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BRNO? For Opera? For sure!

The densely populated Czech operatic landscape, with its ten full time opera companies, has been dominated in the last three seasons by Brno. A team of kindred spirits in art and age--they are all in their forties--took over with some verve three years ago, under the leadership of Martin Glaser. Their objective was clear: making the National Theatre Brno (NTB), with its three buildings, the Janacek Theatre, the Mahen Theatre and the Reduta, a key representative institution of the Moravian metropolis. To what extent have they achieved their goals, and what is their vision of a modern-day opera company?

Director Martin Glaser (1974) took over as director at NTB in November 2013. He surrounded himself with a strong team, with director Jiri Herman (1975, see CMQ 2013/2) acting as director of the Janacek Opera Company, and conductor and composer Marko Ivanovic (1976, see CMQ 2012/3) as chief conductor. The ballet is led by choreographer and dancer Mario Radacovsky (1971), the director of the drama company in the Mahen Theatre is playwright and director Martin Frantisak (1974).

This team, with experiences from other Czech theatres--or, in the case of Ivanovic, orchestras--took the wheel after more than a year of provisional measures. These brought an unbalanced level of quality, a weakened reputation, and financial problems, wherein the City of Brno struggled to find suitable candidates in repeated selection procedures.

The new management had a flying start and the opera improved surprisingly fast. In the 2014/15 season, the new management brought two productions from its time in Prague: Carokraj (Echantia), a family-friendly, fairy tale "operatic expedition" by Marko Ivanovic, based on Durrell's The Talking Parcell, which it sets in a variety of musical styles, and Martinu's The Miracles of Mary directed by Jiri Herman.

Despite the well-documented Brnoese distaste for anything Prague-related, both productions were a success in Brno. Martinu's four-part cycle of parables, miracles and folk ballads, with its folktale wisdom and biblical themes, came off more authentically in the Janacek Theatre than in Prague. Janacek himself was represented by The Makropulos Affair, directed by David Radok. In his rendition, this "conversational" opera about a 337-year-old woman of many identities was worked out to the smallest cinematic detail.

The season's dramaturgy was "balanced" in terms of audience popularity by Puccini's Tosca. Jiri Herman connected the story of Tosca, the singer--sung by the excellent Maria Hundling--with her most famous exponent, Maria Callas. Tereza Merkelova played Callas in a mute-role alter ego, strengthening the fates of both artists--women obsessed with love in a time of political turmoil which ultimately destroys them.

The next season, which brought five opera premieres, lacked this energy. Though the thought-out dramaturgy had both a Czech classic in Smetana's The Kiss, care for the Janacek canon in Jenufa and a popular hit in Bizet's Carmen, the productions were unconvincing.

The 2015/16 season was then dominated by projects led by the director and chief conductor. Marko Ivanovic conducted the Czech premiere of Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades, with its "tabloid" story of the escapades of Duchess of Argyll, Margaret Campbell. With Martinu's oratorium The Epic of Gilgamesh, paired with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, Hefman began fulfilling his vision of opening genres outside of opera to theatrical adaptations, as well as giving the excellent choir of the Janacek Opera its time to shine. In this combination of Sumerian and classical myth, whose musics were composed 270 years apart, Hefman used his typical focus on rituality to express a common topic--loneliness--in a lyrical scenic "poem".

The third season then brought the Brno opera to the fore of the Czech operatic world. Hefman gave new directorial accents and a playful flow to Dvorak's fairy-tale opera The Devil and Kate. He framed the story as a school trip, so an entire "class", in the form of the Brno children's choir, was involved in the story of the talkative Kate who the Devil takes to hell but cannot then get rid of her. A combination of Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Arnold Schonberg's Erwartung was an excellent dramaturgical counterpoint to Janacek's operas at the Janacek's Brno festival. Director David Radok based this pairing on the common theme of uncovered layers of the unconscious, together with the eternal motif of the antagonism of man and woman and the morbid mystery of the environment, taken to extremes in both operas. Marko Ivanovic handled the difficult music with certainty in the ensemble, adding a particular suggestiveness to Bartok's rich, expressive music.

