Discovering Cunning Little Vixen

10 May 2017

Cunning Little Vixen is around the corner. With gorgeous costumes, a stellar cast and undeniably beautiful music, excitement levels at Victorian Opera are at an all-time high. Read some interesting facts about Janáček and his masterpiece.

Roger Kirk's costume design for the Forester and the Fox for Victorian Opera's 2017 production of Cunning Little Vixen

The Composer

  • Leoš Janáček was born in 1854 in an obscure village in Moravia, Czech Republic to an impoverished school teacher and church organist. Janáček went to Prague in 1874 with the help of a patron, to become an organist and church choir director.
  • He was deeply involved with Moravian folk music, working with Jan Zdeněk Bartoš. He studied the relationships between language (Czech) and music, often eavesdropping to record the speech patterns around him. The music in Cunning Little Vixen is rhythmically similar to the conversations he overheard.
  • Janáček was somewhat of a late bloomer in romance and career success. In 1917 at age 63, he fell in love with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman several decades his junior. It was an emotional upheaval which resulted in over 650 love letters. Interestingly, most of his masterpieces were all composed between 1920 and 1928.
  • When Janáček died in 1928 the last section of Cunning Little Vixen was played at his funeral.
(L) Leoš Janáček (R) Monument at Hukvaldy, Janáček's hometown

The Music

  • Cunning Little Vixen (Bystrouška in Czech) premiered in 1924 at National Theatre Brno. The opera was first performed in Australia in 1976, has rarely been presented and only once in Melbourne in 2004.
  • Its libretto was adapted by the composer from a serialised novella (a daily comic) by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek, first published in the newspaper Lidové noviny.
  • Janáček made numerous changes to the original story to emphasise the relationship between humans and the animal world.
Illustrations from Stanislav Lolek's Vixen Fleetfoot
(L) Dutch National Opera's Vixen (R) Artwork from Finnish National Opera's production

Janáček and Animals

  • If David Attenborough composed an opera, Cunning Little Vixen would be it. Janáček was fascinated by nature and animals, studying animals and their behaviour. The opera features a badger, dog, frog, dragonfly, owl, jay and woodpecker, crickets, caterpillars, mosquitos, and, most importantly, foxes.
  • During walks in his local game reserve, he studied animals and wrote down his impressions in his notebook. The game reserve's forester even tracked down a vixen’s den with young so that the composer could observe and study them.
  • Janáček had numerous pets including dogs, pigeons, a gold finch and three hens. His servant of over 40 years recalled the composer speaking to his hens as children and training them to join him at his armchair.
(L) Composer’s best friend. Janáček with his dog (R) Roger Kirk’s costume design for VO

Also in 1924…

  • Death of writer Franz Kafka, aged 40
  • An Experiment In Modern Music concert at Aeolian Hall, New York – featuring premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
  • Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres
  • The inaugural Winter Olympics are held in Chamonix, France
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster published
  • A year for acronyms: MGM opens and IBM founded
  • Spencer Williams’ jazz standard Everybody Loves My Baby released
  • Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) premiered

Cunning Little Vixen was performed as part of Victorian Opera's Season 2017 and starred Celeste Lazarenko, Antoinette Halloran and Barry Ryan.