far from Disney as it is from the clumsy symbolism of Max Brod’s ‘arrangement for the German stage.’ Janáček’s animals are not patronized or sentimentalized by the attribution of human features: human singers and dancers, taking on the masks and skins of insect, bird or animal, find themselves for the duration of this opera members of an order nobler, by its deep humor and its simple, amoral enjoyment of life, than that of humanity. The particular moments where animals assume the manners of men satirize human rather than animal behavior; no animal is portrayed ironically, except the dog and hens who have succumbed self-righteously to exploitation by mankind.”
This unsentimental view of the opera is shared by Edward Berkeley, director of Aspen Opera Theater Center. “In our production, the sense of character, in terms of animals, is going to be strong, but it definitely is going to go away from ‘cute.’ The period will be the 1920’s or ’30s with a European flavor. It will be calling back to a time of awareness of the earth and the values of the earth, a kind of re-finding oneself in nature.”
Throughout all the adventures the Vixen has during the course of the opera, there is a strong underlying theme of the relationship between humans and the world of nature. Janáček emphasized this part of the work — as well as the cyclical nature of renewal found in life itself — by the changes he made in Těsnohlídek’s original version.
Těsnohlídek’s story was largely devoted to the numerous adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears, culminating in her marriage to the Fox. Janáček, however, used this ending to the original story as the finale to Act Two of his opera. For Act Three, the composer used a few incidents from earlier in Těsnohlídek’s story, primarily the incident with Harašta the poacher — but with a major difference. In Janáček’s version, the poacher kills the Vixen, which completely changes the nature of the work. However, the profundity of Janáček’s version is sealed by not ending the opera with Sharp-Ear’s death (which would be merely sentimental), but by the last two scenes of the opera which are Janáček’s invention.
The almost painful nostalgia of the scene at the Inn where the Schoolmaster realizes his beloved Theresa has married another man, and the Forester announces the Vixen has left her burrow and disappeared, gives way to the astonishing transformation scene with which the opera ends. The Forester enters the forest with his gun, as he did at the beginning of the opera. But this time — because of his relationship with the Vixen, and because he has been open to learn from her — he sees Nature in all its beauty, and it renews him. He values not only the mushroom he picks, but everything he sees. Unlike the memories he has of his wedding day in the opening scene (“I feel as tired as I did on my wedding night. The next day I was dead to the world” — an obvious metaphor to his being dead to the world of nature in which he found himself) this time — as he revels in the splendor of nature all around him — he remembers the passion of the love they had felt and the all consuming kisses they had shared. As in the opening scene, the Forester falls asleep, and this time meets the descendants of the Vixen and the Frog from Act One.
In an marvelous touch, the huge dramatic arch the Forester has traveled since we first met him is deftly conveyed by Janáček’s last stage direction in the piece, the last words in the score: “Absentmindedly, the Forester lets his gun slip to the ground.” He no longer needs it. He is at peace with Nature.
When Max Brod wanted Janáček to write some final words for the Forester “in which he could sink into rumination,” the composer adamantly refused. “In the final scene the Forester’s gun simply slips from his hand,” he insisted. “Nothing more; let everyone work out for himself what he will.”
“Vixen is a life-giving piece,” Berkeley explains. “That sense of renewal — that we don’t loose the past, but we grow by accepting it. By accepting the Vixen’s death, and then looking into the future, the shape of the opera says that death is a natural part of things, and from that sense of renewal we can learn and grow.
“The work is a parable about what we should appreciate and learn from nature and the natural cycle — and about male/female relationship in general.” Berkeley agrees with the critic who said the Vixen is the embodiment of unrestrained femininity. “The growth of the piece is toward her own discovery of that — and the Forester discovering that. The scene with the Fox, at the end of Act Two, is where it all comes out. That’s a glorious moment!”
Aside from a few moments, such as the humorous political harangue the Vixen gives the Hens in Act One, there are comparatively few words in the opera’s libretto. It is the music, by far, through which Janáček subtly conveys the shifting relationships. “The musical insight lavished on the depiction of each successive stage of [the Vixen’s] life is intended to have deep meaning for us,” writes Ewans. “Human beings, like vixens, are born, grow, marry and die; those seen in the opera live lives poor in comparison with Bystrouška’s — except for the Forester, whose road to wisdom is carefully charted, and on whose closing vision Janáček lavished some of his most inspired music.… Janáček illuminates for us the cycles of life and nature; and at the same time he shows us archetypes of the morality of the humans who cannot accept those cycles — and the road by which one human eventually can.”
The orchestral interludes and mimes/dances were integral parts of Janáček’s vision of the story from the very beginning, and he resisted all well-meaning suggestions to add conventional arias so the animals could “explain” things.
“The Vixen is a forest idyll; only a hint should surface of our cycle and that of animal life,” he wrote to his publisher. “That is enough — it is true that for most this symbolism is too little. The Vixen can only eat rabbits, not romances and arias.”
“I’m hoping the audience will come away from the performances really loving the music,” says Berkeley. “That sounds like such a cliché, but for me the piece is such a revelation of Janáček’s incredible musical style that is really a unique voice. It’s an important voice. It’s romantic, it’s very beautiful, and here it’s conveying a quite serious vision of nature, and the importance of nature in our lives. As we destroy the environment, we should be learning how to restore ourselves the way nature does, and renew ourselves, rather than destroying each other and destroying nature.”
Janáček and Animals
Janáček loved animals and the family always had numerous pets: dogs, pigeons, a gold finch — and three hens. Marie Stejskalová, the Janáček’s servant for over 40 years, remembered, “Janáček talked to the hens as to children, they looked at him, answered something and he understood. In the evening, when he sat down in the garden in his armchair to read the paper, he rapped on the table, like a schoolmaster at school. The hens came running at once, jumped up [onto the table] and kept him company.”
During the summer of 1922, while he was working on The Cunning Little Vixen, Janáček and some friends went into the forest near Hukvaldy to observe a family of foxes. The gamekeeper, J. D. Sládek, later wrote, “We reached Babí hora [Old Woman Mountain], and indeed, as if to order, the vixen’s family emerged from the den and began to show off and frisk about. Janáček started twitching with excitement until in the end he frightened the foxes away.
“ ‘Why couldn’t you keep still, Dr. Janáček? You could have gone on looking?’
“Janáček, completely exhilarated and happy, just brushed this aside. ‘I saw her! I saw her!’
This article originally appeared in the Aspen Opera Theater program, 2005.
The photo at the top of the article is by Jonn Leffmann.
The drawings in the article are Stanislav Lolek’s of “Vixen Fleetfoot.”