The festival dramaturgy was also broadened by the Czech premiere of The Cave, a video-opera by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot. The Brno Contemporary Orchestra, led by its founder, Pavel Snajdr, captured Reich's version of Janacek's tunelets of speech (1) with full concentration. The highlight of the season, however, was Janacek's Katya Kabanova, in which the Brno cast played excellently the part given to it in director Robert Carson's well-tested staging, based on a large body of water on the stage. Pavla Vykopalova received a Thalia Award for her rendition of Katya, but excellent performances were also given by Eva Urbanova (Kabanicha), Magnus Vigilius (Boris) and Gianluca Zampieri (Tichon).

Another high point was the Czech premiere of L'Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho, in which the entire team, that is conductor Marko Ivanovic, director Jiri Herman and the trio of soloists Marketa Cukrova (The Pilgrim), Pavla Vykopalova (Clemence) and Roman Hoza (Jaufre) gave the vast stage of the Janacek Opera the intimacy and fantasy of a medieval troubadour's dream, while at the same time expressing the grand ideal of absolute love. The first three seasons of the opera at NTB fulfil the vision of director Martin Glaser, who sees his role as the inspirational curator of a creative environment, with a vision of a confident theatre "which isn't a museum, but which also shies away from mindlessly copying the latest trends. Quite the opposite, it has ambitions to stand at the birth of the new--and yet it remains proud of the roots it grows out of."

Not Just Three Gold Keys

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According to Glaser, NTB has enormous potential particularly thanks to its three golden keys to the cultural world: "I. We're the theatre that premiered Janacek's operas. On that, we can, or rather must, build a living theatrical present. 2. We have three charismatic buildings, of which the Janacek Theatre's technical possibilities, size and setup makes it the best equipped theatre for opera and ballet in the Czech Republic. 3. We produce two large festivals--the Janacek Brno opera biennale and the yearly Theatre World Brno, which focuses on drama and all manner of physical theatre." Glaser and the opera management agree on the focus on Janacek. According to the managing director of the opera, Jiri Herman, it is a foundation which every member of the ensemble cares for deeply: "Janacek's fascinating oeuvre takes much of its inspiration from this region. Personally, I feel a certain liveliness and heartiness from the ensemble, which resonates fully with Janacek's works. Seeing and hearing a Janacek opera from this ensemble is a unique opportunity. We recently had an excellent response at the prestigious Hong Kong Arts Festival, where we did The Makropulos Affair and concert programmes of Janacek and Dvorak. I value highly our collaboration with artists that bring a new perspective on Janacek's oeuvre and enrich the ensemble, namely Robert Carsen and David Radok."

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According to Marko Ivanovic, Janacek grips us most of all with his immediate emotion and modern dramatic feeling. But he also sees a certain distance and some reservations from the Czech operatic audience: "Even an opera as melodic as Jenufa is sometimes played to half-empty houses. I refuse to accept this situation--I and the ensemble are fully committed to the effort of championing Janacek and somewhat "re-educating" our audience. Realistically, however, it's a long-term goal."

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In order to strengthen its Janacek branch, the current management has also taken over the Janacek Brno festival from Daniel Dvorak, who led NTB from 2007 to 2012. Dvorak established this autumn biennale with the ambitious goal of turning Brno, a city linked to the life of the Moravian maestro, into a reference point of Janacek interpretation, a flagship of the theatre, Brno, the South Moravian region and the entire Czech Republic.

