'The Kiss' provides a witty feminist vehicle for luscious music | St. Louis Public Radio

'The Kiss' provides a witty feminist vehicle for luscious music

Jun 13, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A comic opera about a charming woman who won't disrespect mourning customs opens Sunday night at 7 p.m. at the Loretto-Hilton Theater.

It’s Bedřich Smetana and Eliška Krásnohorská’s “The Kiss.” And this opera is OTSL’s second opening night in succession. Saturday is the world premiere of Terrence Blanchard and Michael Christofer’s “Champion.”

Smetana, a 19th century Czech composer, is best known for his six tone poems, “Ma Vlast” (My Fatherland). The second of that series, “The Moldau,” is the beloved near-national anthem of his homeland, which is now the Czech Republic but was called Bohemia in his lifetime. Then, Bohemia was a province of the Austrian Empire. “The Bartered Bride” is the most performed of his nine operas.

Given that this will be the world premiere of David Pountney’s English translation of Krásnohorská’s libretto, it will be the first chance for non-Czech-speakers to understand the wit and nuances of the feminist libretto, stage director Michael Gieleta said.

Corinne Winters in "The Kiss"
Credit Poster | Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Krásnohorská (the pen name of Alzbeta Pechova) wrote librettos for Smetana’s four last operas and was his motivator when he was deaf. The feminist poet and newspaper publisher is honored today with a sculpture on Prague’s central Charles Square. She based “The Kiss” on a short story by Karolína Světlá, a 19th century Czech writer, with parallels to St. Louis 19th century novelist and short story writer Kate Chopin. Both explored women’s rights in marriage and wider society. Like Chopin, Světlá used ironic wit.

A strong woman

“Playing 'The Kiss' is like doing a world premiere because the audience has no expectations about what the characters are like,” soprano Corinne Winters said. “So, Opera Theatre has two world premieres in a row this season, ‘Champion” and ‘The Kiss.’”

Last year at Opera Theatre, Winters sang Micaela in ‘Carmen’ her third role with the company since 2009. “Love it, or don’t like it, I played Miceala as a strong woman, with a heart of gold,” she said.

In that plot, Micaela leaves her village and travels alone with a letter from Don Jose’s mother to hand it to him in military barracks in the big city. Many “Carmen” productions make Micaela meek. For the story to work, she must have been strong and rather brave, Winters said. While some opera buffs evidently didn’t like the change, some St. Louisans said her interpretation of Micaela stole hearts and even the show.

“Just because a person is good-hearted and pious does not mean she is weak,” Winters said.

In “The Kiss,” she sings Vendulka, and tenor Garrett Sorenson sings Lukáš, her fiancé. The two had been childhood sweethearts in their rural Czech village. Years before, he brushed her aside, followed his parents’ wishes and married another villager. The St. Louis production opens with the funeral procession of Lukáš’ first wife, Winters explained.

“Lukáš sees Vendulka at the funeral and knows he never stopped loving her,” Winters said. “She wants to honor his first wife and says it is too soon to kiss just a couple months after the funeral,” Winters said, though she does promise to marry him. “She is a determined woman, strong like Micaela.”

Lukáš assumes she only won’t kiss him in front of the whole village. But when he tries to kiss her in private,  she refuses.

“Vendulka sticks to her belief to the end,” Winters said. “She’s so good-hearted, she takes care of another woman’s baby, but she is also a firecracker.”

People will understand her right to stand on principle, Winters said. Most operas are written by men and generally give a male view of relationships, she said.

A year ago Winters won OTSL’s first Mabel Dorn Reeder Foundation Prize. Its $10,000 award funded her trip to European auditions where London’s English National Opera cast her in the lead role of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and booked her for two subsequent years.

“I owe so much recent success to OTSL and especially to music director Stephen Lord,” she said. She even met tenor Zach Borichevsky, her significant other, working at OTSL in 2009. The pair will sing together in London in a couple years.

The Irish Connection

Stage director Michael Gieleta directed the opera in Ireland two years ago in its original Czech with the same set design and same costumes.

“I assure you this is a very different production done in English,” Gieleta said. It’s a co-production of OTSL and the Wexford Opera Festival. For 61 years, the Irish company has built a reputation for reviving forgotten operas. The companies’ two previous joint efforts -- “Ghosts of Versailles” and “The Golden Ticket” -- opened first in St. Louis, then played at Wexford. Tables were turned this time. “The Kiss” opened in October 2010 at Wexford with Gieleta’s staging concepts, James Macnamara’s sets and  Fabio Toblini’s costume designs.  It was sung there in Czech under the original title, “Hubicka.”

“It’s going be 10 times better here,” Gieleta said. “It’s not a revival of the Wexford production. We are creating a new entity out of pre-existing elements.”

