Leos Janacek inscribed a copy of his 1921 opera "Kat'a Kabanova" to Kamila Stosslova. He wrote, "I know a marvelous lady, miraculously she is in my mind all the time. My Katya grows in her ... the work will be one of my most tender!"
He was writing to the love of his life, a woman 38 years his junior. Both were married to other people, but she was the inspiration for much of his work.
As they say, it's complicated.
Starting today at the Sottile Theatre, Spoleto Festival will present "Kata Kabanova," conducted by Anne Manson and directed by the founder of Ireland's Druid Theatre Company, Garry Hynes, making her operatic debut.
"This music is so mesmerizing," said soprano Betsy Horne, who plays Kat'a. "You can really hear a visceral truth and passion in the music. It carries you away."
Set in a small Russian town on the Volga river in the 1860s, "Kat'a Kabanova" tells the story of a woman trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic husband and his overbearing mother. Surrounded by unhappy people, Kat'a possesses a freedom of spirit that her strict culture will not allow her to express. When her husband leaves for a short trip out of town, she dives headlong into a passionate affair with the son of a local merchant. Upon her husband's return, she realizes how limited her options truly are.
"In this piece, everybody is trapped some way," Manson said. "Nobody can express themselves, nobody's happy. Kat'a doesn't, can't, give into this. She has a character and a personality that has to express itself, that has to experience some kind of heightened life or heightened emotion."
For Manson, Kat'a is "the only person in the piece who is fully alive." Perhaps for Janacek it was Stosslova who made him feel truly alive.
Janacek began his love affair with Stosslova, the wife of an antique dealer from the Bohemian town of Pisek, in 1917. For a decade she was indifferent to his advances. However, on a sunny Friday in August 1927, while walking through the woods, he kissed her.
From that point forward, the feeling was mutual. The pair exchanged more than 700 intimate letters, but never settled together.
Lydia Brown, festival accompanist and vocal coach, said Janacek's orchestral setting communicates the complexity of human emotion.
"What Janacek tries to show is that Kat'a is, like we all are, complex human beings with a lot of things that drive us," Brown said. "The music is reflective of all of these sides of human experience. There's nobility, there's regalness, and there's a tenderness to it. It has all of that."
For Manson, Janacek's music embodies both a sense of hopelessness and Kat'a's free-spirited, tragic rebellion. The rising chorus pulls at Kat'a's sanity like the current of the Volga river.
"When someone is speaking, the orchestra shows what they're feeling," Manson said. "A lot of the deep, inner turmoil and emotion is in the orchestra."
As director, Hynes approached the story from Kat'a's point of view.
"The best way to connect with the opera is to see it through her eyes," she said. "Certainly if you look at her with a contemporary Western eye, you say, 'Why doesn't she simply take charge of her own life?' But you realize that she's unable to because of the circumstances."
Hynes said that after getting to know the opera, she began to see Kat'a's courage.
"There is something extraordinary about her journey," she said. "And something extraordinarily heroic."
Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.