"The weight of the festival always lies on opera productions--a new one from us and progressive interpretations from home and abroad. For 2018, the hundredth anniversary of the Czechoslovak state, which is an important moment of our national history, we are preparing a suitably festive and representative programme--we would like to stage all of Janacek's operas," says Martin Glaser. Jiri Herman considers the biennale a festivity of music and theatre: "For the Czech audience, it is a unique diversification of the opera season, for international guests, it is an added value to see and hear Janacek's works in the city in which he lived and worked, and in varied and excellent interpretations by the international artists of today. The festival helps our ensemble develop, but it also brings the city of Brno to international attention, inviting repeated visits to an event that can, in the near future, be equal to the festivals of Salzburg or Bayreuth." With its budget of over I million euros, the festival is among the largest cultural undertakings in the Czech Republic. Though it will never be profitable for NTB and will always need public subsidy, its secondary contribution in terms of cultural tourism is substantial.

The management, however, also aims its focus at other Czech composers. According to Herman, "we are still at the beginning of discovering not only the Smetana-Dvorak classics, but also pre-Smetana operas, as well as composers such as Karel Kovarovic, Zdenek Fibich, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Otakar Ostrcil, Vitezslav Novak, Otakar Jeremias... Just like Baroque opera awaited its rediscovery through very progressive productions, Czech operas have this potential too." Ivanovic considers Kovarovic or Jeremias unfairly neglected composers: "Their problem is that until recently, their music was too 'new' for the conservatives and too 'old' for lovers of the contemporary operatic aesthetic. I think the time is ripe for a 'comeback', and Jeremias's The Brothers Karamazov is in our long-term plans. With Smetana, there is often a problem with the antiquated, national-revivalist libretti, but musically, his works are still of high quality and very distinctive.

The duo at the head of the opera also emphasises productions of contemporary operas. "In the next three seasons, we will see three world premieres of Czech operatic composers," promises Herman. According to Ivanovic, many people wrongly assume that opera is a historically closed genre, which has nothing to offer apart from musicals: "Good contemporary opera can speak to today's problems in a contemporary language, thus giving a lot of space both to the authors of the staging and the audience, who wants a contemporary artistic statement. Last but not least, these are usually works which, in their difficulty and unusual demands, present a challenge and an 'education' for the soloists, orchestra, and the ensemble as a whole." According to Herman, however, the dramaturgical conception includes all periods from Baroque to contemporary opera: "We choose our titles so as to introduce our audience to lesser known operatic works of high quality, whilst also keeping classic operas in outstanding interpretations in the repertoire. Our ensemble has a relatively young but very able group of sixteen soloists with extraordinary voices, and to a large extent, we base our dramaturgy on the exceptional qualities of our soloists. Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a good example, as it will be cast entirely from our ensemble." Furthermore, Herman claims that in addition to a positive and creative atmosphere, another great advantage of the Brnoese ensemble is the choir, one of the best in the country: "This is the result of the meticulous long-term work of chief choirmaster Josef Pancik." Ivanovic concurs: "The strongest aspect is certainly a will to work, which every guest performer notices immediately. The orchestra is also of a high standard, having recently undergone a relatively quick generational transformation. The financial side remains our weak point, as it doesn't always allow us to adequately compensate the artists and widen our ensemble with truly first-rate personnel. Even here, however, recent years have seen a certain improvement thanks to the favour of the municipality."

For Herman, it is important to maintain a balance between a stable ensemble and collaborations with inspirational guests artists. Ivanovic agrees, saying that "a healthy ensemble is the soul of the theatre and allows us, conductors and directors, the opportunity to form and 'educate' it in the long term. A first-class guest, on the other hand, always brings a certain freshness to well established artistic processes. A combination of both systems is the most beneficial."

The choice of productions, according to Herman, also arises out of the character and layout of the individual buildings: "In the Reduta, we put on contemporary chamber operas and productions for children. We won't just use the Mahen Theatre for classical numbers, I like the contrast of the classical operatic space with progressive works and interpretations, like Reich's The Cave. The modern Janacek Theatre, which for me is the 'Moravian Bayreuth,' demands not only large operatic works, but also Baroque operas and oratorios."

