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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Reluctant Muse Who Inspired One of the 20th Century’s Most Original Composers

All photos: Jan Versweyveld

By Steven Jude Tietjen

“I am only writing to you because of the memories of the most beautiful day in Luhačovice in 1917. I have nothing but memories now—well, I live in those,” wrote Leoš Janáček, one of the 20th century’s most original composers, to Kamila Stösslová in September 1918. Janáček had become transfixed by Stösslová the previous summer when they were both staying at Luhačovice, a resort town in the Moravia region of present-day Czechia. Janáček had just turned 63 years old and was unhappy in his marriage, while Stösslová was a happily married 26-year old mother of two. For Janáček, who had recently achieved long-awaited success with his opera Jenůfa, the encounter reignited his creative flame.

Diary of One Who Disappeared, a one-sided account of yearning and escape, was the first of several works fueled by Janáček’s infatuation with Stösslová. Ivo van Hove’s staging of Diary of One Who Disappeared (coming to BAM Apr 4—6), in collaboration with Muziektheater Transparant and with additional music by Annelies Van Parys, reimagines the song cycle by giving a stronger voice to the Romani girl Zefka and emphasizing Stösslová’s quiet power as Janáček’s reluctant muse.

Immediately after meeting Stösslová, Janáček initiated a correspondence with her that would last until the end of his life 11 years later. Janáček would immortalize Stösslová, or his idealized image of her, in nearly every work he wrote after 1917. She is encoded in the melodies of his final string quartet, “Intimate Letters,” and was the model for the leading soprano roles in three of his four final operas: Kat’a Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Case. In Diary of One Who Disappeared, he transformed her into Zefka, the object of obsession and symbol of liberation.

Janáček began composing Diary of One Who Disappeared, a song cycle for tenor, alto, three female voices, and piano, a month after meeting Stösslová. The work is a setting of 22 poems that appeared in Brno’s daily newspaper Lidové noviny in May 1916. Presented as excerpts from the diary of a local boy, Janíček, who fell in love and ran away with a Romani girl, Zefka, the poems were later revealed to be the work of Czech poet Ozef Kalda.

The connection between Stösslová and Zefka is emphasized in letters Janáček wrote to her while he was composing the cycle. He frequently referred to Stösslová’s “Gypsy-like” features—her dark complexion, dark hair, and dark eyes—and often called her his “Gypsy girl.” (Stösslová was not Romani, but a Czech Jew.) In Diary of One Who Disappeared, Janaček saw his own desires reflected in the local boy’s love for an unattainable woman. He yearned to be freed from the “bitter fate” of his unhappy marriage and middle class banality. Kamila was his Zefka, who might one day help him escape his fate.

Stösslová was a blank slate upon which Janáček could project his fantasy. The 700 letters Janáček wrote her, when compared to the 49 she wrote him, reveal more about his obsession than they reveal about Stösslová’s reticence. He would sometimes write her multiple letters in a day, suggesting that the letters were more like Janáček’s diary than a true correspondence.

Just as Stösslová’s voice is often silent in her correspondence with Janáček, Zefka is a minor character in Diary of One Who Disappeared. In the original text, her words are heard only through Janíček’s recollections. Janáček set Zefka’s words for an alto soloist, but she still appears as a distant, almost otherworldly, voice. For this production, dramaturg Krystian Lada and Van Parys weave into Janáček’s score five poems by Romani women from around the time of the work’s composition, giving Zefka a stronger voice and restoring her agency in her own love story.

In the last years of their correspondence, Stösslová asked Janáček to burn some of her letters after reading them, deliberately muting her own voice in the story of Janáček’s life. Nonetheless, Janáček’s memory of their first meeting in Luhačovice blazed strong until his death, and he acknowledged his debt to Stösslová by bequeathing her the royalties from four of his works, including Diary of One Who Disappeared. In the song cycle, Janíček escapes fate by running away with Zefka; in reality, Janáček escaped by living in memories and composing fantasies. In his music, he created distorted reflections of Stösslová as the woman he wanted her to be, and not as the woman she truly was.

Diary of One Who Disappeared comes to BAM Apr 4—6.

Steven Jude Tietjen is a New York City-based writer specializing in opera and classical music. He has written for Opera News, Opera America, Edible Manhattan, and for opera companies nationwide.
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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