Janáček, L.



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.”