Though the Janacek Theatre will be closed for renovation in the 2017/18 season, Glaser sees this break to the "rhythm" of the theatre as a positive impulse: "We are doing some open air performances--at the Spilberk Castle, the Bishop's Courtyard or the circus tent in Luzanky Park. Our activities also go past the borders of Brno and the Czech Republic. After a successful guest appearance in Hong Kong, we are getting ready for a festival in Shanghai in the autumn, we've also just confirmed a return to Tampere in Finland, trips to Maribor and Ljubljana, and we're preparing a large international dance festival..."

Herman has also said that Brno offers many a beautiful scenery for opera performances as well as concerts: "We have recently begun performing successful productions of the world repertoire in the beautiful courtyard of the Spilberk Castle, which is acoustically ideal for opera. This year, it was Ponchielli's Gioconda, Puccini's Tosca, Bizet's Carmen and Verdi's La Traviata. Traditionally, we open the season with a grand gala concert on the piazzeta of the Janacek Theatre. During the restoration of the theatre, we are moving this concert, which introduces the entire upcoming season, to Brno's Cabbage Market, a location with a unique atmosphere. These activities present an opportunity to meet new audiences, to enthuse them with the unrepeatable magic of operatic theatre."

The aesthetic of the opera ensemble, according to Herman, should not aim in only one direction: "Opera is a living art form, which should enrapture here and now. The most important thing for me is that the opera offers an extraordinary experience. The operatic season should provide the audience with varied interpretive paths to this experience, it should never limit itself to just one approach. We are all different, different values resonate with each of us." For Herman as a director, the greatest source of inspiration is music: "It gives rise to the spatial concept, which is often abstract and is quite close to an installation. I see opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk which has a spiritual dimension and resonates strongly with our lives. I enjoy working with space and light, movement and music--work which reveals our inner world."

Since the 2016/17 season, the company has abandoned the repertoire system, well established in the Czech Republic, and started playing in blocks. Ivanovic claims our theatres are needlessly scared of this system: "Playing in blocks is indisputably an advantage for the artists and a little uncomfortable for the audience. In effect, we built this entire season on the block principle, and we were pleasantly surprised that this had almost no negative effect on our attendance. I think our audience can sense that this system raises the quality of the given production. And the fact that you can only see it for a limited time period gives it a certain feeling of exclusivity."

Herman sees the advantages too: "It allows us to maintain and improve the artistic quality of the individual productions. As to ticket sales, there were certain doubts at the start, but they soon vanished. The audience in Brno is flexible. Everything depends on the promotion and the communication with the audience, and of course the quality of the production. If the production is excellent, the audience does not look at whether we employ a repertoire or block system."

Brno is among the cities with a strong operatic tradition, says Herman: "Before I started here, I was confronted with the opinion that it's very conservative. After almost three seasons I can say that this is an audience that is, to a large extent, open-minded. Brno is a university city, which gives us the unique opportunity to bring younger generations to the opera house."