Now that it is in English, the director sees a bit of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in the plot. Since “The Kiss” turns on a slightly crazed night in the Bohemian forest, he also wants it to evoke “Midsummer’s Night Dream.”

“Growing up in England I have Shakespeare in my DNA,” he said. But “The Kiss” won’t look like Shakespeare or even its original 1876 setting. Gieleta and the designers have updated the story from 1876 to the 1940s. The village and its forest remained rooted in the beauty of the Bohemian countryside.

Not Folk Music

When audiences hear “The Kiss” overture’s buoyant toe-tapping rhythms, it would be easy to assume that Smetana based his music on Czech folk dances. Brahms, Liszt, Mozart and Copland are just a few composers who based sophisticated classical music on traditional music they heard at village squares and taverns. Except for classically embellishing a traditional Bohemian lullaby for “The Kiss,” however, Smetana wrote all original music for this opera. He composed it when he was 52 and deaf.

Smetana grew up in the rarefied confines of an Austrian count’s castle in Bohemia. Smetana’s father was the count's brewer and amateur violin player in a string quartet. The composer was baptized Frederich and adopted the Czech version, Bederich, in middle age after Bohemia became autonomous. His parents spoke German, never Czech, at home. Schools taught in German. Even the title of his best-known work “The Moldau” is the German name for the river Czechs call the Vltava.

After he studied at the Prague Conservatory and developed a piano recital and teaching career, he spent much of his life working for Austrian noblemen in Prague and a wealthy patroness in Sweden. Indeed, he moved to Sweden when his piano recital career deflated, he was passed over for some key music jobs and two of his three young daughters died, according to Brian Large's biography of the composer.

Smetana only returned to Prague after Bohemia gained autonomy. Smetana eventually became head of the Provisional Theatre with the goal of raising music standards and helping Czech culture flower. He wrote operas with Bohemian themes. When he began to loose his hearing, in the earlier stages of syphilis, he and his second wife retired to the Bohemian countryside.

As luscious as Puccini

At the St. Louis rehearsals over the past three and a half weeks, conductor Anthony Barrese has encouraged "The Kiss" cast to dig beneath the score’s top layer and find “a very sophisticated” layer of music. Smetana’s opera music is as complex -- as “rich and luscious” -- as Wagner and Puccini and clearly does what opera is meant to do, he said.

“It reveals the underlying emotions that are inherent in the story,” Barrese said in an interview.

In Smetana’s lifetime fledgling hyper-nationalistic Prague critics, scorned him for being influenced by the Germanic-style music of Liszt, Wagner and Cornelius. Some fussed that he was too French.

Barrese has no complaint with “The Kiss” score reflecting Wagner, Schubert and Liszt influences. Smetana is a thoroughly Western European composer of his generation, Barrese said. In a sunrise in the forest scene his music sounds like the overture from Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” he said and hummed it.

“There is lot of Italian music, too,” he said. The Chicago native lived in Italy, made his opera-conducting debut with Puccini’s “La Bohème” in Milan. After his OTSL debut, Barrese will return to his post as Opera Southwest artistic director and principal conductor in Albuquerque.

“I think the more he lost his hearing, the more detailed his notation became,” Barrese said. “Verdi is the only other composer before the 20th century who has so much detail in a vocal score. … He asks a lot of the singers.”

Many composers assume they can make adjustments once they hear an orchestra play a new piece in rehearsal, said Barrese, an award-winning composer of secular and sacred music. “Of course, Smetana knew he would never hear his music.”

While Smetana was ill, “The Bartered Bride,” which only won mild approval at its world premiere, was revived to great success. “The Kiss” was also popular. Eight years after “The Kiss” opened, the composer died in a mental institution.

Czech movie costumes

“The Kiss” creative team found inspiration in the early 1970s Czech movie "Zelary," which was set in the 1940s, costume designer Toblini said. The artistic team moved this production's setting from 1876 to a few years after Hitler had taken over Czechoslovakia. Toblini borrowed movie costumes from the Barrandov Studios in Prague, so the fabrics and embellishments are Czech.

"I pulled the clothes from (Barrandov’s) general stock after my designs had been established,” Toblini wrote in an email. He carefully chose the costumes to reflect his own designs.

The cast is eager to give new life to this opera with a happy ending. “It’s fun, but with an important core about relationships,” Winters said.

Picnics and lunches

Picnics on the lawn are available before all performances.

Free half-hour preview lectures also are given in the Webster University Conservatory building one hour before most production.

The many supporting events include Master Classes and a Beacon-sponsored "A Little Lunch Music," which features company lead singers on June 17 and 24, each at 12:30 p.m. The first is at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, the next at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield.