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Opera and Ostrava: connections and visions, from the industrial past to the postindustrial present.

The opera company of the National Moravian-Silesian theatre (NDMS) performs at the Antonin Dvorak Theatre on Smetana square in Ostrava. Less than a kilometre east of the theatre, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Leos Janacek, born in 1854 in Hukvaldy, about 30 kilometres away, died at the Klein Sanatorium on 14 August 1928. Neither Antonin Dvorak nor Bedrich Smetana ever visited Ostrava - if truth be told, they had no good reason for doing so. The city of Ostrava is a product of the second half of the 19th century. The discovery of black coal transformed a somewhat dull market town on the left bank of the river Ostravice (Moravska Ostrava), another small town on the right bank (Polska Ostrava) and the adjacent villages into a centre of heavy industry. Coal and iron, new opportunities, new people, a melting pot of different nationalities. Speed, drudgery, arriving, making money, leaving, or staying?

A theatre above a disused mine

The Municipal Theatre (today bearing Dvorak's name) was opened in 1909 on Antonin (today Smetana) square and until 1919 all performances were staged in German. Following its recent reconstruction, the Neo-Baroque building, the work of the Viennese architect Alexander Graf, is one of the most exquisite theatres in the Czech Republic, with the auditorium possessing superb acoustics and resplendent in its gold-red beauty. Within the city's context, it is unrivalled. The building, with an archaistic interior and steel-concrete frame (state-of-the-art in its time), is placed on another concrete foundation above the disused Antonin mine. The apparatus for exhalation of methane in front of the theatre building is still functional and necessary.

The refurbished National House, opened back in 1894, is today another stage of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre and since the 1950s has borne the name of the Ostrava actor and director Jiri Myron. The opera company only performed there temporarily, after it had to leave the spectacular opera house, therefore we will pay no more attention to it.

A permanent opera company originated in Ostrava in 1919, in the fledgling Czechoslovak Republic, as a section of the new National Moravian-Silesian Theatre. The Municipal Theatre became its permanent stage and ceased to be a German theatre, with German-language productions moving to the German House.

The Opera's very first artistic director, Emanuel Bastl (1874-1950), who opened the regular operation with a performance of Smetana's The Bartered Bride, had a passion for Czech music and presented virtually the complete Dvorak and Fibich repertoire and, attended by Leos janacek in person, staged Fenufa (n September 1919) and Katya Kabanova (18 January 1924) in Ostrava.

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Jaroslav Vogel and world-renowned composers - Hindemith, Stravinsky, Prokofiev

The theatre became a centre of the city's musical culture in general, not just opera. Bastl also organised in Ostrava the first symphony concerts performed by the orchestra of the NDMS. The major personality of the local musical life was the Opera's next artistic director, the conductor and composer, dramaturge and organiser of music events Jaroslav Vogel (1884-1970), who assumed the post at the beginning of the 1927/28 season. He was a personal friend of Leos Janacek and later on the author of an excellent monograph on the composer. Vogel spent 22 years in Ostrava on and off. In the interwar period, the city underwent another wave of breakneck development: new modern buildings designed by progressive architects were erected in the centre next to industrial complexes, among them the House of Arts.

In the 1930s, Vogel invited musicians of such renown as Paul Hindemith (three concerts), Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev to Ostrava. His intention was to present in the city world-famous composers who can also "play something". In this connection, we should bear in mind that between the wars Ostrava was a city lacking a university, an urban centre whose intelligentsia was made up of engineers, doctors, lawyers and secondary-school teachers.

Various tales have been passed down the Ostrava generations in connection with the visits paid by the mentioned celebrities. One such local legend is as follows: The Ostrava elite were preparing for the night-time arrival of Paul Hindemith, who later on declared himself to be an "Ostrauer Stammgast" (Ostrava regular), at the U Rady restaurant. Yet they were so absorbed in the preparations that they didn't make it to the railway station in time, leaving the star of the avant-garde sitting on his suitcase on the deserted platform ... Some of the more credible stories are contained in Jaroslav Vogel's memoirs, including that relating to Stravinsky's visit. On 24 January 1933 Stravinsky arrived at night by express train in Bohumin, where Vogel waited for him and drove him to Ostrava. As Vogel puts it; "When we were entering the snowbound, unusually quiet city, Stravinsky made a modest joke: 'Ostrava is sleeping, unsuspecting of who has just entered its walls.'" On Thursday 26 January there was a concert at which Stravinsky played his piano pieces. The performance, sold out well in advance and with record box-office takings (14,344 Czechoslovak crowns), was broadcast by all the Czechoslovak radio stations. (Vogel banked upon this transmission, and the revenues accruing from it, in advance, otherwise he would not have been able to pay Stravinsky the required fee). The broadcast, like Stravinsky's visit in general, was fraught with complications. First, Vogel received "... an official letter from Brno stating that Stravinsky's performance was not permitted 'since [Stravinsky] is not irreplaceable on the domestic labour market'. The pen-pushers invoked this clause, intended for craftsmen, bricklayers, chimney-sweeps and the like, to Stravinsky!" The planned transmission too was first revoked by reason of the radio quotas being reduced, yet "following four unnerving days ... disaster was averted." The director general of the Vitkovice Ironworks, Oskar Federer (among other things, a prominent collector of European modernist paintings), hosted a post-concert dinner in honour of Stravinsky, just as he had done for Hindemith and would later do for Prokofiev. In his memoirs, Vogel also writes: "The reader can judge for himself how this single concert made Stravinsky popular in Ostrava overnight by the fact that when the next day he came to a bank to change his fee into dollars or francs (...) all the clerks and customers gathered round and asked for his autograph!"

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Despite the ideology and smog

Before being named in honour of Antonin Dvorak in 1990, the Ostrava opera house had had various official titles - the Municipal Theatre, the Provincial Theatre, the Grand Theatre. During the Communist era, it was named after the Minister of Culture, arbiter, or rather censor, of the official taste in the area of "high art", Zdenek Nejedly. By the way, there were quite a few theatres bearing his name in totalitarian Czechoslovakia. Dvorak was by no means a favourite of Nejedly's, quite the contrary. The minister placed him in opposition to Bedfich Smetana, with ideology and misinterpretation prevailing over the historical facts. There wasn't a single theatre in the territory of today's Czech Republic named after Antonin Dvorak until 1990. Bedfich Smetana had "his" theatre in Prague (before it was renamed the State Opera on 1 April 1992), and Leos Janacek still has, in Brno.

The direction the Ostrava Opera took in the post-war years was mainly determined by its artistic directors and conductors, who after their successful tenures in the city worked for leading opera houses and renowned orchestras both in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Numerous opera recordings of theirs (including those made by Jaroslav Vogel) are still considered benchmarks in many respects. Although very different and distinctive artistic individuals in their own right, what Zdenek Chalabala, Rudolf Vasata, Bohumil Gregor, Zdenek Rosier and Jiri Pinkas had in common was a high degree of professionalism, clear dramaturgical conceptions, systematic endeavouring to raise the level of the Ostrava opera company within the boundaries and limits of the ideological oversight, and many a time somewhat in defiance of it. The Ostrava Opera is a company with a glittering past, an ambitious present and bold plans for the future. Today, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, Ostrava is experiencing long-term, ongoing and yet to be completed change. The industrial city of miners and metallurgists is becoming increasingly postindustrial. The last remaining coal mine in Ostrava closed down in 1994, steel output is falling, new technologies have given rise to mass unemployment. Ostrava, seeking, sometimes painfully, a new identity, is transforming itself into a university city, with the technical subjects finally being supplemented by the humanities and arts studies. Culture, art and theatre are among the possibilities for imbuing this singular cityscape, one all too often choking beneath a blanket of toxic smog, with a new sense of meaning.

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Dramaturgy as artefact

The Opera of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre began writing a new chapter at the beginning of 2010. The post of general director of this colossus made up of four companies (in addition to Opera, Ballet, Drama and Operetta/ Musical sections) was assumed by Jin Nekvasil (1962), an opera stage director with more than twenty years' experience, including abroad, who has brought to bear his experience as artistic director of several opera companies in Prague (Opera Furore, Opera Mozart, State Opera Prague, the National Theatre Opera). Nekvasil brought to the management of the Ostrava Opera Robert Jindra (1977), one of the most talented young Czech conductors, who has drawn upon his previous experience from working at the National Theatre in Prague and abroad to systematically raise the standard of the Opera's orchestra and chorus and has brought in new singers to perform as guests or become permanent soloists.

The path taken in the direction of contemporary music theatre also reflects in the long-term dramaturgical vision, which is being implemented within several cycles. At the Ostrava Opera, dramaturgy is not comprehended as a random selection of works; rather it is seen as an artefact, an artistic gesture with an awareness of the connections between time and space. While taking systematic care of the Czech operatic tradition, represented by at least one title each season, due attention is also paid to the international operatic repertoire, with many of the works presented rarely featuring in Czech opera programming (Werther, Fedora, La Wally, Ruslan and Ludmila). The ambitious 20th-century opera series can be considered groundbreaking.

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The 20th-century opera series 2010-2014

One of the inspirations was the visits paid to Ostrava by stellar composers in the 1930s. And so this year the Opera of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre presented Hindemith's Cardillac (for the first time ever in Ostrava and the first Czech staging for 84 years) and for 2012 is preparing Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. In store for 2013 is Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (marking the centenary of the composer's birth), while Sergey Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel is scheduled for 2014. This will be the Ostrava debut for all these works and the first time in decades they have been staged at a Czech theatre/stage.

Naturally, the Janacek repertoire is another constant of the NDMS Opera dramaturgy. The 2010 production of the composer's first opera, Sarka, was followed in 2011 by a revival ofjenufa. The acclaimed Czech diva Eva Urbanova will debut in the role of Emilia Marty in a concert version of The Makropulos Case in 2012, and in the same year the audience can look forward to a new production of Katya Kabanova. The year 2014, when we will be celebrating the 160th anniversary of Janacek's birth, will be borne in the spirit of an international co-production project entailing the staging of the composer's final opera, From the House of the Dead. This remarkable work will be performed in a former industrial space, the until recently functional oldest sections of the Vitkovice Ironworks, which has been granted the European Cultural Heritage Label and is currently being transformed into a singular culture venue.

The final operatic work by Janacek's friend Antonin Dvorak will be staged at "his" theatre in May 2012. In the opinion of the current staging team, the somewhat underrated and seldom presented opera Amiida is a work that deserves to be rediscovered for opera stages worldwide.

Old connections emerge in new connections. In Ostrava, this transforming and seeking city, opera has a significant role to play in the general re-encountering with beauty and finding a meaningful form of existence amid the post-industrial space. With an awareness of connections, with the promise of hope.

"It's a limbo, not a piece of greenery in sight - just black smoke and dust."

From Leos Fanacek's letter to his wife Zdenka about the Ostrava region, dated 2 October 1908.

Vitkovice mining area SOURCE: NATIONAL MQRAVIAN-SIIESIAN THEATRE ARCHIVE 4x

"When I haven't been in Ostrava for a while I feel sick, like someone with a vitamin C deficiency."

Paul Hindemith's letter to Faroslav Vogel sent from Berlin on 28July 1934 Ostrava Museum, Historical Musk Collections, Ref. No. G918
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Title Annotation:focus
Author:Eibenova, Dita
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Oct 1, 2011
Words:2159
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