NTB in Numbers

The legal status of NTB is a public-benefit corporation with annual allocation of funds through a subsidy from its establisher, without long-term security, which, according to Glaser, is an outdated and inflexible model: "It is a disgrace for several generations of politicians that in over twenty five years, they have been unable to create a legal framework for the transformation of live culture funding. It is not only low, but more importantly unstable and unpredictable, which complicates planning. Another great risk is the unskilled and uncoordinated intervention of politicians into the management of cultural organisations." In the blunt language of numbers: the three-ensemble NTB has 600, of which the opera has 180 artistic employees. It has 17 premieres per season (of which 5 are operas) and 70 productions in each repertoire. In 2016, it administered a budget of 17.5 million euros. It is subsidised mostly by the City of Brno, as establisher, while the state (represented by the Ministry of Culture) and the South Moravian Region participate in the budget only fractionally. Self-sufficiency is around 21%. The costs of production and the realisation of reprise performances (without the costs of running the theatres, marketing, and touring) went up from 3 million euro in 2014 to 3.9 million euro last year, while income from ticket sales excluding tours rose from 0.6 million to 0.7 million. The average wage of artistic employees is just under a thousand euros. "Our budget, unfortunately, does not correspond to the size and importance of our theatre. We produce operas for a few million [Czech crowns], which is about a third of what the National Theatre in Prague can afford. Despite these setbacks, the talent of our artists allows us to put on new productions without having them look like a 'poor relative'," says Glaser. The productions created for the Janacek Brno biennale are an exception: "Thanks to the 130% increase in the subsidy from the City of Brno, we can create productions whose budget is of a European standard." The financial politics of NTB tickets is dynamic and changes based on the success of the opera and the audience's interest--the sooner you buy a ticket, the cheaper it is. The theatre offers cheaper performances for schools, families with children, and of course, subscribers--NTB is the only theatre in the Czech Republic to offer the so-called FlexiAbo (Flexible Subscription), which allows the subscriber to compose their own subscription, choosing from the theatre's repertoire. Attendance is rising and it seems that the audience has grown to like Herman's conception of the opera ensemble. According to Glaser, one can only gain a new audience and keep the old one through quality: "Of course stupidity, superficiality and half-baked ideas are easier to hide in conservative or traditional productions. Strong productions that have something to say have so far reliably attracted an audience."

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New Forms of Marketing

The entire management considers marketing a key activity, which has been moved forward substantially not only as a tool of tickets sales, but as a way of opening the theatre's doors. As Glaser summarises, "we are looking for all available paths to get a message to our potential audience: that we have a great show for them. And to convince them to choose NTB out of the truly wide range of cultural events happening in Brno. We try to present ourselves as a large, strong theatre, so all our ensembles have a unified design for their main outlets. This is no restriction, however, if you're employing the cutting edge of the field--photographer Ivan Pinkava and graphic designer Robert V. Novak. The individual profiles then come out mostly on social media. Every ensemble then also organises a number of off-programme activities with the goal of improving communication with the audience."

Chief conductor Marko Ivanovic and dramaturg Patricie Castkova created an excellent interactive "performance" A Step Behind the Curtain, a guided hour-long "tour" of an opera production. The audience find themselves with the singers and orchestra, right on the stage. Their guides are the director, conductor and dramaturg of the production.

The conductor and the orchestra of the Janacek Opera then introduces the work with carefully selected extracts which also involve the audience--they can play an instrument or take a place in the choir to fortify the sound of the sea in Kaaja Saariaho's L'amour de loin.

Ivanovic, who takes on the role of host with verve and intensity, sees it as another way of communicating with the audience. Herman says that "since the visitor can experience opera at first hand, we can open this world up to new audiences, both children and adults." Audiences have also taken a liking to pre-performanceintroductions.

Jiri Herman is delighted that the Janacek Opera ensemble became part of the Opera Platform project, a website through which the Opera Europa association, in collaboration with individual opera houses, offers free web streaming of selected productions in European theatres: "Thanks to this website, audiences from all over the world will be able to see selected Janacek productions by NTB. The first broadcast should take place as part of the Janacek Brno festival in 2018."

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Martin Glaser (1974) studied drama directing and dramaturgy at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He founded the generational Divadlo na prahu (Theatre on the Doorstep), worked as director (from 1998) and artistic director of the drama ensemble (from 2006) in the South Bohemian Theatre in Ceske Budejovice, which he profiled as a modern dramatic ensemble with an emphasis on contemporary drama. He was guest director in many Czech theatres, his productions received a number of theatre awards. In 2013, he was appointed managing director of the National Theatre Brno.

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Jiri Herman (1975) studied voice at the Pilsen Conservatory and opera directing at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He first came to the public's attention with chamber projects in unusual spaces (Britten's Curlew River, a staged adaptation of Schubert's Winterreise) and operatic productions in Pilsen. Between 2007 and 2014, he was Director of the Opera of the National Theatre in Prague, where he directed, among others, Dvorak's Rusalka, Wagner's Parsifal or Fibich's The Fall of Arkun, as well as directing Martinu's Greek Passion in Essen to name a few. Since January 2015, he is Director of the Janacek Opera Company at the National Theatre Brno.

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Marko Ivanovic (1976) studied conducting and composition at AMU in Prague. He works with leading Czech orchestras such as the Prague Symphony Orchestra, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Prague Philharmonia, Brno Philharmonic, and others. Since 2006 he has conducted at the Opera of the National Theatre in Prague. In 2009-14, he was chief conductor of the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. He conducted Janacek's Jenufa in Malmo (2011) and The Makropulos Affair in Goteburg (2015). He performs at important festivals including Prague Spring, and has conducted in Germany, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan or the US. He is a champion of the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. He has composed, among others, the opera Carokraj (Enchantia), instrumental compositions and music for film and theatre. He is also active as an author of educational programmes, especially for children and young people. Since January 2015, he is chief conductor of the Janacek Opera Company of the National Theatre Brno.

The National Theatre Brno is a public-benefit corporation established by the Statutory City of Brno. It is composed of the opera, ballet and drama ensembles, all of which perform in three buildings--the Mahen Theatre, the Janacek Theatre and the Reduta. Founded in 1881 by the Czech Cooperative Theatre in Brno (the operatic component began in 1884), it was later called the Municipal Theatre Brno and the State Theatre in Brno. It was the site of the premieres of most of Janacek's operas.

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic, with 600,000 inhabitants. Located in the south east of the country, it is the centre of Moravia, 135 km from Vienna and 207 km from Prague. The city panorama is dominated by the Spilberk Castle and its fortifications and the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul on Petrov Hill. It boasts such sights as the functionalist Villa Tugendhat, a UNESCO heritage site. The historical core of the city was declared a cultural reservation. In addition to the National Theatre Brno, there are a number of dramatic or musical theatres as well as festivals (Janacek Brno biennale, Brno International Music Festival, Moravian Autumn, Spilberk International Music Festival, Exposition of Music and others).

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The Janacek Theatre was built after years of repeated architectural competitions by tender from 1910 to 1965, when the proposal by architect Jan Visek and his team was accepted: a terraced amphitheatre with lateral boxes and a spacious central balcony, all in a monumental reinforced concrete building with a capacity of 1,050. It is also the home of the Brno Philharmonic. Refurbishments have taken place gradually since 2007, and in the 2017/18 the theatre will be closed for renovation.

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The Mahen Theatre was finished in 1882 based on designs by the renowned Viennese architecture firm of Ferdinand Fellner Jr. and Hermann Helmer, who built 48 theatres in Europe. Its exterior is in the so-called strict historicist style inspired by late Renaissance architecture, while the interior is neo-Baroque. It was the first theatre in Europe with fully electrical lighting. It went through a number of names: Deutsches Stadttheater, the Na hradbach Theatre or the Janacek Theatre. Its current name is after the Czech poet, journalist, dramaturg, director and theatre critic Jiri Mahen, who worked in Brno for most of his life. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium seats 547 people.

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The Reduta is the oldest theatre building in Central Europe. It is located on a square known as the Cabbage Market. In 1773, it replaced the Small Tavern, which had hosted theatrical productions since the 17th century. In 1767, the Reduta saw performances by eleven-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his sister Anna Maria. After a fire in 1870, the theatre was moved to the dance hall in the western part of the building. In 1993, the Reduta was closed for safety reasons, and the current architectonic conception, dating from 2002-5, connects modern elements with the preserved original architecture. The chamber theatre in the east wing seats 325, while the Mozart hall is of a variable disposition located in the north wing.

by Helena Havlikova

(1.) "Napevky mluvy" in Czech, these were Janacek's musical transcriptions of spoken word, which he used as the basis for his sung operatic material.
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Title Annotation:theme; National Theatre Brno
Author:Havlikova, Helena
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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